A Brother's Secret

Paulette Fowell never imagined the extent of her brother's hoarding.

October 24, 2015

This feature involved nearly three months of reporting and was reviewed by two editors.

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This story is roughly 3500 words long. The estimated reading time is 14 minutes.

'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 Hendry and his nephews Paul Fowell, 9, and Scott Fowell, 7, stand outside of the Hendry family's house in Pierson in approximately 1994.

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.

The abandoned farmyard of Perry Hendry is seen north of Pierson.

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.

The Hendry family farm house where Perry and Paulette were raised in north of Pierson. Perry had taken over the farm from his parents and was living in the farmhouse until his mother died, he then moved into her house in the town of Pierson.

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."

— Paulette Fowell

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.

Perry Hendry's home was filled with items that he could not bear to throw away. These photos were taken shortly after Perry's death before Brian and Paulette Fowell had started sorting through the house.

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.

The Heritage Restaurant in Pierson where Perry Hendry ate most of his meals.

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."

— Dr. Sheila Woody

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.

Perry Hendry stands between his mother Estelle and father Paul outside the family's house at their farm. This picture was taken just before they drove Perry's sister, Paulette, into Brandon for her second year of nursing school in 1974.

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.

Top: The couch in Perry Hendry's living room of his house in Pierson was in a state of disrepair after years of items being thrown around it. Bottom: Perry Hendry's kitchen was full of items making using appliances like his microwave hard.

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."

— Paulette Fowell

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.

The hunt for a will

Immediately following Perry’s death, Paulette and Brian faced a daunting question: Where was his will? Their worst nightmare was that it might be buried within the mountains of papers, letters and notes strewn throughout his house that needed to be sorted and dealt with.

Since Paulette was his closest relative, they decided they had to move forward on planning Perry’s funeral, with or without the will.

The funeral was held last year in Pierson on Saturday, Feb. 22, after which Perry was cremated.

Paulette Fowell reflects on the memories of her brother, the struggle of dealing with his passing and the stuff he left behind.

But just before that, Paulette had a hunch. She remembered her parents’ will had been drawn up with Souris lawyer Brian Forrest. He’d since retired, but Laura McDougal-Williams, of Meighen Haddad and Co., had taken over his practice.

Paulette contacted McDougal-Williams, and sure enough, she had Perry’s will.

It had last been updated in 1997, and while there were few surprises — everything had essentially been left to Paulette, with some money left to her sons, Scott and Paul — there were some details Paulette and Brian wished they had known sooner.

For example, Perry had named people he wanted to be his pallbearers — meaning, at the time, he either didn’t want or hadn’t considered cremation. Paulette and Brian chose cremation for him based on a conversation they had with him in which they discussed their intention to be cremated. Perry said that sounded like a good idea.

But the guesswork was a distress for Paulette and Brian. And it brought home the importance of people not only keeping their wills up to date, but letting their families and loved ones know where copies of the will are located.

"Put your wishes down because that was the hardest thing that we dealt with was not knowing what he wanted."

— Brian Fowell

The big clean-up

Tracking down the will and arranging the funeral were only the beginning of the formidable tasks facing Paulette and Brian.

What followed was more than a year of sorting out and dealing with Perry’s estate — during which the Fowells basically put their own lives on hold.

First up was Perry’s herd of cattle. The costs of keeping livestock would add up quickly. The neighbours had been stepping in to help take care of them, but the Fowells knew that couldn’t go on. They needed to sell the cattle right away.

Perry Hendry was a member of the Pierson 4-H Beef Club growing up. 15-year-old Perry stands next to his steer during in August 1977 at the family's farm.

Brian called up an old friend, Scott Campbell from Fraser Auction Service, who helped them get the cattle tagged and ready to go.

Again, the neighbours pitched in, trucking the animals to the auction mart in Virden. On March 3, 2014, the herd was sold.

Next up was the house in town. Although Paulette was inclined to keep it, they realized the cost of upgrading it to modern standards was too prohibitive. They’d have to sell it as is.

But first it would have to be cleaned out — and that meant sorting through all of the contents, including the accumulated papers, mail, receipts and notes ... just in case there was an important financial document hidden within one of the piles of paper debris.

In the midst of this whole process — on June 16, 2014 — Paulette retired after working as a nurse in Brandon for 39 years. She’d planned on working for another year, but soon realized that sorting out Perry’s estate was a mammoth job in itself and would require all of her time and energy.

Paulette Fowell was a nurse in Brandon for 39 years. She had planned on working as a nurse for another year but following Perry's death she realized that sorting out his estate would be a full time job.

Virtually every weekend, the Fowells trekked out to Pierson to sort through the house, staying at a friend’s place in the town.

Last year in September, it was sold.

That left the farm — perhaps the biggest challenge yet. There was another house chock-full of accumulated possessions, as well as farm buildings that needed to be sorted through. Things were scattered in the grass growing throughout the farmyard, and even in some of the nearby fields.

Plus, much of the farm equipment wasn’t working properly.

As there was no one to take over the farm, the Fowells began the monumental task of planning and preparing for an estate sale.

People look at items at Perry Hendry's estate sale in June at the family farm north of Pierson as Fraser Auction Services employees get ready to auction items off.

They headed out to the farm, not only every weekend but even on Brian’s other days off work, to sort through everything on the property, trying to decide what could and couldn’t be sold.

Brian tackled the job of getting the machinery in good working condition.

“Anything that didn’t look good we tried not to have it in the sale,” Brian said. “We told people exactly what we found, with me being a mechanic. What was wrong with the tractor, for example.”

Someone questioned such blatant honesty when the rule of thumb in such sales is much like retail’s buy-as-is, no-return policy.

“I said I don’t think Perry would have sold if he hadn’t told them,” Brian said.

Once again, neighbours and friends pitched in helping when they could in preparing for the sale, as did Scott Campbell from Fraser Auction. He came out to the farm and told them what items would sell and which ones would not.

On a sunny Wednesday, June 10, 2015 — 14 months after Perry’s death — his estate sale was held.

“We were pleased,” Brian said. “Some things we thought might go higher, but then some things went higher than we thought they’d go.”

The money from the auction sale helped cover costs that remained from the estate.

Getting help

There is help available for hoarders in Westman.

In 2010, a number of mental health professionals and first responders determined there was a need for an organized hoarding-treatment group.

The Prairie Mountain Inter-Agency Hoarding Coalition was established, involving representatives from various agencies throughout the region. They started having meetings in order to develop a response and treatment protocol.

The “Protocol and Resource Guide” was released in 2014. It provides guidelines on how to first handle a report of hoarding.

The coalition is currently working on a second guide involving treatment.

However, although they do not yet have a formalized plan, the group still provides treatment for hoarders.

“When dealing with hoarders, quite often we find ourselves working within a treatment team,” said Dr. Greg Gibson, a psychologist who is a member of the coalition.

“That treatment team ... can not only be other agencies or organizations within the community, but it’s also beneficial to have their families involved, too — additional supports.”

Gibson treats hoarders through what psychologists call an “exposure-with-response” protection process. This treatment has the hoarder working with professionals as a team to organize his or her home, rather than forcing the cleanup upon them.

Part of the treatment involves “distress tolerance strategies” designed to help the hoarder “resist the urge to acquire new items,” Gibson said.

One aspect includes “keeping a daily log of items that they’ve acquired or purchased, so that the (hoarder and the treatment team) can be aware of the patterns of acquiring behaviour.”

Currently the coalition receives 10 to 12 calls a year about hoarding, either complaint-driven or from worried friends and family members. The coalition normally has to step in and give treatment in about half of those cases.

Whenever they receive a call, the coalition team does a basic intake assessment process using a “clutter hoarding scale” that assesses how much of a hoarder a person is and what treatment he or she needs.

To contact the coalition, call their secretariat office at 204-726-6601.

Moving forward

For the Fowells, the biggest hurdles involving Perry’s estate have been dealt with. But they’re still mopping up ... and left wondering.

Finding out the extent of Perry’s problem set them on a 14-month journey that had them putting parts of their own lives on hold.

"We're 14 months behind on our stuff. It's not that we're out there everyday but Paulette was either on the phone or in a meeting or trying to find something."

— Brian Fowell

The couple is now beginning to think towards the future. They have had a headstone made for Perry that has yet to make its way out to the Pierson cemetery. They still have his ashes with them in Brandon.

In July, 2010, Perry and Paulette took a trip together to Scotland — a trip Perry fully enjoyed. When Brian and Paulette were sorting through his possessions, they found guidebooks and notes hinting that he was planning to make another trip there.

“One of our hopes is that Paulette goes back to Scotland — and a bit of Perry goes back with her,” Brian said.

Paulette Fowell and her brother Perry Hendry standing outside of Fyvie Castle (top) and Inverallochy Castle in Aberdeenshire during their trip to Scotland.

For now, there are some lingering regrets. They wish they could have done more for Perry before he died.

But there’s also the exhaustion from the 14 taxing months between his death and the estate sale. Theirs is a cautionary tale for the loved ones of someone afflicted with hoarding disorder.

Without some sort of treatment, the hoarder will continue to buy and stash, blissfully unaware of the ordeal their families and friends might face upon their death.

“If you are a hoarder and you’re reading this article, realize it does hurt when you’re gone,” Brian said. “There is a consequence to what you’re doing.”

In the end, however, after spending hours reminiscing about Perry and finding out bits about his life, there is some peace and solace in knowing he wasn’t suffering from his disorder, that he really was a ‘happy hoarder’.

“Perry wasn’t sad, he wasn’t a loner,” Brian said. “He really enjoyed his thing."

Correction: This article, which also appeared in print, has been corrected after misidentifying Dr. Sheila Woody twice as a psychiatrist. She is a psychologist.