FIL widowed

neesieMarch 6, 2008

My FIL lives in a very small house with my 30-something year old neice. My MIL passed away a few months ago after several years of ill health. When my MIL was healthy she kept a very clean home, although it was cluttered mostly due to my FIL's tendancies. (Stacks of old bills, National Geographics, pantry that was out of control and used food containers mostly).

Now that MIL is gone we don't expect the neice to do everything. After all, taking care of her grandfathers food and washing and general pick up while working a full time job we shouldn't complain. So we do pitch in and do some general house and yardwork.

We recently had my daughter's picture taken by a photographer and I was going to bring one over to him. I realized that every grandchild and great-grandchild's photo from the last I-don't-know-how-many-years has taken over every single end table and available vertical space in the tiny house. I bought a magnetic frame for the fridge and have chickened out with my latest idea.

What would you think if I took all the framed photos that were over say, two years old, and put them in a magnetic photo album? I know the magnetic albums are not recommended these days but realistically we'd be splitting these photos up in a few years when FIL passes away. That would just leave the current photos out and an album to put on his coffee table. I'm afraid to make the suggestion. But in a family with 8 grown kids, 20-something grandchildren of which half are married and some of them have given great-grandchildren wouldn't this be a practacal thing to do? It depresses me to see the same old graduation photos of someone who is in their forties or fifties staring at me each time I go there. What if they kept them out of guilt, that they HAD to display their family photos? Isn't there a point where you put them away?

Personally, I have three "children" (20-ish) and I only have one photo of each of them in my living room. No others on display; I have a few albums within reach of the living room. Do you really want to see a persons entire relation going back into time when you visit someone? Is there a point when you don't even "see" the photo anymore because it's soooo old? Does this sound cold and callus or sensible? I wish I had a picture to post so you could see how these framed photos have taken over the house!

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I think I know how the photos (and other clutter)have taken over. My grandparents had the same thing all over their house and they liked it that way. They did not appreciate attempts to clean up by the offspring.

As the in-law, I would ask fil what he wanted and abide by his wishes. It's his house and he may be comforted by it the way it is even if it is something that makes you uncomfortable.

Good Luck!

    Bookmark   March 6, 2008 at 5:39PM
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I understand where you're coming from. I've never put my kids' pictures on display. Perhaps I'm the strange one. Anyways, since your MIL recently passed away, your FIL might not want to make changes to items around the house that your MIL put in place. Perhaps in the future, but for now he might be comforted by leaving everything the same.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2008 at 6:12PM
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If all you have left of people are pictures, you want to have them around you.

    Bookmark   March 6, 2008 at 10:15PM
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I ache to say go on and do it! But of course people here are right... but do go on and suggest it. He may like the idea after all. Just my 2 cents.


    Bookmark   March 7, 2008 at 4:10AM
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It's HIS house. If he likes those things around, let him enjoy them! Sometimes the familiar brings plenty of comfort to seniors.

You'll have plenty of time to ditch the photos when he is gone...

    Bookmark   March 7, 2008 at 8:29AM
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My grandparents coated the room w/ pics of us. They loved it. It was fun for us, for a long time, to see pics of ourselves when we were little.

I think my grandparents would have still loved to see pics of us at age 7 on their walls. Even though we're grownups w/ school-age kids of our own.

It's his house; he should choose. You could suggest that perhaps he rotate some old ones out to make room for some new ones, and put the others in albums.

But he should decide. Just because it depresses YOU to see childhood pics of a 45-year-old doesn't mean it depresses HIM.

It may be a real lift, to see the picture of Joey when he was 7 and had so much tense, bursting energy, and then think of Joey as he was the last time he saw him, w/ his own little kid.

Don't project your own preferences about photographs onto him.

If they've taken over the FUNCTION of the house, or if they make the niece's life harder because she has to dust them, then that's something to bring up to him, that some of them should go into some other physical location, or something. But he needs to decide which ones, etc.

    Bookmark   March 7, 2008 at 10:18AM
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If all you have left of people are pictures.....

These are not pictures of my MIL, they are of the extended family all the way down to the 8 great grandchildren. We all live close by and visit all the time.

Maybe I should have initiated this while MIL was alive. I find it tired to see a baby picture (under layers of dust) of someone who has a few kids of their own. It gets to be so that you don't "see" them anymore. And I'm not sure that it provides's just that at his age you don't have energy to clean and organize, etc. I wish I could attach a photo; there's a zillion fake flowers, statues (the majority have been glued back together) candy dishes, stacks of newspaper, and all kinds of food products.

I did make a beautiful scrapbook of my MIL and the family's early years a year before she died. I gave each of the 8 children a CD of all the photos in the scrapbook. I worked from 2 rubbermaid tubs of family photos that hadn't seen the light of day going back to their wedding pictures.

So you can see this family is and was never motivated to do anything with their family photos. Everyone loved the CD and I was made in charge of the photos at MIL's funeral. (Can I admit to the forum that I am also working on the photos for FIL's funeral? We think he has a couple years left, at best.)

I can understand that maybe it's too early. Maybe I could start with the broken statues by asking him if it's okay to ditch one or two the next time I dust. I really should take a picture of some of the living areas so you guys could see what I'm dealing with.

    Bookmark   March 7, 2008 at 10:22AM
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Maybe when you get older and no longer have so much family around you'll understand.

    Bookmark   March 7, 2008 at 12:24PM
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I find it tired to see a baby picture (under layers of dust) of someone who has a few kids of their own. It gets to be so that you don't "see" them anymore.

It doesn't matter what you "find"--it's not your house. And in fact, those early pictures have a power and emotion that the later ones don't.

Your FIL REMEMBERS those kids when they were little, that's when he was deeply involved with them, I bet.

All the new little kids aren't as important to him, probably. He doesn't know them as well.

The memories he wants to hang on to might just BE those pics of his own kids, or his own nephews/nieces, or his first grandkids. Because those are powerful times in our lives.

Frankly, if i were going to put pics of my siblings on display in my home, I'd put pics from when they were kids. I knew them better then, I felt closer to them, and I'm nostalgic for that time of our lives. I don't need to be reminded of what they're like NOW, I have the real thing for that. I want to be reminded of what they were like when we were younger!

at his age you don't have energy to clean and organize,
This is true; so it's probably good to bring it up. Just be prepared for him to like it this way, and be careful not to impose your own personal tastes on him. Even if he buys the idea that old photos can go away, he may still want lots of stuff around; he may just be used to it.

a zillion fake flowers, statues (the majority have been glued back together) candy dishes, stacks of newspaper, and all kinds of food products.
food products sitting out for several days are safety and cleanliness issues.

Ditto for (under layers of dust) . I think you can make those points, that fewer items will be easier to clean,a nd it's not fair to ask the niece to live w/ that mess, or to clean through all that stuff.

I think that could be your argument, and it's a perfectly sensible one--but be sure you get his input on which pictures are the ones he wants to keep.

Also, if he (or MIL) went to the trouble to fix those broken statues, it may be because they matter a lot to him. Maybe don't ask to ditch them. Ask to store them away.

The ease of cleaning is really the only argument that has validity. The idea that you don't like the pictures, or even that the statues are broken, or that he's stopped really seeing them--those don't have any validity unless it is YOUR house, or YOUR stuff.

But having a home that is easier for his caretakers, that's a valid argument. Use the niece--"Dad, it's really not fair to Nicole to have so many things to dust, or to ask her to live in such a dusty place." I bet he'll be amenable to some changes on those grounds.

Maybe not to throwing out statues, though.

You just need to be careful that you're steering him to what matters to him.

So you can see this family is and was never motivated to do anything with their family photos.
Yes, they were; they hung them on the walls or stood them on the end tables! LOL!

    Bookmark   March 7, 2008 at 4:52PM
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I have to agree with the rest of the posters. I read your posts, and as much as you think you might be trying to help him and (I believe) your intentions are good, it's really not up to you.

His stuff. Period. You may see nothing but old photos and dust, but I'm sure he sees memories of good times and happy days from many phases of his life.

Please don't start cleaning, moving, organizing, downsizing his stuff now to make the cleanup process after his death easier for you later on. That breaks my heart.

    Bookmark   March 7, 2008 at 6:17PM
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Why don't you offer to do this for him as a birthday or Christmas present and see what he thinks?

    Bookmark   March 8, 2008 at 1:42PM
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All the suggestions are excellent. One thing I would add -I assume your FIL is grieving the loss of his wife and also has health issues. He may agree to get rid of some things because he doesn't have the emotional or physical energy to resist.

If you do ask, it's really important to listen with your heart to what he's saying because agreement may not reflect his true preference. That's especially true if depression is an issue.

My father just moved from his retirement center studio to assisted living and I've been helping him clean out his closet. I never argue with what he wants to keep. Sometimes I learn about surprising connections. One old work jacket belonged to his oldest brother, who's been dead many years. I washed it to get rid of the dust and put it right back where it was.


    Bookmark   March 8, 2008 at 2:38PM
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I guess I didn't really put the question out there right. People are assuming the dozens, yes, probably over 100 pictures that are on every table and ledge are there out of sentimentality. If my FIL dropped a hot dog on the floor it would stay there. Not that he cared about the hot dog, of course.

I realize many of you have three or four siblings, etc. In this case he has eight children, all married, mulitiple pictures of all of us, our twenty seven children some of whom are married, mulltiple of all of them and THEN the great-grandchildren. I don't recall a single framed picture that doesn't have at least one wallet size picture stuffed into the corner obliterating the view of the larger framed picture. All the relatives with the exception of one in the service live within a twenty mile radius and we visit all the time. So you think he just gets a rise out of little Joey's 7 year old picture now that Joey is 33 and the father of 2? Ummm, you can barely see it underneath the layer of dust!

And if you go back and read the original post, yes, I am taking part in the housecleaning. The neice that lives there has all she can do to cook and "take care" of him. She doesn't let "food items" sit out, it is generally canned and boxed items that he loves buying on sale and cannot fit into his cupboards because he has 50 coffee mugs, a zillion plates, tons of washed out cottage cheese containers, and so on and so on.

Being an in-law I really don't have to clean or pitch in. I have done some projects like kitchen de-cluttering while MIL was still alive (she was very disabled and could not keep up with the tossing as fast as FIL could gather stuff). She really enjoyed the end result. I didn't have the guts to ask her if I could put the pictures in a magnetic album and leave them on the coffee table. I think other people are afraid of "hurting" little Joey's feelings while I think he is a 30-something year old male and wouldn't have a hissy-fit if his picture was moved to a magnetic album. As I mentioned before, the entire family wasn't motivated to go through the rubbermaids of their parents marriage and their early childhood years that I ended up putting in a scrapbook for MIL. I believe nobody wants to take the initiative, it's not sentimentality. Geez, I'm not saying to toss it in a bonfire or throw it away. However, I really don't have the energy to dust the dozens of framed photos in that house. It's clear to see that my other SIL's don't either. We can vacuum, clean windows, wash dishes, scrub toilets....but the hundred framed photos and the broken statues are just going to take a back seat. I won't touch 'em anymore. Might hurt someone's feelings.

Of course there's always a lesson to be learned. A real organizer would tell you, less is more. Where on HGTV do they recommend having the family tree entirely take over a two bedroom bungalow? Ha! As I think of it, none of my in-laws houses are overly decorated like that. But we are expected to keep his up!

    Bookmark   March 10, 2008 at 4:45PM
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I don't think anyone here is worried about the people in the photographs getting upset with whatever you do. Our concern is the effect on your FIL, especially since he seems to have a hoarding instinct.

Hoarders cannot differentiate value between items. To them, all things are extremely and equally valuable.

    Bookmark   March 10, 2008 at 5:24PM
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I don't know how to do this but what about converting the photos to one of those digital picture frames? Maybe he'd agree to this. That way, they're all there in one frame instead of the dozens.

The cottage cheese container syndrome...I had fallen into that trap because of my MIL's obsession with keeping them all. I think she was too cheap to buy a box of proper plastic containers but that's a whole other story. One day, I finally threw out every single one and have never kept another one. It was quite freeing but I honestly don't see my MIL ever being able to do that.

    Bookmark   March 10, 2008 at 5:24PM
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You are trying to do a very difficult task. It is extremely difficult and frustrating to deal with a "hoarder" elder.

Nevertheless, it isn't about how you feel. It's about him and his home. If it's a health and sanitation issue, then that moves into different territory. But clutter and dust, even hoarding of useless items, is up to the resident.

Now, if he expects or demands a level of cleanliness that is inconsistent with the clutter, that can be addressed.

But it is his home. And I still think depression may be an issue. If that's the case, then it may be appropriate to consult his physician for advice.

Believe me, my parents were terrible and I saw things in their home that made me cringe, but it wasn't my home. Age and dependence do not negate their right to decide how they want to live, as long as they aren't at risk.

We speak of letting go of items, but one of the most difficult aspects of letting go is releasing the people we care about or feel an obligation to. No matter how well-intended, we must be very careful of removing from family members their autonomy.


    Bookmark   March 11, 2008 at 12:24AM
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It is NOT about YOU, and you keep insisting it is!

It does not matter that you don't like the 'look', a look that had not been on HGTV.

It does not matter that it makes dusting more difficult.

What matters is that this is a in-law who likes HIS house and the things surrounding him in it!

What if someone came into YOUR house and started getting rid of your things... and changing whatever suited them...?
Bet you would not like it.

Please don't do that to you father in law.

    Bookmark   March 11, 2008 at 8:15AM
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If they're all dusty, and it makes dusting harder, I think you have the right to bring this up to him. I actually think he has an obligation to accommodate the people who run his household for him--accommodate them *some*, anyway.

Because you're right, he may never have thought about it, much, and he might be amenable to changes.

He may be even more amenable if the point is, "Grandpa, this makes it harder to dust, and since other people have to help you, let's make their lives easier by having fewer things on the tables and walls."and "all this dust can't be good for Niece to live with; let's make the place healthier for her by making it easier to dust."

He may be motivated to give up things he thinks he values in order to be loving to those around him. (you'll have better success, I bet, if you make it not about YOU finding it hard to dust, but around the other daughters & daughters-in-law)

Maybe it's true that he and his late wife put the pictures up on the wall, etc., because they didn't know what else they were supposed to do with them--do you toss out a picture of your grandkid, just because he's a year older? It wouldn't surprise me if Grandpa thinks he can't, that it would be rude. (in fact, should all of you bother giving him pictures anymore, since he actually SEES you? to me, pictures are for people to use to remember)

So, it's quite possible that some other course of action has simply never occurred to him. You have the right to bring it up. It sounds like you probably should.

*MY* point is you need to follow HIS emotions and HIS idea of what is important.

Who cares what a professional organizer would say? HE didn't ask her opinion.

If you can persuade him to eliminate a few of the items on display (whether moving them to a box or closet, or tossing them completely), then do so. But don't assume that you can decide WHICH of the pictures, or statues, he wants to keep on display.

For dusting his place: get a feather duster for folks to use. And get him to spend some of his money on an air purifier; the BlueAir is really quiet, and when I had it running in my bedroom, almost no dust accumulated.

    Bookmark   March 11, 2008 at 10:24AM
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It's a matter of style--meaning the approach your family wishes to take--and of letting go of guilt that someone will criticize "your" housekeeping or judge your priorities. Such as, you shouldn't use this as an excuse to achieve a neat, clean (when clean refers not to health issues, but as to dusting, there's dust, and then there's DUST, so it's possible to be too fastidious in this situation) house for people who never had that before.

You should read some of the threads on dealing with hoarding relatives and see how much is similar in the frustration you feel and how that can color your actions and motives. You should accept a lot of limitations in what you can accomplish for someone else--that's always been true. And you can build in the concept of time re: loss of a spouse and how the first few months would almost always be just survival, and few persons, elderly hoarders or not, would welcome or tolerate major changes.

So if you try to pare down your motives to the purest possible--some kind of minimum acceptable housekeeping where you aren't breaking things, but not really trying to impose great standards--then, as talleysue said, you might find one or 2 things you could inquire about, but let most of the rest go for now.

Clearly you and your family are making sacrifices out of love and respect, so you will be "put out" more than he, to some extent--see if you can find the right balance that's as gentle and understanding as you can be while still keeping your sanity.

    Bookmark   March 11, 2008 at 11:11AM
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2 thoughts: First, I would concentrate on the less emotional items - cottage cheese containers, etc. Second, How about getting some of those frames for multiple pictures (they make big ones to hang on the wall). So if he wants to look at the pictures, they can still be up, but take up less room. I've seen some collages of family pictures, even just handmade on poster boards with the photos glued on, then framed, with tons of pictures. These are a lot of fun to look at. And if you organize family members together, you can see the progression as they grow up.

    Bookmark   March 11, 2008 at 11:27AM
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You *might* be able to peel away a few of the layers, a teeny bit at a time.

Sort of, "Here's the new picture of GGS Billy; I'll put it right here, in the spot of one of the old pictures of him, and put those old pictures away, since you have the new one."

That sort of small, incremental, apparently progressive change might sneak right past him.

You could clear out a few mugs here and there without asking, or cottage-cheese containers, esp. in order to move boxes of canned foods into storage.

You can certainly use efforts like that to keep it from getting WORSE.

But you have to be sure you're being respectful, and that he feels that HE is making any *big* decisions.

    Bookmark   March 11, 2008 at 3:33PM
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When I read your posts, I get the sense that you're feeling generally burned out and irritated, and that the photos are a target for those feelings. I sometimes get that way, and when I decide to get rid of my own stuff in that mood, I tend to overdo it and regret it when I get back to normal. If that's your state of mind, I think it would be wrong to tackle someone else's stuff. Just let it be. The photos aren't hurting anyone, and they don't belong to you.

Oh, and if I didn't misinterpret, and you actually are feeling generally burned out and irritated-- my best advice is to try to give yourself a break from all of the stuff that's wearing on you. If that means stepping back from the FIL housekeeping roster for a couple of weeks, then do it and use the extra time to do something that's genuinely relaxing for you. The extra untidiness when you return could be worth it, so long as you return with refreshed spirits.

(And regardless, I really think that you should leave the photos alone. It's not your house and not your decision to make. Especially when his wife only passed away a few months ago. If my husband passed away, it would really bother me if someone tried to undo his part of the decor so soon after the fact. I would feel like it was a criticism of him and that they were trying to erase him.)

    Bookmark   March 15, 2008 at 12:15AM
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neesie- you really need to take a few steps back, and look at how much of the mess is your responsibility - and how much of the stress you're obviously under is your own fault.

you have the idea in your head that this is your responsibility, and you 'know' what to do about it...

so much so that it's become more about having your way than it is about taking care of a man who you clearly don't understand very well.

yes, packratting is irritating - but instead of coming off like a busy body, why not tell him that there's a class project, and one of the kids ( or your local church, or an impoverished daycare) needs a bunch of cottage cheese containers, like a shopping bag full? I'll bet he'd be willing to spare them for a good cause, yes?

you're creating 'win or lose' situations that are sure to cause strife in a family that's got to be all tied up in knots already - if you think you're worn out, frustrated, and at your wit's end...think about how people who were actually raised in this family are feeling...and then add the weight of guilt for every mug that lost its handle, every broken promise, and every letter of phone call someone was too busy to attend to.

it's great that you're trying to clean up the place - but it took us two YEARS to clean things up after my father's death. two YEARS before we sorted out the papers and the trauma and really got the house cleaned up...

and for the first year, a puzzle sat unfinished on top of the piano, and not even my brother, who's as practical as the rest of us are superstitious, could bring himself to touch it.

this is part of the healing process, and you simply cannot rush it.

instead of starting with the photographs - why not start with the curtains, which I'm sure need laundering?

when you DO get around to the pictures - start by buying a large 'collage' frame, or a big album, and get your FIL to help you (or someone else) make sure that the photos are documented (who, when, why)before they're stowed. that will help it be about rememberbering, and honouring the past, instead of creating the impression that you do not actually consider yourself part of their family, and find it all so much stuff and bother.

    Bookmark   March 27, 2008 at 1:50PM
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Its an odd situation and I sympathize. We have a friend whose wife died and he has slept on the sofa for 5 years and has changed nothing in the house. Sometimes, you have to change things a little at a time. show him a really cute scrap book with some photos in and see if he likes it. Offer to do one with about 10 photos that are dusty. See what he says. Be aware that a sibling will see a clear space and offer more photos. Since I am now on the receiving end of grand children's photos--I see that they are a gift. At some earlier point in my life I should have insisted on crafts or paintings by the little tots. those are easier to get rid of.

    Bookmark   March 27, 2008 at 7:27PM
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