'He died with his boots on'
Perry Hendry was a staple in the town of Pierson — everyone knew who he was.
The 55-year-old affable bachelor was very much involved in the community. He’d been a volunteer firefighter for many years and was a regular in the congregation of the local United Church. He could usually be found at the Heritage Restaurant where he ate most of his meals, enjoying the company of others.
Perry’s truck was always recognizable. Anyone walking by his vehicle would see newspapers stacked up to the windows, with only a small spot left for him in the driver’s seat. People may have wondered about that, but they kept it to themselves.
On the morning of Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, Perry had his usual coffee and chat with the locals at the restaurant. When he left, he told them he was going to load some of his cattle and haul them to Heartland Livestock Services in Virden.
That was the last time Perry was seen at the restaurant. As the week wore on, people began to wonder where he was, and started asking around, realizing that no one else had seen him either.
On Friday evening about 10:30 p.m., Perry’s neighbour Ken Jacobson rounded up Gary and Bob Gillander and they paid a visit to Perry’s farm north of Pierson.
In behind the buildings and out in the pasture, hidden from view from the road, they found him. He had died from an enlarged heart and his body had been out in the cold Prairie winter for days.
“He died with his boots on and he died on the farm doing what he loved,” Perry’s brother-in-law Brian Fowell said.
Perry’s closest living relatives were his sister Paulette Fowell and her husband Brian, who live in Brandon. On Saturday, Feb. 8, they were winging their way into the Winnipeg airport following a two-week vacation in Jamaica.
Their cellphone had been off while they were away. When they turned it on, there was an urgent message from their son, Scott, asking them to call him back as soon as possible.
While Brian loaded the luggage in the car, Paulette phoned Scott.
“ ‘Hey Scott, what’s up?’ I said. He says, ‘I don’t know how to tell you this, Mom, but Uncle Perry’s dead.”
That’s when a months-long ordeal began for the couple. After travelling to Pierson for the funeral and to sort out Perry’s affairs, major problems became very evident.
Perry was a hoarder.
And they had no idea where his will was.
A secret revealed
Most people in our Western consumer world have a touch of the hoarder in them. Call it stockpiling or being a packrat, we tend to accumulate more things than we need at any particular moment. Bestseller lists are rife with books on how to de-clutter and simplify our lives.
However, according to Dr. Sheila Woody — a University of British Columbia professor and psychologist specializing in hoarding issues — hoarding becomes a disorder when a person saves so much stuff, he or she can no longer to use his or her home or workplace for its actual purpose.
That definition fits Perry to a T. According to his brother-in-law, he would go to auction sales and always purchase things.
“What we can see is he never used it after he bought it,” Brian said. “It was just piled. And the duplicates of things — like to have 25, 30 hacksaws, 30 grease guns.”
Perry had plenty of space to stash his treasures. Besides the farmyard north of Pierson, which had a house he hadn’t lived in in more than a decade, he had a house in town.
When Brian and Paulette first saw the house and farm, they were shaken at the state that they were in. Neither had been to either place in years.
"I think I was curious, I wanted to see what the farm was like. But I was sad when I seen it, but that was years and years ago. I hadn't been out to the farm since then because it wasn't like how I remembered."
The house in town was simply jammed. Old Brandon Suns were stacked in piles. There were little pathways between things leading throughout the house. Sometimes there wasn’t even a pathway.
The farm was another story. The shed was bursting at the seams and anywhere you trod, one could discover something, whether it was buckets full of tools or a glass candy dish inside a box in the middle of a field.
There was stuff everywhere.
It wasn’t that Paulette didn’t keep in touch with her brother — they talked all the time. It was just that Perry had worked hard to keep her away from his secret.
He always had excuses for why Brian and Paulette couldn’t come to his house. He would either be away the days they were in the area or he was already coming into Brandon that day so he could just see them there.
If they did come to Pierson, Perry would always meet them at the restaurant for coffee.
Brian and Paulette wondered but didn’t know the full extent of his hoarding. Paulette had offered before to help Perry tidy things up, saying that she was worried for his safety. But he would always brush her off, saying that he knew where everything was.
According to Christiana Bratiotis, a professor at the University of Nebraska who works extensively in the area of hoarding as a researcher and therapist, Perry’s behaviour in trying to hide his hoarding is quite common for people with the disorder.
“There’s so much shame and embarrassment, often times feelings of guilt, that the person hoarding will do just about anything to prevent themselves from being exposed,” Bratiotis said.
They don’t want “to risk the fact that somebody may come in and suggest that they get rid of the things that often mean the most to them.”
What is mental disorder hoarding?
Until 2013, hoarding wasn’t considered its own mental disorder. It was considered a sub-type of obsessive compulsive disorder.
According to UBC professor and psychologist, Dr. Sheila Woody, it took researchers years to figure out that there are important differences between hoarding and OCD.
“People with OCD don’t want to be having those thoughts, there’s no pleasure associated with them, they really don’t like them,” she said. “But people with hoarding, there is a certain kind of pleasure and it’s the same pleasure we all take in our possessions.”
In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association released a diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders that classified hoarding as its own mental illness for the first time. The manual set out a guideline of six criteria to diagnose if someone has hoarding disorder.
- Difficulty discarding or parting with objects
- Difficulty discarding objects because they have strong urges to save them
- Symptoms that result in the accumulation of possessions that clutter living areas
- The hoarding is not better accounted for by a medical condition, such as Alzheimer’s disease
- The hoarding is not better accounted for by another mental health problem, such as schizophrenia
- The hoarding causes distress on the part of the person with hoarding or interference in carrying out daily life activities
Someone may not fit all of these criteria but hoarding can still be a problem for them. If so, they would be classified as subclinical.
According to Bratiotis, there is a neurobiological component that makes the brains of people with hoarding disorder work differently.
“We know that people with hoarding disorder make decisions differently,” she said. “In particular, they tend to take a very long time to make decisions and they worry excessively — to the point where we can see this, by doing functional MRI scans.”
Whether or not they ultimately make a decision, the fretting and fear for the hoarder is whether or not it is the right decision.
Bratiotis says the hoarder struggles with processes such as categorization and association.
"For someone with hoarding their brain does not signal them to put an item where it is being used. So consequently you might have pots and pans in the bathtub."
Hoarders are also excessive perfectionists, Bratiotis says — if they think they can’t make the perfect decision, they decide they shouldn’t make any decision at all.
Hence, they are also procrastinators.
“That’s the ‘I can’t make the perfect decision right now so I’ll just postpone the decision-making, I’ll just set it here and I’ll come back to it later’” thought process, Bratitotis said.
A death in the family
On June 24, 2000, Perry and Paulette lost their mother, Estelle Hendry. She had been living in a house in Pierson while Perry lived on the farm. Following her death, Perry moved into his mother’s house in town.
Brian and Paulette offered to help Perry go through Estelle’s things, but he declined their help.
Fourteen years later, when they arrived to sort out Perry’s estate, they found all of Estelle’s things still in the house.
“Ya, Mom’s clothes were all still there,” Paulette said.
“Her stuff was still in the bathroom,” Brian added.
“He just didn’t want change,” Paulette said. “I guess he wanted to hold onto anything that Mom had to remind him of Mom.”
Estelle’s death seemed to be a tipping point in Perry’s life and, in particular, his hoarding disorder.
Up until the year 2000, Perry had kept meticulous records of his farm. He itemized everything — how much each piece of farm equipment had cost, the dates of every oil change, and the where and when of every part he had ever purchased.
Following his mother’s death, all of that stopped. In 2004, he even stopped filing income tax.
Ten years later, Paulette and Brian faced the gargantuan challenge of sorting out Perry’s estate — and that’s when they realized the full extent of his hoarding.
They found themselves having to go through every piece of paper in his truck and house in order to try and find out what they could about his financial history. They discovered unopened mail containing uncashed cheques, mixed in with reams of receipts and handwritten notes.
Paulette went to Perry’s bank and got what financial statements she could. They only dated back seven years — meaning three years of banking history was lost from when Perry had stopped filing income tax.
Brian’s and Paulette’s accountant told them to go through the bank statements and try to sort out how Perry had spent his money.
"It was like looking for a needle in a haystack trying to figure out for the last seven years."
The couple had to go to businesses in the Pierson area and ask if Perry owed them any money — and then just trust that they were telling the truth.
Upon his mother’s death, life ground to a halt for Perry. He changed very little.
He hadn’t lived in the farmhouse for more than a decade; yet it remained a place of residence on his taxes. The barn had fallen down, but was still listed on his taxes as fully functional.
As well, over the last 14 years, Perry kept everything — no matter what it was. Paulette believes he couldn’t throw anything away because he didn’t want anything to change after their mother’s death.