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Hoarders: Crazy cat lady edition!
February 25, 2013 3:16 PM   Subscribe

Mom is a hoarder; house is making her sick. Adult children worried about her and grossed out. What can we do or say to her that might help? Snowflakes inside... Tl;dr: What, if anything, can be done or said to reign this situation in?

My mom started out normal, but as our parents' marriage deteriorted she quit cleaning. When my dad moved out she quit cooking, and sometime during my college years she became a full-on hoarder... complete with a couple cats and litter trays that are NEVER cleaned, etc. She watches Hoarders and gleefully exclaims "At least I'm not that bad! Yay!"... and she's right, but the margin is getting narrower and narrower. What she needs is a psychologist, but she IS a psychologist. She is also pretty broke (a blizzard unto itself).

I live overseas, and we're planning on having our first child next year. I can't imagine taking a small child there. I'm not super fussy - we like camping, hiking, gardening - we get muddy. My house does not look like Martha's; but there is also not dried up cat vomit/poop all over the floor, layers of dust and grime, mold, peeling paint, rising damp (the house is falling apart), etc.... not to mention that the hosue is literally filled with "stuff" - furniture stacked on furniture and covered with knick-knacks and trash; let no surface be uncluttered!

My brother lives a 5-hour drive away. My sister currently lives in the in-law unit attached to my mom's. She emailed me saying that this winter (they live in a very mild climate - so we're not talking snow or anything) mom's had one cold/flu episode after another, and each one drags on for weeks. I've noticed this in her emails to me as well. Mom says it's because she works with kids... but so does my sister. Of course, mom's in her early 60's and sister is in her mid-twenties. Mom could have some sort of undiagnosed medical issue compromising her immune system, or just be showing signs of getting older... but sis thinks it's the house.

Regardless, living in Gross House isn't helping her health, squicks her kids out, and is going to prevent her grandchildren being allowed at her house (I already won't stay there when I visit home, even when it's just me! I stay with an aunt!). To top it off, the house she's letting fall apart was built by our great grandfather (on Dad's side) = sad; and she intends to leave it to us = EW. My mom's side lives a long time - she could easily spend another 20-30 years mucking up that house, and leaving a bigger and bigger disaster behind. Besides, of course, watching a nice little old lady who's your mom live in squalor just sucks.

Any ideas how to reign this situation in? What works/doesn't work?
posted by jrobin276 to Human Relations (19 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
Some information on dealing with hoarding in your family.
posted by xingcat at 3:26 PM on February 25, 2013


Dust/filth/mold/catshit are probably making her sick. Send her stories like this and this and whatever others you can find. Tell her you won't be able to visit while pregnant or with new grandbaby unless she gets the house under control.
posted by mareli at 3:27 PM on February 25, 2013


Guess what?

Nothing, on its own, works.

You can hire a cleaner, you can do the job yourself, you can even force her to clean. But she'll fall back into the habit again. You can leave little tips around the house, you can point her to cleaning blogs, you can threaten her with never seeing her grandchild, you can never visit, you can cajole and beg, and it won't matter.

The problem isn't the house. The house is a symptom of a bigger problem. You said she stopped cleaning when the marriage started falling apart. And things just...start building up.

She watches Hoarders and says "I'm not that bad!" because otherwise what she has around her is utterly overwhelming. Where can she start? Why should she bother? Why is everyone so obsessed with the state of the house and no one notices how she is?

How do you help her? You help her find help - not with the house - but with herself. Yeah, okay, this is going to be a difficult task, especially since she's a psychologist, but everything that you're thinking about doing isn't going to work without this first step. It doesn't matter what you tell her, it doesn't matter what you do - she has to take that first step, and if she can't, then there's nothing you can do.

You want her to get help. Leave the house out of it, and focus instead on helping her.
posted by Katemonkey at 3:31 PM on February 25, 2013 [19 favorites]


I'll be honest, I never really "got" how the people represented in shows like Hoarders got where they are when they evidently have family members and friends who are concerned about them. To my mind, the solution is very simple: save up your money, take your mother on a week-long vacation somewhere, and while this is going on you have somebody mind the cats and you get some professional cleaners and rubbish removalers in so that she returns to a house free of horror and detritus. Obviously a family member will be required to be there to supervise while this happens, so that actual genuinely important stuff isn't thrown away. Your sister, who lives there, then makes it her duty to ensure it doesn't go that far again.
posted by turgid dahlia 2 at 3:32 PM on February 25, 2013


In regards to her being a psychologist, an oncologist wouldn't treat their own cancer. She needs therapy, though convincing her of that is going to be extremely difficult. This is a psychological disorder that is often only made worse by interventions from well-meaning family members coming in to shovel the hoarder out from under their things. It's ripping their security blanket off them - they will only build it back stronger than before and resent you mightily in the process. Understanding that she needs more help than family can provide to get past this is key.
posted by cecic at 3:32 PM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'll be honest, I never really "got" how the people represented in shows like Hoarders got where they are when they evidently have family members and friends who are concerned about them.

Because the issue underlying is a mental illness, not simply a failure to keep up with cleaning.

To my mind, the solution is very simple: save up your money, take your mother on a week-long vacation somewhere, and while this is going on you have somebody mind the cats and you get some professional cleaners and rubbish removalers in so that she returns to a house free of horror and detritus.

And they would flip the fuck out and feel completely violated, as cecic indicates above.
posted by canine epigram at 3:43 PM on February 25, 2013 [33 favorites]


With all due respect, the suggestion to take your mother away and hire professional cleaners in her absence is the wrong approach. I can't emphasis this enough. I have a relative who falls somewhere on the hoarding spectrum. We are all very concerned and have been for years. However, we have learned the hard way that what we perceive as helping her can very easily cross the line. She would be beyond furious and hurt if we were to go through her house behind her back. I don't understand her attachment to decades of dusty magazines, broken furniture, and rusty tools but it would be the ultimate betrayal for us to throw away her belongings. Plus it would do nothing to address the underlying issue.
posted by Majorita at 3:45 PM on February 25, 2013 [9 favorites]


And they would flip the fuck out and feel completely violated.

I would be OK with that. But that's just me. Maybe it's time for an intervention and maybe you should talk with someone about how to do that.
posted by shoesietart at 4:04 PM on February 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


Just to direct the conversation a bit... Katemonkey and caninine epigram and majorita are totally correct. We won't touch the house with a ten foot pole anymore - she flips out when we take out the trash. We are aware that you can't really help people who haven't asked for it. How can we create an environment, situation, relationship, etc. conducive to her getting help?

turgid dahlia and shoesiestart's suggestions are not long term (and not productive).
It is absolutely a mental illness; please proceed with suggestions, and don't worry about the sneaky clean - we'd never do that. (We have tried, periodically, to cheerfully "let's clean up!" and sometimes it gets a little better for a while... and then the mess begins it's descent again.)

We know she needs a psychologist... any steps that family members can take to encourage her to do this would be welcome.

Thanks!
posted by jrobin276 at 4:10 PM on February 25, 2013


In many regions, psychologists are supposed to have supervision sessions with another psychologist. I assume your mother is working as a psychologist, since you say she works with kids. So it's possible she does have an ongoing relationship with another psychologist who is somewhat responsible for keeping an eye on her mental health. Can you find out whether this is the case? And if so, is there a way to tip off that supervisor about the hoarding issue so that it becomes something they can address in those sessions? (Especially if the health issues are interfering with her ability to work her job). Ideally, of course, you'd persuade your mother to bring the issue up with her supervisor herself, or second-best, you'd get her permission to talk to the supervisor. But if that doesn't work, I don't think it would be beyond the pale in a situation this serious to go over her head.
posted by lollusc at 4:14 PM on February 25, 2013 [6 favorites]


I watch Hoarders and Intervention (so, that is my only expertise) but it always strikes me how similar the subjects are. If this were my family, I would attempt an intervention like strategy where the whole family commits to cutting her off unless she gets help. It is so much easier said than done, but it sounds like she needs to hit rock bottom like an addict does before she will get help. You can make that come faster by refusing to enable her, even in the slightest way like not calling out her denial.
Your local-to-her sister would need to be the ringleader of this due to logistics. Is she comfortable being the "bad guy"? These situations often result in the hoarder blaming any and all family members. Keep a thick skin and realize it is not her saying it but the illness. As long as she stays in therapy, the family should offer to help with decluttering or hiring cleaning help. She will come up with excuses and reasons why she can't go to therapy or get rid of things. Try to remove or negate those obstacles.
posted by soelo at 4:30 PM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am answering this as someone at risk for being a full blown hoarder. I have lived in the filthy cluttered house with too many pets. It was no where near what you see on hoarders (which I haven't actually watched), but I recognize that it was in danger of becoming that if I had had another few years alone in the house. I made some life changes that effectively nipped it in the bud, but I am all too aware for the possibility.

You already know what she needs is a therapist. Would it be at all possible for you and your siblings to contact a psychologist and find one you think might be accepted by your mother, someone compassionate and who can approach her as a peer, and perhaps visit her at home, or in a neutral space, and express compassion, concern, and by this perhaps open the door to a therapeutic relationship?

I know that most of the suggestions on this thread would have pushed me farther into depression, self-destruction, and possibly suicide. While this may not be an issue for your mother, aggressive actions that do not address the underlying cause could potentially backfire in some serious ways, and not be effective at all.
posted by batikrose at 4:45 PM on February 25, 2013 [9 favorites]


She probably is aversive to support BECAUSE she watches the show hoarders. The reality is most chronic disorganization and hoarding support specialists do not use the methods used in the show. The show is designed to make people who are disgusted by hoarders feel good about hating them and seeing them as inferiors. It's like shaming someone into losing weight. It sells well on the TV shows but it's not a technique that many actual dietitians or nutritionists or physical therapists would recommend.

You should let her know that you heard about some services that essentially provide ongoing cleaning help for people who tend to have chronic problems with cleaning on a regular basis. First look up and talk to some chronic disorganization/hoarding professionals in her area and talk with them about their services so you can give her a more realistic picture of the kind of understanding support that is available.

She doesn't have to stop being a hoarder. With all things, I'm a fan of harm reduction. She can keep thehoarding, the professionals who are GOOD with dealing with this will spend some time helping to get things in order and help her with her emotional responses going through that process and then in the long term the situation can be managed by a combination of trained chronic disorganization support and basic cleaning help (i.e. once a month have a chronic disorganization specialist help ensure the clutter and piles of junk aren't piling up too high and weekly pay a traditional cleaner at a better price to help with the basic cleaning.)

Let her know some people just go through phases where they are too emotionally overwhelmed to deal with the cleaning and that is ok. Having some support to keep the house in order while she copes with her difficult emotions will create a space where as she does feel emotionally and psychologically stronger she can rebuild her relationship with cleaning without a terrifying mess to contend with and without the health hazards of dust mites, molds, cat feces and who knows what else. I've done a lot of reading on how these health hazards affect the body and I am certain that with people who drop off into serious squalor their is a reciprocal relationship between fatigue/trauma/overwhelm driven cleaning avoidance and the immune system getting overwhelmed and fatigued by all the health hazards it then lives in.

She hasn't been cooking, another thing you could see is if there are some professionals in your area that provide healthy home cooked meals for delivery. Yes OF COURSE she needs to deal with the root problems but the root problem is that she's overwhelmed and needs more support, not that she needs the rug pulled out from under her and to be spat on until she fixes her behavior. But DO avoid being in her house, it sounds like a very serious health hazard and not a place for a pregnant mom or babies. Also to be honest, I would worry about pathogen exposure from being around her if she's getting continually ill.

She will want to avoid offers of help or cleaners because she won't want the confrontational "change your behavior now!" attacks that have become popular to launch against hoarders. I don't think hoarders need to be shamed or forced to spontaneously stop being ill and disordered. Accepting the condition/struggle with love is the best path to addressing and managing it's existence. Using the term "chronic disorganization" will likely also make her feel a lot better because it's much more neutral and doesn't carry the same social hatred and disgust the term hoarder carries.
posted by xarnop at 6:03 PM on February 25, 2013 [24 favorites]


She emailed me saying that this winter (they live in a very mild climate - so we're not talking snow or anything) mom's had one cold/flu episode after another, and each one drags on for weeks. I've noticed this in her emails to me as well. Mom says it's because she works with kids... but so does my sister. Of course, mom's in her early 60's and sister is in her mid-twenties. Mom could have some sort of undiagnosed medical issue compromising her immune system, or just be showing signs of getting older... but sis thinks it's the house.

Colds aren't caused by dust, grime, moldy bathrooms or cat litter trays. They're caused by contact with infected people (or objects they touched) -- especially schoolchildren, who are particularly susceptible to them. And your mother works with children.

There are plenty of other reasons, health-related and otherwise, for your mother to clean up, but I think it's unfair and counterproductive to argue that her catching cold is evidence that the clutter is destroying her health. Stick to arguments where you're on firmer ground.
posted by dontjumplarry at 6:15 PM on February 25, 2013


Colds aren't caused by dust, grime, moldy bathrooms or cat litter trays.

No, but many other respiratory ailments are. It is not only possible but probable that the house is making her ill. (I speak as someone who had severe recurring sinus infections caused by a mouldy flat.)
posted by Specklet at 6:36 PM on February 25, 2013 [6 favorites]


You should spend some time on the Children of Hoarders site; under the tab "resources" you will find helpful links, and the site itself will have a lot about the issues you are dealing with. Lots of these people grew up with a hoarding parent, so your experience is a little different, but the current experience (frustration, fear, anger, helplessness) you are your siblings are having is the same.

If your mother does get and seek help, it will not be an overnight fix, most likely. You and your family will need to understand that it's a difficult journey to get well, and no stern speeches or family cleanups will fix your mom's situation. Your sister is getting the brunt of this, since she lives close by. You and your brother need to help her with support in any way you can.
posted by emjaybee at 6:38 PM on February 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


There's a psychology professor, Randy Frost, who's been doing research on hoarding for many years. He wrote Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things which has a good explanation of his findings, and takes a compassionate approach to understanding what is going on in the heads of people who get into this state.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:56 PM on February 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


In addition to Stuff (which is excellent), I recommend the book Digging Out: Helping Your Loved One Manage Clutter, Hoarding, and Compulsive Acquiring, which takes the harm reduction approach that xarnop mentions.
posted by miriam at 9:16 PM on February 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


Daughter of a sometimes frustrating elderly mom here. She didn't have a hoarding problem, though, thank goodness.

You can make suggestions as xarnop has stated. If mom is agreeable, help her implement those suggestions. If those suggestions are not heeded or if they are heeded for a while and then mom quits complying, end of story. Your mom is an adult and hasn't been declared incompetent by any court (good luck with that, you really don't want to go down that road). She may need another type of wakeup call.

Keep your family safe - meaning that you don't visit the house if you don't feel it's safe. When you visit, stay in a hotel/motel and meet mom out on the town for meals. If any of your sibs insist on continuing to try to intervene if offers of help are declined, that's not your problem either.
posted by Currer Belfry at 6:07 AM on February 26, 2013


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