My parents are slobs and it's making me sick.
July 20, 2014 2:46 AM   Subscribe

I live about five hours away from my parents and visit them frequently. However, their house is so dusty and in such disrepair that the visits are exacting a toll. I have dust allergies that go berserk in their house, and my dust-free sleeping solution (air mattress) is starting to hurt my back. Whenever I try to raise these problems with them, I get a million reasons why nothing can be fixed, and often a giant guilt trip to boot. Not visiting: not an option. Inside: details to make Wilson Bentley proud.

How bad is it? The only spare mattresses are thirty years old and the two couches have never been cleaned. One is at least forty years old (forty years of dust!), and the other is so busted that a frat house wouldn't want it on their porch. (Until recently, they had a spare pillow that belonged to my uncle when he was a child. My uncle is 80.) Only one of the spare bedrooms has a fully functional door; that one is too cluttered to sleep in anyway. There are thick layers of dust--ropes of dust--on everything but the surfaces they use regularly, which are actually fine, as is their own bed. Some things look snowed on, the dust is so thick. They only recently replaced a broken dishwasher--after 12 years. They used to have a stove that would electrocute you if you weren't careful. The cat peed in one of the bedrooms--on a carpet already black with dirt--and they haven't done anything about it.

I've done my best to mitigate the situation:

-I take Claritin for the allergies, something I only occasionally need in my regular life. If I don't take it every day while I visit, I get a weepy rash on my face and flu-like symptoms.

-I don't sleep on their beds or couches. Even with the Claritin, I still have to be careful. So I sleep on an air mattress and insist on a new pillow. But now the air mattress is starting to hurt my back.

-Sometimes I stay with a friend. It's seriously inconvenient, as all my friends here live downtown (DC) and my parents live in a suburb. I live in New York, so I don't own a car. Any car I could borrow is manual transmission, which I have learned to drive with only mixed success. I could bring a bike and combine it with Metro. But no matter how you slice it, staying in DC makes a short visit even shorter. Since I visit once a month, I can't really afford a hotel and rental car.

Not visiting is not an option. My dad has terminal cancer, so I need to visit, frequently, while I still can. My parents don't visit me: traveling is difficult for them, and even when it wasn't, they rarely wanted to leave town or even the house.

For over a decade, I've tried and tried to get them to clean and repair the house. They are both still working, they live in a nice suburb, and their finances are solid. They can afford to replace furniture, hire help, and so on. And my mother is a teacher, so she has time for summer projects. But they just...won't.

Raising the matter with them doesn't help: I just get a million excuses and a guilt trip for being so demanding. Perhaps also mockery for preferring New York to DC. (I know I'm not being a prima donna. Their friends don't like to stay with them either and are mostly too polite to say so.)

Reason, like the suggestion that neglect will cost more in the long run, doesn't help. Only utter disaster--flood, sewage backup--prompts any change, and then only the minimum.

Bargains (ie, I'll paint the room if you clear it) don't help, as they utterly refuse.

Constructive suggestions don't help. Hire a cleaning service? No, they did that one time and the cleaning lady refused to come back because the house is so uncleanable. Hire a packing or organizing service to clear stuff out so they can redo some rooms? No, because once they did that during a move and it was a disaster, couldn't find anything for ages. Hire one of my friends to help? No, she used to be late for everything when we were in high school. Etcetera. Offering to buy new furniture doesn't help, as there's nowhere to put it and they are reluctant to throw things out. (Those were good, expensive mattresses!)

Even helping doesn't help. I tackle cleaning projects every so often, but there's only so much I can accomplish in my short visits, and my help doesn't seem to spur them to action.

I try to be cheerful during these visits, but I'm exhausted and resentful. My schedule is already overloaded with a full-time job plus freelance contracts (abundance of riches meets bad timing, can't back out of anything, but that's another story), so the time for these visits is hard to spare. Sleeping on an air mattress in a room with no privacy is uncomfortable. The dust is impossible. You know that thing young people do where they visit their parents to get a little TLC and the comforts of home? My visits are the opposite of that. My parents won't meet me halfway, or even a quarter of the way. My brothers won't back me up--one lives here and doesn't mind the filth, and the other lives nearby with his fiancee and deals by ignoring the situation and leaving all his stuff here.

How can I get my parents to clean and fix their house? (...short of arson?) Failing that, how can I survive the situation? MeFi, do you have any suggestions? Any at all?!
posted by the_blizz to Human Relations (44 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Can you stay with your brother who lives nearby, and visit your folks during the day?
posted by mollymayhem at 2:58 AM on July 20, 2014 [14 favorites]

I'm so sorry to hear about your parents' house. I think the best answers you'll get here will have more to do with accepting the situation rather than any ways to get your parents to clean their house. I don't think that's going to happen, and that does suck.

This may not be a good option for you, but - a tent in the backyard? It sounds like the combined dust and mold and filth inside are a serious health problem for you.

Have you seen any episodes of Hoarders (the A&E one)? Your parents may not have any hoarding issues but a ton of the episodes feature people whose homes are in the same state as you describe your parents'. The show has been criticized but it may help to see other people going through the same thing (trying to help loved ones and being frustrated, offering to help but being rejected). Books or articles written by therapists or psychologists aimed at relatives of hoarders may be of some help to you as well.

Best of luck. It sounds like you've got your priorities straight, which is visiting your father as much as you can. I wouldn't be too stubborn about the house right now (it's very, very unlikely to change and I wouldn't want my last conversations with my dad to be full of frustration and resentment).
posted by amicamentis at 3:08 AM on July 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

Your parents are grown adults who have made a decision to live in a given fashion within their living space. Part of being an adult is having the agency to make such a decision and live by it. It sounds like you've tried a lot of ways to try to change things and they've been completely resistant. It seems like they're OK with the status quo. If their child's health is not more important to them than tidying, then you're very likely out of bargaining chips.

It seems like all you can do it take care of yourself. If that means going in there wearing some kind of face mask that cuts down on the dust, so be it. If they're well-enough off, could they buy you a mattress and pillow of your own that you could store under cover while you're not there?
posted by Solomon at 3:13 AM on July 20, 2014 [8 favorites]

You say you can't afford a hotel but you really should try to find that money, if the situation is as stressful for you as you say. Perhaps not every time but every other time?

If you only visit once a month, staying in their house every other month, that means one/two nights on the air mattress out of every 60 or so.

You can't change them. So you have three options - accept the status quo, throw money at the problem by sleeping elsewhere, or you stop visiting. As you've ruled out the latter you're stuck with options 1 and 2.
posted by koahiatamadl at 3:18 AM on July 20, 2014 [6 favorites]

Presumably at some point your Dad's illness will get to the point where the state of the house makes his staying there difficult or impossible also. What will happen then?

In the meanwhile, I don't know whether bring-your-own allergy proof bedding might help.
posted by emilyw at 3:20 AM on July 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also: an AirBNB close by may be cheaper than a hotel for you.
posted by amicamentis at 3:21 AM on July 20, 2014 [6 favorites]

Best answer: It sounds to me like this is a more psychological issue than anything else. Unless your parents can unwrap the issues that are keeping them from making their home livable they're just going to continue ignoring, rejecting, and blocking the problem whenever and however you bring it up. And I really don't think, in this particular case, it's your place to get your parents into therapy - you might, perhaps, mention the idea, but beyond that it sounds like they're not going to be amenable.

Anyway, you shouldn't sleep there. It sounds like it's truly ruining your health. You're an adult, and I know guilt is strongly manipulative, but you've got to fight it. "weepy rash"? Not okay. Do what you have to to be healthy. Honestly you might try to spend as little time in their house as possible. Do they have a yard? Get comfortable lawn furniture off of craigslist or something and tiki torches and talk outside.

-Can you stay with your brother?
-Have you looked into AirBnB (and similar) options nearby (even maybe in the same suburb)?
-Since your parents seem to have money, have you asked them to help you out by renting a car so you can stay with your other friends?
-Have you looked into the cost of doing something like Zipcar for the Metro area?
-Do your parents have friends or neighbors who know about the state of their house, live nearby, and would be happy for you to stay with them in exchange for something like chores or cooking or evening kid-watching (or maybe just as a favor to your father)?

I'm sorry you have to deal with any part of this.
posted by Mizu at 3:33 AM on July 20, 2014 [7 favorites]

Your parents are making a choice. You've made it clear to them that the situation at their home makes it intolerable for you to visit, yet they choose to do nothing to change that.

Adding to that, your actions speak louder than your words.... You tell them it is intolerable, but you continue to visit on a very regular basis. In addition, they have no true motivation to change if they can put up with your constantly telling them the house is too dirty...which evidently they've become very good at doing.

Your parents are still working, and if they are living in a suburban area, I suspect they have a car (or, if not, could afford a cab). Let them know that you will be staying in a hotel from this point forward and they will need to come and visit you at the hotel if they want to see you. It would be reasonable to tell them that, due to the cost, you won't be able to visit as often.

Sadly, they are choosing this outcome.
posted by HuronBob at 3:38 AM on July 20, 2014 [17 favorites]

You can't fix them. They're grown ups, it's their responsibility. But you can fix enough space to sleep, if going elsewhere is absolutely not an option. A good air filter and good bedding and one pass with a vacuum cleaner and a couple dust rags and you would be shocked how much easier it is to sleep. My mom wasn't that untidy but for a long time she lived in a century home that was in a constant state of sort-of-renovation, with mostly ancient carpets and crumbling plaster and yeah. A dustmite-proof cover on mattresses and pillows, clean bedding, air filter going, you'll at least have a refuge there. Memory foam pad on the mattress if it's uncomfortable at this stage, which I imagine it must be.

So, then, you just need a room to do that, which means either you arrange personally to fix the broken door, or you arrange personally to move the crap out of the room that has a working door--the former's probably simpler. If necessary, two things: one, you can rig a door latch by having a loop of string around the outside knob and then pulling it inside to hook around a thumbtack stuck in the doorframe. (With a longer loop, my family uses this trick to hold doors partway open to prevent dogs from getting into rooms with catboxes.) Or, two, you can take the door down entirely and mount a tension rod with an opaque curtain.

Yes, they're all kind of shabby options, and you shouldn't have to do all this, but it is stuff that's doable with just a couple errands--or, for example, with Amazon stuff shipped to their house in your name before you get there if just getting a car to go to Target is difficult. You're not doing any of this for them, because their mess is their responsibility. You're allowed to do it for you.
posted by Sequence at 3:58 AM on July 20, 2014 [10 favorites]

Best answer: I agree that based on your description, changing them is not going to happen. I also agree that finding a place outside their home to stay during your monthly visits is super important.

Not visiting is not an option. My dad has terminal cancer, so I need to visit, frequently, while I still can.

You need to get in touch with whatever non-profit hospices are near your parents, explain your situation, and ask about their resources for family members. Even if they do not have a specific place for you to stay, they may be able to connect you with others who will, or with transportation or other support.

Hospice is not just for those on the brink of death, but for anyone with a life-limiting illness, which your dad has. Part of that is giving support to the family of the ill person. It sounds like this travel is running you ragged. Please seek support.

In addition to contacting hospices to see what they can offer, and regardless of your religious affiliation, I suggest you look for monasteries and convents in the area that are welcoming to guests. These types of institutions often have space set aside for guests, and may be cheaper than a hotel, or they may consider hosting persons such as yourself to be part of their mission.

how can I survive the situation?

Please seek support from people who have made it their responsibility to support those in need. If you don't know where to start, find the hospital nearest to your parents that has an oncology service (so you know they treat patients with cancer, not to actually interact with those physicians) and see what resources they suggest for families of terminally ill patients.
posted by ocherdraco at 4:30 AM on July 20, 2014 [20 favorites]

They refuse to pay for a cleaner to come in... but what if you offered to pay for one? I would think you could find a cleaner who will just dust the place, at the very least, without making a huge scene about how filthy it is. There must be cleaners who are prepared for situations like that, and understand that cleaning some is better than not cleaning at all.

I wonder if you could persuade your folks to clean ONE room, so you'll have a place to stay. You can make it clear to them that the dust is an actual health issue, and you want to keep visiting so you'll need some part of the house where you can breathe. Cleaning one room isn't the end of the world! I'm a HUGE slob, with hoarder tendencies, and even I wouldn't balk at a suggestion like that.

Who knows, if you can get one room looking OK, maybe that will even get them to take another look at the rest of the house!

Have you pointed out to your dad that living surrounded by dust and crud isn't going to do his health any favors? I know his situation is terminal, but if his immune system is in the crapper it could shorten the time he has left. Maybe they would just see that as more nagging, but it's worth mentioning.

Finally: my girlfriend is kind of crazy about this leaf blower thing she bought at Target for like 30 bucks, a while back. She opens all the windows and doors, fires it up inside the house, and in like 45 seconds flat she blows out all manner of crud. Something to consider?

You're a good and patient kid, and your parents are lucky to have ya. Be strong.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 4:39 AM on July 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

Step one: Accept this about your parents. Let it go. Honestly if your dad has terminal cancer do you want him spending his last days cleaning dust and repairing doors. Or is that precious time better spent on other things? So let it go and accept it. This will lesson your anxiety and theirs.

Step two: figure out how many rooms in the house you need to function while there. You need to sleep, you need to eat, you need to toilet, and you need to visit. So carve out those spaces (1 bedroom, 1 bathroom, kitchen, and place to visit. Set out making those areas clean and nice. Start with the sleeping area. Dust it and buy a new bed to sleep on. Just focus on the areas of the house that you need to function while there. Ignore the rest of the house.

I think I'd you carve out a functional area for yourself, it may work even if the rest of the house is a disaster.
posted by bananafish at 4:46 AM on July 20, 2014 [6 favorites]

They are hoarders. The support site and email group for Children of Hoarders is amazing. I think it would be very helpful for you.
posted by the young rope-rider at 5:08 AM on July 20, 2014 [7 favorites]

Also, you're not going to successfully clean or convince them to clean. It's just not going to happen. Not even a room for you. Not because you're not worth it (you very much are) but because they are mentally unwell and it feels impossible and viscerally threatening to them. That's why they're jerks in response, not because you're doing anything wrong.

Consider your father's health and comfort. Is this a situation where Adult Protective Services is necessary?
posted by the young rope-rider at 5:12 AM on July 20, 2014 [12 favorites]

You can't change them, so you'll have to change. My suggestion is to visit half as often, and to use the money you'd save for a motel and the cheapest rental car you can find while you visit.

It's hard to make these decisions for yourself because as much as you love your family and want to be with them during a family crisis, they're actually preventing you from being able to do that.

I'd set a boundary. "Mom and Dad, I love you and I want to spend as much time as possible with you. The state of your home is unbearable for me, the dirt and dust cause me incredible distress both mentally and physically. You have decided to live like this and while I think that this is a problem for a whole host of other reasons, I can't make adults do anything. In the past I could afford to visit more frequently only if I could avoid the costs of a car and hotel, but now, my health dictates that when visiting you, I have to rent a car and get a hotel room, therefore I can't afford to come as often. I hate that it comes down to money, but it does. I can't stay with you, it's not possible. Now if you want to help me out by renting a car and a hotel for me, I'll be happy to visit more frequently."

You say it's not negotiable, but it's really your only option. In fact, your intractability on this issue is the exact same level of stubbornness as they exhibit in refusing to clean.

This is hoarding and it's a real mental illness that's exacerbating the entire situation. Let's face facts, how is your mother going to manage this house once your father is gone? Your brother isn't much help.

If you want to force the issue, call APS and the town to say that the building isn't up to code and to have it inspected. Often these situations come to a head only when the roof caves in, or the septic system backs up or the place becomes overrun with vermin.

You can't make them change, clearly they haven't in all of these years. You can only change how you react.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:32 AM on July 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

If you want to force the issue, call APS and the town to say that the building isn't up to code and to have it inspected. Often these situations come to a head only when the roof caves in, or the septic system backs up or the place becomes overrun with vermin.

Do not do this. Your father is dying of cancer, do not choose now to call the freaking authorities on him. Christ.

My parents (well, my dad is the hoarder, but my mom - now deceased- succumbed to it and to the lack of cleanliness) were like this, except that they always had cleaners come once a week to clean the surface dirt as well as possible. Nevertheless, the clutter is absolutely overwhelming. I honestly think my dad has no idea how bad his house is compared to the average person. At any rate, there is no point trying to get him to throw things out. He will either get angry or throw out three things and seem to think that's a lot.

Your best bet is to either clean one bedroom there and stay in it as much as possible when you're in the house, or stay in a hotel or with your brother.

Do not expect that cleaning that one room will either inspire them to clean more or keep them from piling new shit in that room. It will be a constant process.

Like many mental health issues, they have to want to change and they see no reason to. Remembering that it's a mental health issue may make it easier to not take it personally that they seemingly don't care about your health. You're not going to be able to reason with them so don't waste your time.
posted by amro at 5:49 AM on July 20, 2014 [10 favorites]

Do not do this. Your father is dying of cancer, do not choose now to call the freaking authorities on him. Christ.

I wasn't suggesting that you do this, I was illustrating the point that it would have to come to that sort of thing before your parents will do anything.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:57 AM on July 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Mom, Dad, I want to continue to visit you and stay in your house but my allergies act up too much. Could we re-do a room just for me and make it allergy free with new paint, flooring, bedding, and an air filter? Or could you help pay for a hotel room for me? I would rather be in the house with you but my doctor says that I cannot continue to compromise my health like this.

If they say so much as a maybe, jump up and start clearing the room that you want. Have a carpet ripper with you (and face masks). Get it all done as quickly as possible. Sometimes just one nice room can inspire the rest of the house.

If that doesn't work, just go in every time and clean as much as you can, against their wishes. Bring friends in to help. Be pushy, make them mad.

I had a similar situation with my parents' house on a lesser degree. My dad was slowly dying for several years. Near the end, he shouldn't have been burdened with simple problems like should a broken light get fixed and how but, my mom refused to think on her own and let him live in a dark room for the last year of his life. I feel bad about that. Once he died, she went through and fixed everything, which made me feel angry because she should have done it while he was still here to enjoy it. Be pushy, open your mouth, scream if you have to. They are your parents and they have to put up with you, but, you don't have to sleep in their filth.
posted by myselfasme at 6:09 AM on July 20, 2014 [5 favorites]

People are suggesting that you do the cleaning yourself. My husband has pretty bad dust allergies and I know that while we were moving and a lot of dust got kicked up, I had to kick him out of the apartment while I did the cleaning or he would spend the next couple of days wheezing. If you do choose to clean, use a dust mask, a cheap tyvek suit (can be found at Home Depot or another hardware store) and either latex or nitrile gloves. Do not expect to be able to be in the house the day after you do the cleaning. Dust takes a while to settle down.

While they're reluctant to hire anyone or to let you hire anyone, would they be okay with you showing up with your friend (who you can pay for this without your parents knowledge, if necessary) and just starting to clean? This way it wouldn't be scheduling an appointment or having a cleaner, it would just be the two of you spending a few hours. By yourself you may not be able to make appreciable progress, but with an additional pair of hands, it might make an actual dent in the dust. This could also be a way of just getting your friend into the house - sometimes it is just a matter of getting your friend in the door.

Investigate a different air mattress. I don't remember the brand we have now for guests, but it is quite firm and stays that way all night.

The only other suggestion I can think of is introducing your parents (mainly your mother since your father is likely not capable of this at this point) to Fly Lady. Which is a bit hokey, but the ideas are good

Good luck. This sounds like a really difficult situation where your torn between your love for your parents and their home which makes you ill. I hope you're able to find a good solution.
posted by sciencegeek at 6:16 AM on July 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

My dad's house is a similar situation for me. He doesn't have an ac in humid Indiana so the mold is just awful, and he fills his house with fifty year old dusty furniture too. Also, he has a dusty smokey wood stove. I get sick stepping into the place. However, short of replacing all of the furniture and doing some in depth overhauls on his house, I'm not sure there's a ton he could do, and I suspect your parents place might be the same. So accept that that is a possibility. At some point, cleaning alone isn't going to cut it.

I once went to the doctor and explained the situation and he gave me super intense rx allergy meds, so there's that. Meds like claritin work better if you start taking them a few days before you are exposed to the allergen.

I like the idea of staking out a room, tearing up the carpet, putting a allergy case on the bed, and putting some air filters in. Bring your own bedding or ask your parents to launder some right before you get there. Put a HEPA filter in it. If you can't get the whole room, at least get a bed encasement and a HEPA filter.

I used to sleep on a mattress on the porch in good weather, so there's always that... It's a tough situation, but I don't know that you're going to be able to get them to radically change their ways, especially when your dad is sick.
posted by geegollygosh at 6:53 AM on July 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

BTW, if money isn't a huge object, I'd try to get professionals in to redo the room, at least for things like tearing up carpeting that will stir up lots of dust. Usually I'm all about diy, but it will make you super sick, your dad is sick, and your mom no doubt has enough to deal with right now.
posted by geegollygosh at 7:03 AM on July 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ask if, since you are visiting so often, you can have a bedroom. Don't make it about the mess, make it about how you would like to have your own space where you could store a few personal items so you don't have to lug them back and forth on a plane/train and so you could feel somewhat at home. Maybe take the bedroom with the cat pee if you can, since that's possibly the one most in need of attention.

If they agree, do it over. Tell them that mattress hurts your back and you're getting too old to tolerate an air mattress. While the existing mattress is actually a very high-quality mattress, it's just not the right firmness for you. Sell the old mattress (by which I mean, get that mattress out of there and give your parents $50). It's a real shame to have to sell it, but really, it's not right for you. Take out the carpet (doesn't match the lovely new bedding that came with your new mattress). Paint (just to liven the place up a bit). Basically, make that one room look like the whole house should look. Frame this not as cleaning it but as making it your own. Remove all judgement from your discussion of this and your actions.

There is some small chance it will inspire them to move on the rest of the house (help them "sell" their old couches if they want to do that). It very well may not, but at least you'll have one room that can be a bit of a sanctuary for you.

Also, given that your father is ill and may be in need of home nursing, this may give you the an opening for doing something about whatever bedroom he sleeps in and maybe a living room. I had one sickly relative who needed home nursing care and it was important that the room in which that care was provided be near sterile. That meant, in that case, getting rid of all porous substances and making everything wipe-downable with lysol. All tile and hard surfaces. No textile no wood no plastics.

Obviously not do-able or desirable for a bedroom, but if you can frame this as: Look, having a sick person around just requires an insane level of cleanliness. It's unfortunate to have to get rid of such a lovely couch/bed/bedding but there's just no way to take something that's been used for this long and remove all the bacteria and flu virus embedded therein. It would be no big deal if everyone were healthy, but with a person who could become seriously ill from a minor infection, it's worth taking major precautions that really wouldn't be necessary otherwise. Again, frame this not as "your home is dirty and messy" but without judgement as "unfortunately the home needs to be different for reasons outside anyone's control." This may not fly, but if it does, you and your brother will have to do the facilitating to make this happen. It's not fair, but that's the reality. One maid left. There are others who won't.

The health angle on the bedroom/living room is probably a non-starter, but I think you'd probably have a solid chance of getting a room of your own. Beyond that, you just have to accept that that's the way they keep their home. Stay elsewhere if you really can't deal. Get a zipcar membership.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:15 AM on July 20, 2014 [5 favorites]

You can only change your approach; like others are saying, your parents aren't going to change.

This may sound harsh, but even with your dad's condition, this is a result of their choices. A consequences of one of these choices is that their loving and caring child cannot stay in the house as often as everyone would like, because the house's condition gives the kid unbearable allergies.

"Mom, Dad, I can't come see you this month. The thing is, I can't stay in the house for the reasons I've told you before, and I can't afford a hotel + taxi every month. But I can manage it every six weeks or every other month, so I'll see on on [date]."

It's not an ultimatum, but if I had a kid who said this to me, I'd get my shit together.

Also -- have you approached your brother about this issue? What are his thoughts? How often does he visit?
posted by mibo at 7:55 AM on July 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

Also, I realize this is far too confrontational to be a good idea, but: Your brother who leaves all his stuff in your parents' home where there's no room for it and it is making the situation worse? Rent a truck. Drop his stuff off on his lawn. Or, if you're feeling kinder and can find a way to have him billed for it, put it in a storage space. that I mention a storage space, could you and your brothers pay for a storage space for your parents? It would cost less than a DC hotel room and it would allow them to replace their furniture/stuff without feeling like they are wastefully throwing things out. Once it's been out of the house for a while they might be more receptive to getting rid of it. Especially if they've been living in a nicer setting for a while, taking them to visit their old stuff might make the contrast clear. If the stuff was nice/good when they got it, they might just not really see how ratty it's gotten (Frog in the boiling water and all).

Final question: Has it always been thus? That is, when you were a kid and the stuff was newer and your parents were in better shape, was your home a mess and dirty? If so, they it will probably be so again -- even if you clean and replace everything-- unless you and your brothers somehow make yourselves responsible for regular cleaning. If not -- if it was under control when you were a kid -- then a big reboot might be maintainable by them.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:21 AM on July 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Tell them how much you love them, that you want to keep visiting often, but the dust is really a problem. Ask them for help finding a solution. Could they clear a space in a bedroom - you could pay for a cleaner for that room. Could you get a mattress at Ikea (affordable) to replace the old one? Allow them to find or participate the solution, if possible. Maybe they'd pay for a hotel every other visit. Maybe they know someone with a camper you could borrow.

I'm so sorry your father is ill, and that your parents are in such a (literal) mess. This clearly causes you a great deal of frustration, even resentment, at a difficult time. Can you find a way to de-stress after your visits? Maybe spend a few minutes giving yourself credit for visiting, appreciating your parents' positive qualities, maybe meditating.
posted by theora55 at 8:28 AM on July 20, 2014

A hotel room nearby seems like the right answer. Their house is the way they like it and their other kids don't seem to mind. Getting the house into a condition where you can stay there without getting a weepy rash, ew, is a serious undertaking, keeping it in that condition even more so; the relevant expenditure isn't money, but time and attention, both of which, if they were in short supply before, even more so now that your dad is sick.

Paying for a hotel room, on the other hand, is really one of those things that requires a couple of hundred bucks and nothing else. That's what they should do. They can pay your cab fare from the hotel to their house, too. If they could afford the kind of serious cleaning and maintenance it would require to make their house livable for you, they can afford this.
posted by escabeche at 8:33 AM on July 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't know if I recommend that you take the lead and clean/declutter your parents' place yourself, if all this is the result of a psychological issue that will only come back to "fill in" the clear spaces with more dust and clutter. Cleaning the house would be a bandaid right now; a pill to treat the symptoms until the pill wears off. It doesn't treat the cause of the symptoms, however.

Others are correct to point out that your parents are adults and their habits are their habits. THEY have to want to change. I think tough love is the only way to help them here. Echoing another commenter, I'd tell them you just can't visit them anymore or as much because the dust aggravates your allergies and the clutter makes it even more miserable, and that you can't afford the cost of a hotel. Once they realize you're serious, that may set in place the motion (or motivation) needed for them to want to change their habits.

At that point, if they acknowledge wanting to change their habits and need the help, I'd definitely still offer to help.

If this doesn't work, well, I'm not sure what else to tell you. Getting your brother's stuff moved out and cleaning out a single room for yourself, as others above suggested, may be the next best option. But rewarding the clutter and the lack of cleanliness will never convince them that their living space needs a change.
posted by nightrecordings at 8:36 AM on July 20, 2014

Before I read to the end of your question, I was saying "arson" out loud. With that off the table, however, this is what I would do.

Go to your doctor. An allergist if possible, but a GP if you can't. Get tested for dust allergies. Show the doc pictures of the house. (Don't tell your parents about the pictures, probably, but maybe if you have to...depends on them.)

Have the doctor write a letter. Maybe addressed to them, maybe To Whom it May Concern. The letter should explain the serious health consequences of you sleeping in, or cleaning up, a space in this state. Have the letter FORBID you to sleep there. (Also get a prescription for high octane allergy meds for when you're there during waking hours.)

Take the letter to your mom. Tell her that, during your dad's illness you want to be with them as much as possible, but that you need a seperate place to stay. Ask for her to commit to $$ for your hotel stays.

You're basically taking the decision out of your authority and placing it on a doctor. I had to do this kind of responsibility shuffle to get my grandfather to attend to things that he didn't care to listen to me about. It worked quite well once I found the right authority to tell him "hey, this needs to stop happening."

I wouldn't take the 'clean one area' approach. The filter system in their house is probably years past overwhelmed and whatever labor you put in would be painfully short lived.

I'm so sorry all this is happening. Best of luck to you, and hugs.
posted by The Noble Goofy Elk at 8:57 AM on July 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

Adult Protective Services isn't the authorities who haul you to dirty jail. He's very sick and needs to live in a healthy environment. If mental illness is making that impossible, especially if your mother is the one driving the hoarding and your father is an enabler, APS is a perfectly reasonable approach.

Many suggestions here are well-meaning but woefully misguided. There is little to nothing you can do if they're determined to hoard themselves to misery. It's like alcoholism: you are not responsible and you can't fix it. It is an illness, yes, but it's not something you, their daughter, can treat or control.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:08 AM on July 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is a totally out-of-left-field idea but I'm going to put it out there anyway. Rent a small RV ("Class B" or "Truck camper" are your keywords here) and park it in your parents' driveway (or at a nearby campground). This might be cheaper than a hotel + rental car. I don't know how much the train costs you, but it might be cheaper to rent one in NYC and drive to DC. They are all automatic transmission and a small one will drive like a van. Plus it's your own private, absolutely clean space.
posted by desjardins at 9:42 AM on July 20, 2014 [5 favorites]

I am hesitant to see success for asking them to clean out a room. You have very reasonable and realistic intentions that shouldn't cause them any upheaval, but that's how they will see it: an invasion of their privacy -- their CONTROL -- at a time they need to keep their control the most.

How do I know this? I am expecting my parents' first and possibly only grandchild in three weeks, and my mom refuses to move anything around to create a corner where the baby can be. She won't move the set of dog-training DVDs off of the dresser in the bathroom to make a space for changing. (THEY HAVE NEVER HAD A DOG.)

So I vote CouchSurfing, or perhaps figuring out some sort of continuous arrangement with a kind family friend or Craigslist person or MeFite or whatever where perhaps you could go back to the same place every month. Neither party in this situation needs the aggravation, even though it is abundantly clear that your parents must change. They are facing what has to be the worst bout of change in their lives, and I'm sure they will do anything to resist more.
posted by Madamina at 9:54 AM on July 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: When I told my doctor that Claritin was wearing off before its 24 hours were up, he suggested taking Zyrtec as well. You can't take Claritin twice a day, but Zyrtec is a different drug and the two don't interfere with each other. (You could take them at the same time if that works better for you.) Also, it might help to start taking an antihistamine a day before you go. For me, they seem to have a hard time "catching up" if I wait till an allergic reaction has begun.
posted by wryly at 10:19 AM on July 20, 2014

Hotel or Air BnB. Don't stay there.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:22 AM on July 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hire a cleaning service? No, they did that one time and the cleaning lady refused to come back because the house is so uncleanable. Hire a packing or organizing service to clear stuff out so they can redo some rooms? No, because once they did that during a move and it was a disaster, couldn't find anything for ages. Hire one of my friends to help? No, she used to be late for everything when we were in high school. Etcetera.

So, actually, your parents were open to changes, it's just that that neither they nor the people you've found have been equipped to enact them.

Your dad's really sick. This is a health issue.

I completely understand (believe me, I do) how monumental and overwhelming the task is. It's not something you can approach on your own, practically or psychologically. Get help targeted to this situation. Not an ordinary cleaning service.

Also, your brothers -- they're not seeing it or feel powerless, in the same way you do. Kick them in the ass. Three of you showing up on a Saturday, with some help from people experienced with this level of disorder, who can guide you all, will feel different than just you staring it down with a dishrag in your hands, and your parents sitting there, watching you. It will feel and be more possible with a team.

It's not going to be perfect, and no it won't 'cure' their hoarding, and it will require regular upkeep that you'll have to think about, but it can be vastly improved.
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:19 AM on July 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Just a small tip -- you might want to look for cleaning services geared towards hoarders and who won't be intimidated by the mess. Here's a directory of some. I'm sure you could Google others.
posted by shivohum at 1:11 PM on July 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

You do you. They do them.

Claritin isn't the only antihistamine. Taking it episodically doesn't always work as well as a consistent daily dose. Talk to your allergist or pharmacist about daily versus exposure dosing. If you haven't tried the other second generation antihistamines, then you should to see if some work better for you. I take Zyrtec and beef it up with the occasional child dose of Benedryl if I'm exposed to something that really sets me off. You might skip the oral Benedryl dose and get the Bendryl cream to apply to the rash. A pharmacist can help you make the decision if you don't have a doctor to ask.

Based on your question the house is dusty, but neither of them has allergies. They have old furniture and clutter, but there isn't an issue of safe egress from the house. There is no part of your question where you say that they want to change. They only thing they seem to want is you to stop nagging them about their choices. Your brothers don't see this as a safety issue. If it's not safety, then you need to take care of you when you visit - zipcar, uber, airbnb, couch surf.

Your dad is dying. Letting go of him means letting go of the dream that they'd become the parents you've always wanted. (The whole TLC thing? That's your expectations talking.) I encourage you to seek help from a hospice organization. Many hospices have support groups for family members and I believe that would help you deal with this.
posted by 26.2 at 1:18 PM on July 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you have gotten some good advice. I just want you to know that you are not alone. My parents were living in near squalor for the last decade of their lives with some house neglect for a time before that. They passed away 2.5 years ago within weeks of each other due to different illnesses. I know what you must be going through.

Some things that came out of my experience (that may or may not be relevant to your experience):

1. My parents refused to change or clean up or move. The house was not healthy to be in and was probably contributing to their ill health. My brother and I tried keeping an eye on them from hours away. I think they thought it would be a waste of money!
2. I basically refused to let my kids sleep there and I only slept there when I had to. We got a cheap hotel nearby. The upside was that the kids loved the pool at the hotel!
3. All their precious belongings were so covered in mildew and mildew smell that many things were ruined. This included rare books, antique fixtures, ALL clothing and some furniture. The 'Gold Mine' that they thought they were sitting on was in such disrepair that the house needed gutting after their death with most contents going straight to the dump. If it wasn't made of ceramic or metal, it either got thrown away or is now kept in my basement because it can't be in a clean house!
4. The state of the house was a good indicator that both my parents were in really bad shape but that they were hiding just how bad from their children. Maybe they didn't want to burden us with helping out or something, but the result was when things got so bad that laundry wasn't getting done they both pretty much were near death. No one wants their parents to live like that. It may be that your parents are worse off than they are letting on....please check into that!
5. The end game was my brother getting my father into a dementia ward when my cancer-filled mom couldn't lift him anymore....followed by me getting my mom into a good hospice situation a few months later when she was near death with cancer and couldn't get off the floor. This was done with compassion, but was not really their decision.
6. The house had to be cleared out by professionals and the sale of what wasn't totally disgusting covered the costs of the garbage bins. We then sold the house during the estate phase of this mess for way less than my parents ever thought it was worth.

Your father has terminal cancer. It sounds like your mother can't deal with everything herself. They probably will not change until they are forced to. Things that helped me help them were:

1. Getting my mom a medical alert necklace that allowed her to call for help even when she couldn't get off the floor. Yep...the "I've fallen and I can't get up" kind.
2. Getting to know the neighbors so that they could help keep an eye on them.
3. Getting a set of keys in a security box in the yard. I eventually even told the neighbors where that was and what the code to get into it was. This saved having the fire fighters break down the door one time!
4. As I said before...sleeping elsewhere.
5. Please, please, please be sure their wills and in order, they have some sort of power of attorney set up for you or the most trusted child and that they have medical power of attorney set up. Mine had the wills and medical taken care of but not the bill-paying ability. It really sucks to not have those things in place when things start getting worse. And, if they really trust you, be sure they set up some money in an account a trusted child has access to. I was paying thousands of dollars of bills out of my own pocket near the end because the court system was moving too slow to set up the conservatorship we all wanted for my parents but the well-meaning court system was being careful about to make sure I wasn't some evil son trying to steal all their money. The day before my mom died...I had no ability to pay a bill. The day after my mom died, I was now a representative of the estate and could pay all bills. That was messed up and definitely hurt the mourning experience.
posted by BearClaw6 at 1:53 PM on July 20, 2014 [9 favorites]

You might find some of the answers from my previous question helpful. There were several good book recommendations.

I went home to visit recently, and sleeping in insane desert heat in a bed it turned out the cat had peed on while 6mo pregnant means it is pretty much the last time we are staying there - ever. I didn't notice the cat pee as the whole house smells like "cat" - my husband found the wet spot when he crawled into his side of the bed. The "clean" bed my mom keeps just for us... really, it was just as well since yes, my mom's house makes me sick too.

The point is, the house is so crazy she can't keep a room/bed/anything clean, even if she wants and is trying to. They are not going to significantly change until they decide they're ready, and in the meantime I put in a vote for airbnb or couchsurfing or fewer trips + hotel etc.

We spent the rest of our visit staying about 1mile away at my dad's (clean, air-conditioned) apartment. I got some snarky remarks, but I'm ignoring them until she's ready to actually talk about it like an adult. We get on fine when removed from the house situation - and luckily having her come visit me or meeting us somewhere is an option for now. However, we'll be in your situation as she ages and her health fails. Like Madamina's parents, not even the first grandchild is enough of a motivator to really clean - and my mom is so excited about the baby! And she watches Hoarders. And she's a psychologist of sorts.

I've been to therapy for this, and ultimately it came down to "she's an adult and you can't make other people change". Which I knew... but sigh...
posted by jrobin276 at 6:39 PM on July 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Drugs like Pepcid and Zantac are antihistamines, too, and may help.
posted by persona au gratin at 3:34 AM on July 21, 2014

The home belongs to your parents and, unless you know differently, they're comfortable in it the way it is. They have a lot to deal with right now and are doing the best they can. If you're uncomfortable because of the dust and mess, you need to either clean it up somehow or rent a motel room elsewhere for your visits. I would guess they probably won't appreciate your taking over the house with a cleaning crew or smuggling in someone as a friend who's a cleaning whiz since these ideas represent obvious criticism of their way of life when they're already dealing with terminal illness - which is enough by itself.

Bottom line is they're okay with the house, you're not; therefore, you need to either do the cleaning yourself, and cheerfully as opposed to critically, or find another place to stay, which is the only good answer.

I'm sorry about your father and I hope you can find a way to manage this problem, both for your own health and for that of your parents. Good luck to you.
posted by aryma at 3:34 AM on July 21, 2014

It sounds like money is an issue, or you'd already be staying in hotels. And cleaning costs money too (and energy! and stress!) so I would recommend against it. It's a fruitless battle. (even if you did clean out one room, all the dust in the air would still make your allergies freak out).

Find a way to stay elsewhere that you can afford. Which may mean not seeing them as often. I would second the commenter upthread who told you to call around for low-cost options. If you have a church, and there is a same-denomination branch in their town, they might help you. Maybe a hostel, or a neighbor, a family friend. But stop sleeping in their house. It is making you sick. Just take that off the table as an option; you'd rather sleep in a car, or on the train home, or Skype or call instead. If they guilt you, guilt them right back. "My doctor says I have to stop exposing myself to things that trigger my allergies, Mom. I can't do anything about it." Treat your health as just as important as their right to live however they please.

For the record, I have a dear, dear friend who is a wonderful person but lives in horrible filth. I stayed with her once, and it was literally like sleeping in a dog-bed. There was mold, there was animal poop, there were smells. I was horrified and didn't hide it; she was offended but got over it. We are still friends, but I absolutely will not ever sleep in her house again. It's her right to live that way, but I don't subject myself to it, because I can't deal with it. And our friendship survives, which is the most important thing.
posted by emjaybee at 7:43 AM on July 21, 2014

Response by poster: Thank you for all the compassionate and helpful responses so far!

I had dismissed AirBNB because there weren't any good options when I checked two years ago...but AirBNB has exploded since then, and I see there are now some places near where they live. And I forgot about Zipcar.

Different antihistamines, good idea!

There are cleaning services that specialize in clutter and hoarding?!? Amazing. Speaking of hoarding, I thank those who brought it up, as it wouldn't have occurred to me. I wouldn't say my folks are quite that bad, but there are definitely some similar anxieties at play. Their house was not always a disaster, but they are easily overwhelmed and now it's out of control. They would very much like it to change but can't see how that will happen.

And finally, I had no idea that hospice and the like could be supportive to me, and right now. Thank you so much.
posted by the_blizz at 7:46 AM on July 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

Aside from hospice, you could see if there are any local resource groups for seniors or caregivers in the area. A family member of mine runs one, and one of the things they provide is cleaning services for seniors who are unable to clean their homes, and from what I've heard, they deal with some serious messes.

Your mom could likely benefit from caregiver support services as well.
posted by inertia at 10:58 AM on July 21, 2014

I second the rec for couch surfing - depending on your parents' location, there may be a bunch of couch surfers with potential places for you to stay for free, and there are a fair number of couch surfers who offer beds/bedrooms rather than couches (you can find this just by reviewing the profiles in the location you are searching). It also can be fun to get to know friendly people this way. It's not for everyone, but if you like that sort of thing, definitely check it out.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:42 PM on July 22, 2014

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