Help me help my partner help his father
March 20, 2013 2:51 PM   Subscribe

My father-in-law lives alone, has a poor diet and a heart complaint, is a hoarder, is lonely and socially isolated, and it makes my partner miserable worrying about him. How can I help my partner, help my FIL, and help my partner help my FIL?

FIL is a good man, kind, gentle, caring and thoughtful. However, since separating from partner's mother ten years ago, he does not seem to have been able to re-establish a happy, balanced life for himself.

His health is bad (he has a recurring condition which is not helped by being overweight due to his bad diet) and this stops him from doing the activities which might help him get fit again. He buys a LOT of stuff from shopping channels and Ebay, and his house is so full of it that he is embarrassed to invite people in. I have never been further than the front yard, in the 5 years that my partner and I have been together. The final and perhaps saddest part is that he has very few friends, or relatives who he spends time with. His ongoing plans to move have kept him from putting roots down, his health problems keep him indoors, and his house-full of stuff keep him from inviting people round for tea.

Now if it was up to me, I'd troop round there one weekend, barge in, and declare a Day of Reckoning - clear his house up, march him to the estate agent to get it sold, and cook him a freezer full of healthy meals.

Unfortunately, my partner is extremely reluctant to wade in like this - partly because he isn't the same obnoxious and hard-nosed person that I am, but mostly because he is afraid to damage the relationship which he has managed to re-establish with him since his parents' divorce. He is stuck in the trap of worrying about his dad all the time, but being unable to really consider doing anything about it because he feels their relationship is so fragile. All the time fuelled by his father being somewhat touchy when these subjects are brought up, but simultaneously making morbid comments about the future implying he won't be around for too long.

A closer-to-home issue relating to this is that my partner does sometimes take his worries out on me about this, and I'm feeling more and more stuck in the same loop of arguments and sadness. We have had several rows about it, and it has made me extremely wary about taking part in any conversation about FIL, even if it starts off relatively innocuously.

So... if you've got this far, and wow thanks a LOT for reading if you have, what can I do? I want to nudge them both toward progress, but how much nudging becomes pushing? I can't stand back and do nothing because nothing is making them both sad. I can't see a good middle ground... please help me find one!

The Obligatory Therapy Note: I know people hate when the OP says "therapy is not an option" but believe me when I say it isn't. FIL would baulk at the suggestion and absolutely not consider seeking it. I'm trying to persuade my partner to try it... we'll see. Options outside of therapy would be much appreciated.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Now if it was up to me, I'd troop round there one weekend, barge in, and declare a Day of Reckoning - clear his house up, march him to the estate agent to get it sold, and cook him a freezer full of healthy meals.

Yeah, that would not work at all in the way you think it would. If shopping/hoarding and eating the way he eats are his way of coping and feeling better, all you would be doing is suddenly wrenching away his methods of coping and feeling better, leaving him absolutely exposed to all his pain and bad feelings. And he will react exactly as if that is what you have done - with distress, possibly extreme anger towards you, and immediately launching right back into the same behaviors. You would come back the next day and it would have a pile of hoarded items already forming again, your freezer meals would be untouched and there would be a new haul of unhealthy grocery items in the fridge. People don't develop new ways of coping overnight. People don't increase their coping skills or capacity for coping overnight.

Baby steps. Baby steps. Don't suddenly wrench away all the "bad" foods that bring him comfort. Bring him some healthy meals a few times a week that he can enjoy WITH his bad foods.

If he is coping with these things in part because of loneliness, then spend more time with him. Partner spends more time with him. You spend more time with him if you can. Slowly, slowly bring him to activities where he can start meeting people and making friends (senior center?). Don't put PRESSURE on it like "you have to form bonds with these people and make friends!!!" Just make it something like, hey, here's a fun game night at the senior center, let's go, it sounds fun. If he goes enough then he will *become* friends with the people there even he isn't planning to. Same thing with exercise. Start with the littlest bitty baby infant steps and make it something he would find fun and not work. Take a walk to the park for bird watching.

If you have the money, gradually bring in someone who can become his personal assistant in a way that he can slowly build up trust with that person, eventually allowing them into the home. Maybe at first the person can go grocery shopping for him and drop the groceries at the door. Maybe eventually that can segue to carrying the groceries into the kitchen.

Make everything easy, low-stakes, non-judgmental. Help him build up other ways of coping slowly, indirectly and with time, rather than just yanking everything away immediately.
posted by cairdeas at 3:01 PM on March 20, 2013 [15 favorites]


If FIL lives nearby, could you invite him over for dinner one night a week, sending him home with a few cooked plates packaged up to be heat and serve? It would get FIL out of the house and into the company of others, and at least he'd have a few decent meals/week.
posted by jamaro at 3:01 PM on March 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


A closer-to-home issue relating to this is that my partner does sometimes take his worries out on me about this, and I'm feeling more and more stuck in the same loop of arguments and sadness.

It's understandable that your partner would worry about his father, but this is not ok. I'd suggest you sit down with your partner and say something like, "I know you love and worry about your dad, and I want to be supportive of you. At the same time, we have a pattern of X stressing you out and then you take it out on me by doing Y or Z. I'd like for us to develop a better strategy for dealing with this hard situation." Then, the two of you should come up with a list of practical things you can do for FIL--having him over or meeting up with him at a restaurant if he lives near you, calling him X times a week, suggesting groups or activities he could join, etc. Then, ask your partner to agree that when he's worrying about his dad, he'll either put his energy into one of those concrete things or use some personal coping strategy (exercise, meditation, whatever) instead of taking his stress out on you.
posted by Meg_Murry at 3:13 PM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Asking your father in law what you can do to help seems like a good place to start.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 3:16 PM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


You know, when I think about this from the point of view of your FIL, I'd feel overwhelmed. Just the health stuff is a lot.

I'd suggest setting a day/time per week for visits, to you two, to get your FIL out of house and social with you. Maybe when you are cooking/preparing healthy food to give him an avenue to think about whether he wants to try doing that himself sometimes?

Re the hoarding, assuming he isn't still shopping, it is still a formidable chore to clean up/dispose of stuff. Small bite sized approaches, assisted by you or your partner -- e.g., to put the things your FIL doesn't want that are on the porch on ebay or cart them to the dump -- would be great.

Is it feasible for your partner to sometimes help your FIL get to health provider?

Maybe you could offer to assist with these small steps. That might help your partner and FIL think about manageable ways to cope with it all.
posted by bearwife at 3:30 PM on March 20, 2013




A closer-to-home issue relating to this is that my partner does sometimes take his worries out on me about this, and I'm feeling more and more stuck in the same loop of arguments and sadness. We have had several rows about it, and it has made me extremely wary about taking part in any conversation about FIL, even if it starts off relatively innocuously.

I'm the child of an aging hoarder and I'm trying to imagine being in a relationship with someone that your description of yourself fits. I hate to say it, but this is really one of those things that's "not as simple as it may look from the outside."

From what I've seen and experienced, hoarding is in many ways like an addiction. My conversations with my mother are a frustrating and tiresome dance because the hoarding and its consequences are so strikingly obvious to me, while my mother ignores them completely. I don't talk to my mom often, but when I do, I want it to be a reality-based conversation. I know that if I so much as come close to the issue, my mom will dissolve into a mess of topic-changing, non-sequiturs, diversions, talking past me, extreme agitation, which progresses to irritation, aggressiveness, accusations, and shouting.

I think it's very likely that your partner has lived through years of this dynamic. Your suggestions may make you sound that you not only don't really understand the problem on a personal level, but that you're intentionally being difficult by offering facile solutions that make him feel worse. This could be a very painful, difficult, and sensitive topic for him.

For perspective, telling someone like me that all you think you'd need to do is march in there and fix everything overnight is as bitterly funny as saying "all you need to wean Bob from drugs is to take away Bob's drugs." That betrays a dramatic lack of understanding. Hoarding and the other psychological and lifestyle problems that it hangs out with form a massive and almost intractable complex. It's a system of coping mechanisms. Simply taking the hoard away not only fails to resolve the underlying problem, but can do a great deal of damage to the sufferer and the sufferer's close ones.

I haven't tried the advice that's offered by others upthread, but I think they're on the right track. Try to coax the dad out of isolation. Try to make his life more pleasant and more social. Open up his world and offer him an alternative support network. He may gradually start to turn a corner.
posted by Nomyte at 4:00 PM on March 20, 2013 [15 favorites]


Are there any social service agencies in your area that might be able to help? I know that in some cities (here in the US, sounds like you're UK), there are agencies that will check on the elderly and respond to reports of hoarding or unsafe living conditions.

I don't know if your FIL is old enough to qualify or if such a thing exists where you are, but having a third party come and make an assessment and a plan might relieve the stress on your partner, provide a profesional opinion and plan that your FIL might listen to, and take the heat off you to accomplish everything. Even if you never involve them directly, you may be able to ask them for advice.
posted by Colonel_Chappy at 4:32 PM on March 20, 2013


Now if it was up to me, I'd troop round there one weekend, barge in, and declare a Day of Reckoning - clear his house up, march him to the estate agent to get it sold, and cook him a freezer full of healthy meals.

Hoo-boy, from that I'd say it would be best if you stayed out of it. If you truly believe someone marching in and physically cleaning up his life would actually solve the problem, you're not looking at reality. That's really no different than telling someone with depression they should just knock it off with the long face.

There's a documentary called "My Mother's Garden" about a family that does what you want to do and their mother has to be put in a psych ward to prevent her from committing suicide. You can watch it here.

If you want some information into hoarding, there are tons and reading and film on the subject. I recommend Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things. They've been studying hoarding for years and approach it from a very compassionate and humane viewpoint.
posted by Dynex at 5:08 PM on March 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


I can't stand back and do nothing because nothing is making them both sad.

There's only one small part of this situation that you have any control over whatsoever: when your partner is acting miserably towards you, you tell him to knock it off or you leave for the day. You have no control over your partner's feelings or action, and no control over your FILs feelings or actions. I'm guessing that your partner is a chronic worrier, yes? Not just about his FIL? You have no control over that either.

You will be much, much happier when you give up control. It's good to feel empathy and compassion for your partner and his father, and if they ask you to do something specific to help, it is good of you to do it. But there is no "just marching in there," there is no "stop worrying about him." There is only "I'm sorry you're upset but you don't get to talk to me that way." Partner and FIL will have to make up their own minds about not being sad.

There have been many, many Days of Reckoning for a particular family member. None of the positive effects have lasted more than a month and most of the Reckoners barely speak to the Reckoned.
posted by desjardins at 7:20 PM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


« Older Are varicose veins a thing in the NBA, by any...   |   How can I avoid making an expensive phone call... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.