Walking into a Beverly Hills home in utter disarray, with the owner at my side, I initially sharpened my focus on a set of black and white photos on the fireplace mantel. I avoided looking at the chaos in the living room in hopes that I would not make the homeowner, a frail woman in her 80s, feel unnecessarily awkward about the situation. Although I intentionally didn’t look around the room closely at the outset, the air smelled foul and I knew when I did I would see a truly unkept scene. 

My strategy worked to some degree. The woman, Elly Van, followed my gaze to the photos. (The name of the woman has been changed to protect her privacy.) Realizing I was looking at the photos, Miss Van (as she preferred to be called) walked over to the fireplace and picked up a photo in a dusty silver frame. She didn’t bother wiping the residue off the frame nor the glass but brought it directly over to me.

Being noticeable shorter than I, Miss Van lifting the photo in front of me in a way that reminded me of a priest raising a host during Mass. She raised the image with similar reverence.

“This,” Miss Van said. “This is the year The Sound of Music won the best picture.”

I hesitated for a moment and then pointed at the photo of an elegant young woman dressed in a brilliant beaded gown. I know something of movies and knew this image was not of the star of The Sound of Music, Julie Andrews. The woman in the photo did look familiar to me. “Is this … you?” I asked.

Miss Van beamed with a wide smile and then giggled in a way that made me think of a teenage girl. “It is!” she affirmed, “I was in the pictures.” In a conspiratorial manner, Miss Van whispered to me that this was a photo of her attending the Academy Awards in the mid-1960s.

After visiting a bit more about the photo and her time as an actress in films, Miss Van asked: “You’re here to clean my house, aren’t you?” I told her I was, together with a couple of people from my company. I reminded Miss Van that her sister had just visited her and was concerned about making sure her home “got a good cleaning.”

Making a Star’s Home Livable: The Problems We Faced

Our conversation drifted back to her time as a Hollywood star, working in films for MGM and Warner Brothers. Her sister had explained to me that Miss Van was starting to experience memory issues, likely the onset of dementia.

Miss Van did make mention that she has a caretaker that comes to her home almost daily. That remark was my cue to look more broadly around the room. Upon hearing about the caretaker, and considering the state of the residence, I naturally wondered what the caretaker actually did for Miss Van. Cleaning definitely wasn’t part of the program. Indeed, proper caretaking obviously was not on this daily visitor’s to-do list.

In a few minutes, Miss Van took a seat on an aged chaise lounge in the living room. I excused myself, brought my team into the house, and we began our inspection of the premises. Having been in the business of residential biohazard remediation, including facing challenging home cleanup jobs, the task at hand in Miss Van’s home was heart-wrenching.

Everywhere my team and I went to the modest-sized Beverly Hills home, we found filthy conditions. The state of the residence was so alarming that the living room floor was littered by human feces, some fresher and some clearly present in the room for a long time. Although structurally the house was in decent condition, the state of the interior, with human waste and other garbage, rendered the residence hazardous to the health of Miss Van and others.

Deep Cleaning, Sanitizing, and Deodorizing Ms. Van’s Home

We initially had to address the biohazardous items that we found in the residence, not only in the living room but elsewhere in the residence. The bathroom was so contaminated by feces, urine, and other garbage that it was all but unusable. The kitchen was cluttered with long-unwashed dishes. It appeared that rather than being washed, a dish or two was wiped off with a rag we spotted on the counter whenever one was needed. While the refrigerator had a couple of fresher items inside, it was jampacked with rotting items. The smell that blasted me when I opened the door to the fridge was horrific.

These situations present throughout the house, and others underscored the fact that hazardous conditions existed in the residence. Feces, urine, and other materials found in the residence had the potential for harboring dangerous viruses and bacteria. We followed strict safety protocols to remove and safely eliminate these biohazards from the home and then sanitized the home. Following the sanitization of the residence, we also embarked on a deep deodorization of the property. In the end, and through hard work all day long, we were able to restore Miss Van’s home to a livable, habitable condition.

In the end, my team and I – three of us – spent the entire day working for Miss Van. Through the entire process, we paid attention not only to the challenging task at hand but also to preserving the dignity of Miss Van.

Our Time With Miss Van

In the person of Miss Van, we had an elderly woman whose mind was slowly slipping away from her. This was a woman who had been at the center of life in Hollywood several decades ago and now found herself consigned to living in filth and life-threatening hazards. Miss Van was a woman whose very dignity was being stolen from her by a caretaker who didn’t care and the progress of time that shows no mercy.

When we finished our work at Miss Van’s home, I was able to walk the woman through her home and show her the difference. She smiled the entire time.

When we returned to the living room, Miss Van told me to hold on for a moment. She removed the photos (now in clean frames) from the fireplace mantle and placed them on tables in different locations in the room, furniture that previously had been covered in clutter and mired in muck. It was rather like Miss Van was re-staking her claim to her own home and her own life.

When she finished repositioning her cherished photos, she returned to where I stood and thanked me for helping her get her home in order. I pulled out a small notepad from my pocket and handed it to Miss Van with a pen.

“Can I have your autograph, Miss Van?” I asked

“Of course, dear,” she said, with a different measure in her voice that I imagine was the formidable way she greeted fans in years gone by. She’s saved her most amazing smile of the day for that moment when she inscribed her name on my pad.


With the help of her sister and some suggestions we were able to make, a new structure was built around Miss Van’s life to ensure that she has more appropriate care and support. With Miss Van, as is the case for a good many people, her issue was not a lack of financial resources. Rather, she ended up in a sad position because of a gap in human resources and support.

I found a small silver frame in which I now keep the autograph Miss Van gave to me. I see it every morning as I begin my day. It reminds me of why I work for people at some of the most difficult moments of their lives. And, it reminds me how a commitment to the dignity of others can provide them with safety, comfort, and pride.