Advice- helping the in-laws?

donnamp14May 13, 2006

I am a daily visitor to this site and now I need your advice. I'm a pretty neat, clean and organized person. I wasn't always like this, but I find I really do function better when things are clean, neat and organized around me. I'm not obsessive, I just like little visual clutter. So, here's the problem: My in-laws. They are in their late 70's and their house is such a mess it's a health hazard. MIL is just a slob, but FIL likes things neat and he has expressed that he "has to get rid of things". But, he's been saying that for years. He simply cannot throw anything, ANYTHING away. Moldy bread and cheese, empty bags, torn clothing, anything. Every time we go up there, Dad give us this useless stuff, which we smile and take and toss in the trash as soon as we eget home. Lately, though, their house is so bad that I refuse to eat anything there nor use their bathroom. It's that bad. Between the 4 broken vacuum cleaners, and the hundreda of bags of crafts stuff, it's so bad their cellar and "shed" are full, and now he has "built" a lean-to in the yard covered with a bluetarp for things he finds along the sides of the road, like discarded kitchen counters, etc. Get the picture? It's out of control. I work full time and am in grad school, and I am fighting with myself about offering to clean it for them. SIL has said we'd have to get a dumpster. That's how bad it is. I don't want to intrude on their personal space, but I do think this is a crisis. They may trip on stuff, or eat rotten food, or have a fire in the cellar, which has just one tiny path to the washer, it's so full of old stuff. Like electronic dog collars (no dog) and two freezers filled with frozen cheese-its and 5 year old hamburg. Really. Can I have your opinions? Should the kids (all grown, in our 40's and 50's) come in some consecutive weekends and clean it up, at the risk of offending them? They're really wonderul people, but simply cannot throw anything away and it's getting dangerous. I wouldn't want to hurt their feelings. Thoughts?

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My parents sound a lot like yours. My father died in 1998. Mom has literally tons of food stored. I went down in the basement, found a plastic garbage can(clean) full of twenty five-pound bags of sugar. She has boxes of soap from the 1960's on a shelf, they are rock-hard. A refrigerator with top-freezer in the kitchen full of old expired foods, like mayonnaise from 1994, eggs from 2003. And there are three freezers in the garage, full of stuff like ten-year-old chickens. After Dad died, she rented a dumpster. My brother spent a week throwing things out for her, but an incredible amount remains. She still buys much more than she needs. Last week she told me she bought four jars of peanut butter because it was on sale. And she doesn't even eat peanut butter. What does she eat? Very little. Her appetite is poor, but she understands most of the old expired food is no good, so she doesn't eat that. She buys new food and consumes that. She never throws anything out. Every room is packed to the rafters. One of the upstairs bedrooms is so full of boxes and furniture, the ceiling below is collapsing. She has three sets of cupboards in the kitchen. One set came with the house when they bought it, the other two were discarded by neighbors when they renovated their kitchens. Dad hauled their old cabinets over and nailed them anywhere he could find space. The kitchen is a horror! Mom reads the real estate ads, nicer and newer homes in the area sell for $400,000 and up. She's convinced she's sitting on a gold mine, it's more like a toilet. She's 83 and we (her kids) know someday she'll be gone and we'll have to clean out the food and other clutter. I live 500 miles away, there's not much I can do from here. I feel for you.

    Bookmark   May 13, 2006 at 4:41PM
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Wow. Yeah, I think you need to organize a relief effort before it get dangerous. It clearly needs to be done, and deep down they must know it. But is probably overwhelming for them. They'll have a happier life if you all get together and do this. If your inlaws resist, I think I'd just try another approach. Wait a few weeks, then suggest just one area at a time.

    Bookmark   May 13, 2006 at 9:05PM
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First -- please realize that all of these folks really need a solid intervention of a consolidated family (and/or friends). This would be very hard to do ---- BUT would be a true kindness.

This is NOT a healthy way of living -- many many times --- this is a sign of depression and fear -- and sheer stubborness about how time has moved on. I do realize that these folks came from a time when "wasteful" meant "sinful" --- again --- this is generations of a mindset to deal with ---- never ever easy for anyone involved.

I will truly pray and think of you all --- as you can probably tell -- I've been in your place. Cleaning out my parents house -- tidy on the "public places" but every cupboard and drawer (and every corner of the basement) was full. My mum simply couldn't cope with the house -- and the loneliness -- she now happly lives with my sister and BIL in a gorgeous townhouse!

    Bookmark   May 14, 2006 at 11:33AM
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teacats is on the right track. You certainly could go in and clean it up, but it sounds like you would only be doing this again at some later time. The problem will only persist unless your in-laws want to fix it (your FIL just saying he wants to change things does not change things). Many of us have dealt with relatives who stockpiled canned goods and spare small appliances and magazines they want to read -- someday. But an inability to throw away things like moldy cheese is a clear sign of mental illness. Your in-laws may be wonderful people, but there is something wrong and you (and your DH -- where is he??) best serve these people by getting them some help for the behavior that results in this situation. Can you contact a trusted family friend or clergyperson? If not, can you contact a social service for the elderly and ask them to help you identify resources?

    Bookmark   May 14, 2006 at 12:53PM
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I'm going to de-lurk just a moment to say hi and to chime in agreement with Teacats and Steve's posts. Also, given your in-laws ages, is it possible there's a bit of dementia showing up in their housekeeping? If nothing else works, I'd suggest (without really meaning to be too snarky, just suggesting a really BIG white lie) that you tell your in-laws that you and your helpers plan to put everything you cart away into "storage" for them, and then go "store" everything in a dumpster located somewhere out of sight. Good luck.

    Bookmark   May 14, 2006 at 5:02PM
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Could you just organize a cleanup? If your fil says he wants a cleaner house, gather the relatives or have them commit for a specific time frame and give him decluttering as a Father's Day gift. Have everyone bring brooms, mops, boxes and trash bags. Don't do everything at one time. Have your fil pick some areas that he wants clean and work on those. Order out for pizza when you get hungry. If Father's Day doesn't work, pick another day.

My grandparents were hoarders because they were poor when they were young. Their place got so bad that the city threatened to take action against them. One of my aunts used that as leverage to get rid of lots of stuff. Trashing and donating were one way, but my grandparents were big fans of recycling. Large metal items that could be recycled at a recycling place were. Lots of things were sold in multiple garage sales. The leftovers were donated. It's lots of work to do all this, but at least my grandparents were more comfortable about it.

    Bookmark   May 14, 2006 at 5:17PM
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Thanks for all the compassion and suggestions. Yes, I do believe there is some dementia creeping in with MIL. FIL is just totally overwhelmed. As far as DH, he is totally in agreement, and has tried to talk to them, but they brush him off. Having my own mother in a nursing dome after years of dementia, I can see that it is hard for him to comprehend that now the "kids" are the ones who need to be in control and the elderly parents need care, not the other way around. It's a tough thing to come to terms with. Anyway,I think we're going to go up in August (I am in school until the end of July) and just clean the bathroom and linen closet, and paint them. Seriously, that will take a whole weekend. Then we can point to how nice it is to have one clean and organized space, and then offer to do the kitchen. If the offer is not accepted, I will gently tell them that since they cannot keep things healthful and safe, we will be forced to call a Home Health Care agency and they will have to (gasp!) PAY for it themselves! Thoughts of spending one thin dime will thrust them into action, or at least, acceptance. It will take the gang of us to do the cellar, but everyone will pitch in. That's the real hot spot, the cellar. I guess we'll start small and spread the cheer slowly! Thanks for all your help- I am sending this link to the family, so they can see that we are really faced with an issue to be dealt with. Thanks so much!!!

    Bookmark   May 15, 2006 at 8:32AM
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Another idea to consider--esp. for those folks who might be closer than you--is to do it gradually. And tie it in w/ something pleasant.

So, they like company, yes? So every Saturday morning, one or another relative shows up, packs the trunk w/ stuff that should go out, visits while doing this, and leaves w/ the stuff. It's gone, and their reward to letting you do it, is that they got to visit with youl

Don't really get into *where* it's going once it leaves--tell them you "need" it or something if they balk or get fidgety--and then toss or recycle or whatever after it's out of their sight.

Then, they might find that the stuff leaving doesn't induce the same level of anxiety it might if you just swooped in and took it all away w/ much noise about "garbage," etc.

You'll probably still need the big, concerted effort, and the dumpster, but you could get them started down the road in a less painful way, perhaps.

    Bookmark   May 15, 2006 at 1:17PM
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Exactly- little by little. Even I, the "organized one", am really daunted by this. We'll start small, with the bathroom and linen closet and move on to the hall closet (how may coats can 2 people actually wear, anyway?? LOL). The kitchen will be a labor of love, and the cellar will be "all hands on deck"! Thanks. I have to remember that it's baby steps. Lucky for us, DH has one great (wicked) sense of humor. This could be the source of some laughs. I remember in 1978 cleaning their linen closet (yes, it's been that long!) and I said, "Ma, these ear drops are from before Kennedy died". She tried to fish them out of the trash even back then. Now we've wised up and will cart all the trash to SIL's house to be picked up!

Thanks everyone! You've been such great help and inspiration.


    Bookmark   May 15, 2006 at 1:27PM
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Donna - Be sure to check around for old medicine....


    Bookmark   May 15, 2006 at 1:28PM
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... and food. My XMIL could carbon-date some of the stuff in her cupboard.

    Bookmark   May 15, 2006 at 2:13PM
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My grandma was the same... though it was definitely alzheimers/dementia in her case. While she would let me have things (which I threw away later), she didn't let me clean a whole lot and wouldn't let anyone else have anything or do anything for her (ah, the joys of being "the favorite"). Still, we knew it was bad when she cried after I threw away some moldy food. She said I could clean out the fridge, but just tossing old food was too upsetting for her.

I'm afraid I don't have any good ways to get them to let you clean. Nothing really worked until she had to go to a nursing home and we emptied her house.

    Bookmark   May 15, 2006 at 4:35PM
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Still, we knew it was bad when she cried after I threw away some moldy food. She said I could clean out the fridge, but just tossing old food was too upsetting for her.

that's one reason I said perhaps whoever it is should just say, "Oh, I could use this" or "if you don't mind, I'd like to take this with me" and toss it when they get it home. So there's no negative associated w/ the clean-up.

Just the positive of having someone visit briefly, and perhaps the positive of feeling like they've "given" something to you.

    Bookmark   May 16, 2006 at 9:37AM
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I liked the comment about the eardrops from the Kennedy administration. In my mother's medicine chest, I found a bottle of prescription vitamins. They were from 1957, the year she was pregnant with my little brother, who is now 48! She would not let me throw them away, "they're still good!"

    Bookmark   May 16, 2006 at 6:40PM
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