Sister says I need to come help retired parents clean out house
September 9, 2019 1:02 PM   Subscribe

Should I travel cross country to go help my sister help my parents clean out their house so they can sell and downgrade to a smaller house?

When my parents retired several years ago, their original plan was to sell their house and move to a smaller place. Unfortunately as time has passed they've kept putting it off. And the house has gotten more and more in disarray with closets and shelves filled with stuff that is decades old. Even worse there are piles of paper work and just "stuff" everywhere around the house. To top it off my mom is in the very early stages of memory issues. But she is still functional though my sister says she's not as functional as my mom makes us believe. My sister has started trying to help my parents go through their stuff in the hopes they will clean it out to sell. My sister believes that my parents have gotten to the point where they shouldn't be living in the house any more. She feels they need to get out of the house. But of course cleaning it out is a huge task. She doesn't think they can do it on their own.

I live on the other side of the country. I usually come out to visit once a year. And my family gets out to me usually once a year. I was actually back home about three months ago. During that time I did make an offering to help them start doing some cleaning out of the house but they declined.

As of late my sister has started to...somewhat aggressively...push me in to coming home for a bit...maybe a week here and help clean out the parent's house. I have a couple issues with this. First and foremost I think my parents are still very capable of doing it themselves. Second, when I was there recently and offered to help clean out stuff they declined. Third and most importantly I have my work, my wife, and pets here. Technically I can work while I travel but I can't do my work with the same level of efficiency while on the road.

I don't wanna be the terrible son or brother who doesn't help deal with the situation. Just some other sister is financially well off. I am not. Far from it. So there's only so much time I could take to come out and help and not work.

With this info...what if any advice would you give as far as making the decision to start coming home a few times to help my parents? Does it sound like the type of situation where I really need to get out there and help asap? I plan to go home again but not until sometime next year.
My sister seems to think I should come out over the next month or two. There are going to be other times down the road where I know I'll need to come home like when my parents are ill. Luckily they are relatively healthy right now. Any thoughts or advice here is appreciated.
posted by ljs30 to Human Relations (33 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I’m going to guess that your sister’s “somewhat aggressive” push for you to come and help is about more than just cleaning out the house. She probably shoulders the weight of the day to day responsibilities of caring for aging parents while you are mostly unaware of what actually this means since you are across the country. I’m talking about accompanying or scheduling medical appointments but also the intangible responsibilities like providing emotional support, IT support, organizing household repairs, etc. You say your sister suspects that your mother’s memory loss is worse than she lets on. That’s probably because her level of involvement in the day to day allows her to see it.

Maybe I’m wrong about all of the above. Maybe your sister is not involved to a significant degree in the lives of your aging parents. But I’d bet I’m pretty close to the truth. I say all this because I’m the sibling who is doing that daily, unrecognized work of helping care for aging parents while the other (loving but unaware) sibling only visits once a year.

So maybe think of a way you can offer support even if it is from a distance because you don’t want to spend that extra week of your year providing support in-person.
posted by teamnap at 1:15 PM on September 9, 2019 [127 favorites]

As a practical matter: more than anything, you guys need to feel like you're approaching this problem as a team. It is not going to get any better or easier. That means you need to cooperate and help each other now to build trust and mutual respect. That means--unless they specifically tell you not to come, unless they specifically tell you they won't let you help, because it sounds like they're still in a stage in which their autonomy remains paramount--get out there and pull your weight.

If no one has explained to you that caring for aging parents is painful and difficult and requires sacrifices from everyone (surely your sister also has work, spouse, or dependents to worry about), allow me to be the first. I won't go into the moral issues involved here because if you've reached this age without having them dawn upon you, Internet strangers pointing out the basics is unlikely to help.
posted by praemunire at 1:17 PM on September 9, 2019 [43 favorites]

In my experience, if your parents are inclined to put off the work of sorting through their possessions and taking real steps toward downsizing, they will continue to put it off until they're either forced to do something about it or until they're actually incapable of dealing with it, which will at worst involve a serious emergency and at best will be a huge sad pain in the ass for you to deal with.

Your sister is probably right that you and her are going to have to do the bulk of this work. I would work with her to come up with a plan that isn't going to be a financial burden to you, and which makes the best and most efficient use of your time. I would strongly recommend getting them moved into a new place now, while everyone is still basically healthy and capable. And it's only fair that you help your sister as you're able to.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 1:18 PM on September 9, 2019 [24 favorites]

Yes, you should, but you’re also right that the question is when should you go out there. You also would want to make sure your parents are okay with this approach. It’s not clear how much your parents know about your sister’s clean-out plan, or whether they would be upset or offended by the idea, or whether they are really ready to move (or whether they are at the point where this is going to be you and your sister’s choice).

If this is something you can talk about openly in the family without pissing anyone off, I would suggest raising this as a planned family event. “Hey Parents, Sister has been talking to me about helping clean out the house. I’m more than happy to help when you guys are ready to start working through it. I can take X days off work, so I’d plan to come out on a Tuesday and leave on a Sunday [or whatever]. Let’s tackle this as a family so it will go quicker. When is a good time that works for everyone?”
posted by sallybrown at 1:19 PM on September 9, 2019 [12 favorites]

I think some of the answers above are really harsh about your morals. It sounds as if your sister has a firm idea and you're not sure you agree with it. I don't think you're morally faulty just because your sister is asserting a plan now and you're not sure you want to do it. I would worry about coming across country for a week with all that entails (and yes, if you have the kind of job where taking a week off is significantly difficult to do, as many people do, you have to ration your time away; that is different practically from going over the weekend when you live nearby even if the latter is just as or more demanding and exhausting), struggling with your parents to let you and your sister sort through some things, and then if they don't want to move for a few years... what? The house gets totally filled up with clutter again? You need to be sure that your parents, to the extent that they have the capacity to do so, are on board with cleaning out and selling at this point, and as sallybrown says, you need to have a family plan to make this work for everyone, including you.
posted by nantucket at 1:25 PM on September 9, 2019 [18 favorites]

If you can be sure your parents are willing to downsize, then yes I think you need to help out with this. The reason so many older couples don't downsize is because the burden of decluttering is just too much for them to handle. It's mentally and physically exhausting to sort through a lifetime's worth of "stuff" and it's harder when it's your own stuff. I inherited my dad's bachelor apartment full of stuff and it filled a large truck, took me a lot of my time off to sort through and manage.

There are professional services that can do this too and I think you should consider that as well, it would be pricy but remove some of the burden from you and your sister, maybe you can contribute proportionately based on your incomes to a service together. Having someone able to appraise furniture and sell it for you, and remove obvious junk would be a big help. Better to reduce it while there's less time pressure on you and your sister.
posted by lafemma at 1:38 PM on September 9, 2019 [5 favorites]

Make sure you don't go out there only to find that your parents refuse to actually _do_ anything or to part with any of their stuff.

I wonder, too, if part of what your sister wants is a second person helping her convince them of what to do.
posted by amtho at 1:45 PM on September 9, 2019 [18 favorites]

I agree that some of the answers here are harsh. You're not saying you're not willing to help.

My concern is whether your sister is actually going to be able to do the cleaning out when she says she will. We had issues like that with an elderly person. One family member would claim that person had agreed to something, when she hadn't agreed at all. What you don't want to do is end up going out and having your parents refuse to have more than a few things cleaned out of the house. So I would suggest trying to find out whether your sister has actually been able to get them to agree to the kind of downsizing that would enable you to make significant progress if you went out.

"Well off" is a relative term. Is she well off enough to help you with the financial hit?
posted by FencingGal at 1:45 PM on September 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

For (less than?) the cost of you flying back there, you may be able to hire a professional organizer who can go in place of you to assist with the process. They may be even more effective (than your presence), as they can serve as a motivator. I know you don't really have the extra money, but if you'd find the money to fly there, you could find it for hiring a professional.

A lot of your sister's angst may be that the emotional labor is getting to be too much for her. Maybe you can help research places for your parents to move to. Research and make phone calls to do some of the time- and energy-consuming things that your sister is probably feeling is all on her right now. (Don't wait for her to ask for help. Come up with ideas and volunteer to do x, y, and z. That takes a lot of effort.)

But you definitely need to suss out whether this is something sis has dreamt up on her own, or if your parents are really on board. It sounds like it could be a big waste of everyone's time, unfortunately. Perhaps part of your support from afar can be to work on your parents, getting them to see the upsides to this process.
posted by hydra77 at 1:48 PM on September 9, 2019 [32 favorites]

I'm going to agree with your sister's assessment that if your parents could have cleaned out the house by themselves, they would have done so already. So I would leave that part out of the discussion already. They clearly need help, that much is obvious.

That said, in my experience of watching my parents and their peers support their aging parents, once someone can no longer live safely in their own home, the first priority is always getting them into assisted living or a senior community or whatever they need to be safe and looked after, and I would think this goes double for someone with memory loss. They pack the essentials and whatever else they need to be comfortable in their new space, and the purging and cleaning and selling of the house only happens after they are settled. I do think cleaning out the house now while they are still living in it would be completely futile, yes.

I definitely wouldn't fly out there for an open-ended week where you have no plan except to "start" cleaning out the house or looking through closets or papers whatever, but rather after you've discussed with your sister and family and have come up with a timeframe and a plan for what exactly will be accomplished while you are there.

Good luck. This stuff is very hard and sad.
posted by anderjen at 1:49 PM on September 9, 2019 [21 favorites]

The sooner this is done, the better, as accomplishing it after a fall, a stroke, pronounced dementia etc will be so much harder.

Your parents are probably struggling with this because it represents a big shift in their identities, and independence - however necessary. But if memory issues are coming into play, do it as soon as you can because changing routine and setting can be very upsetting for people with dementia.
posted by smoke at 2:05 PM on September 9, 2019 [8 favorites]

Yeah, you do need to help; but you and your sister and your parents need to first have a plan. Nothing you posted sounds like a plan.

I'd say to your sister "I'm in, but let's plan a strategy." That strategy should cover things like

1. What's the goal? Is the goal to get the house to sellable shape? Do they really need to sell it before they move? Because it will be about 100x easier to do purging after they're out, if that's an option.

2. If the goal is to get rid of the excess so that what's left can be put into storage while the house is staged, is everyone on board with that, or do your parents need convincing? What if they don't agree?

3. What role does she expect you to have? It's very different if she wants you there to, say, physically help with sorting or packing; vs in an emotional support role for her; vs. in a role where you guys team up to convince your folks it's time to throw away their stuff...

By the way, let go of saying "you had your chance when I was out there." This kind of project takes a ton of emotional preparation, and if that wasn't the purpose of your planned time together, nobody can have been expected to turn around on a dime and do it just because you were there.

Good luck, this stuff is super hard.
posted by fingersandtoes at 2:29 PM on September 9, 2019 [40 favorites]

what if any advice would you give as far as making the decision to start coming home a few times to help my parents? Does it sound like the type of situation where I really need to get out there and help asap? I plan to go home again but not until sometime next year.
My sister seems to think I should come out over the next month or two.

This is messy and really depends on a few things. I have no real answers, but I did have a mother who was slow-motion cleaning up her house before she died a few years ago. There were a zillion opportunities to help, some of which I showed up for, but it was a sort of disorganized non-plan of a situation complete with a sister who I adore but wasn't really up for the task either. So a few lessons/questions that might help you think through this

- Did you move away because this family is, in some ways, not aligned with your values? I know I did and it was hard. I had to make some choices about how much I wanted to get back into it with them. My family was neglectful (tho not abusive) and I had to think long and hard about how much it was appropriate for me to then show up to help them deal with their problems when they were very much not there for me.
- Do your parents want help and are they prepared to do the hard work this will take? Can you talk to your dad maybe and see what, specifically he'd like help with?
- These projects can expand to fill all the available time, particularly with people who aren't disorganized (I love my sister but she and I working together are maybe 25% as effective as me working on my won, partly because we have fun together but partly because she doesn't work as hard as me and it's more fun to hang out than do hard tasks). Having very concrete goals for your visits is a necessary part of any trip you'd make
- Agree entirely with an organizer who could either meet you there and help you and your sister do some of this work and then you could check in and maybe help organize the order of operations without being there
- Agree about looking into the emotional labor your sister is doing. Obviously she is nearby but also women have a tendency to shoulder more of this burden with aging parents. Are you doing your part? Is there a way to contribute from a distance? Is there a reason you shouldn't?

On preview fingersandtoes has some really good steps to take above. "I'm in but there needs to be a plan" is reasonable. Having aging parents is hard when you live far away and you should think also bigger-picture about what that will look like for you and your wife. I do hear a lot of "Hey I have stuff going on here that are hard to leave" which I hear and I know feels very real to you, but also a little it sounds like "I don't want to" which is OK, you don't have to want to, but you should think of what that means for the work that needs to be done, at some time, by someone.
posted by jessamyn at 2:35 PM on September 9, 2019 [14 favorites]

My own brother recently announced that he's moving closer to my parent's home to cook meals, go shopping, clean the house, etc. I called my mom and dad and found out they don't want that. I suggest you talk with your parents to see if the cleaning is the kind of help they need.
posted by wryly at 3:09 PM on September 9, 2019 [6 favorites]

When they turned you down was it a "don't worry about that on your short visit, dear? Let's just enjoy our time together" being-nice thing or a "don't touch that, we like it how it is" truly-not-wanting-you-to-clean thing?

What does your sister say about your parents' unwillingness to let you help last time? It sounds like you think they'd do it themselves if they wanted to but that they aren't ready. Does she have a different view? I think it makes sense to want a plan, but it's possible your sister needs help creating the plan, so I wouldn't set that as the baseline requirement for a trip.

I'm not sure what the answer is in terms of your trip, but I would start by assuming your sister is right about their capacities and then start trying to figure out what to do.

Keep in mind that the ideas here aren't either/or. Maybe you could come out for moral support and help while a consultant takes the lead so that you all actually make progress.

Fundamentally though, given that she's asking for help and that you can even work remotely (to some extent, which is a lot more than some people can say), that your wife can take care of the pets, and that you don't mention children, I'd give serious thought to trying to be out there more -- it's probably at least a bit easier for you than most people (airfare aside).
posted by salvia at 3:12 PM on September 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

Your sister is right there with your parents. She is the best person to analyze their behavior. She's also probably exhausted doing the day-to-day. It's time to face the unpleasant truth.
posted by heathrowga at 3:29 PM on September 9, 2019 [18 favorites]

Your post does a little bit of comparing of your sister and yourself. She's well off, you're not. You mention your job/spouse/kids, but don't mention whether she has a job/spouse/kids. If she's got all those responsibilities too, *and* she's shouldering all the work of managing your parents and their place, then yes, I think you're being pretty selfish. If she's got a whole lot more money than you maybe you can ask her to pay for your plane ticket and to put you up when you're out there.
posted by Sublimity at 4:34 PM on September 9, 2019 [6 favorites]

The fact that you're planning this with your sister and not the people whose house would be cleaned is, to me, a real red flag. Cleaning (tidying in this case) is so hard even when people are on board, let alone if helpers parachute in unasked. Even if your parents have said, multiple times, in general terms, that they want to downsize, I would really want to see evidence that they want this specific help at this specific time. I have flown cross-country to help parents, prepared to make major changes, and it turned out that their top priority was an arduous re-arrangement that didn't result in a significant improvement, in my opinion. It is painful at times to let people make their own choices, but trying to help can result in nothing but expensive frustration.
posted by wnissen at 5:14 PM on September 9, 2019 [4 favorites]

My sister believes that my parents have gotten to the point where they shouldn't be living in the house any more. She feels they need to get out of the house. But of course cleaning it out is a huge task. She doesn't think they can do it on their own.

Your sister may be right. But as a few others have wondered, what do your parents believe? I don’t think opinions make someone selfish; selfish behavior makes someone selfish. I think it is odd that your sister appears to be deciding things for your parents and you’re supposed to go along with it without actually having had a discussion together as a family.

Mind you, lots of people think I’m a horrible person because I let my dad who is ill live alone in his house because that’s what he wants. Or at least, of the available choices that is what he wants. He is an actual hoarder. Before one of my visits, he tells me he wants help getting rid of stuff and that his stuff is a burden. After I get there, he has zero interest in getting rid of stuff or getting any help from me. I am not going to inflict my “help” on him because three separate times a social worker has investigated and declared him capable of being treated as an independent adult despite his memory issues.

So my question would be, to your sister, tell me what is upsetting to you about the current situation. In detail. I understand that they probably appear from a distance to be more capable than they are. What do you have to do now to support them? What are you worried that you will have to do to support them later? I am concerned that I can’t really help by just showing up to clean if it turns out they are resistant to that. Can we make a plan together so that I can help support you and your goals but also talk to our parents together to make sure we understand what is most important to them?

A lot of times people feel like they have the entire burden. Your sister maybe one of them. Because she probably does have the entire burden at the moment of worrying about your parents. And because it feels like her burden alone, she may have already decided what the solution is without actually giving you or your parents, potentially, any opportunity to come up with potentially other situations that might work better for them. And might work better for her.

Of course, this will only work if you were genuinely willing to support your sister in a variety of ways. That may include researching a bunch of different options around cleaning and selling the home but also around other things. As it turns out, a bunch of oldsters prefer to age in place. They like where they live, and they don’t want to move. Are there support options where they live but might make that possible?

There is a default in this country where the closest child, often a daughter, feels obligated to be a caretaker and does not get the benefits of being a loving daughter nor the benefits of being a paid caretaker. That truly sucks. So Part of any discussion you have with your sister apart from your parents might be about the extent to which she is willing to be a caretaker or wants to be a caretaker and the degree to which she can stop managing that stuff and y’all can outsource it as a family before your parents get too ill to enjoy her company as a daughter and your company as a son.

Unlike other commenters, I don’t think there’s an obvious answer to your question apart from your demonstrating a willingness to help your sister and a commitment to talking to your parents with your sister to find out as much as you can about their desires. Both the realistic ones and the unrealistic ones. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 5:17 PM on September 9, 2019 [11 favorites]

Oh, and don't underestimate the cost. I once calculated what it was costing for us to fly, rent a car, book a hotel, eat meals out, etc., not even taking account lost work, and it was $60 per waking hour. You can probably get a pretty great expert for that price.
posted by wnissen at 5:18 PM on September 9, 2019 [6 favorites]

Yeah, the burden of elder care often falls to women, with devastating consequences. I get that this is no fun, but it’s better to move them while they are still in decent health. Also, what would you be doing if your sister didn’t live there?
posted by bluedaisy at 5:25 PM on September 9, 2019 [22 favorites]

There is a very common pattern in families, as parents age, that one daughter stays close by and cares for the elderly parents while all the other siblings live far away, calling their parents once a month, blissfully unaware of how much work that one sister is doing. This is a source of broad social inequity in the United States.

Sure, there are lots of details to figure out. People have covered those in previous comments. What do your parents want, when is the right time, what is the best approach, etc. But the bottom line is that you should be there 100% with your sister figuring this out. If you can be there in person, great. If finances make that hard, maybe your sister can help with the cost of flights or some other aspect of it. If you can't be there in person, you should still find ways to help as much as possible.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 6:16 PM on September 9, 2019 [12 favorites]

Go in a month, but not with the goal of doing a few days of cleaning out the house. Rather, to work with your parents and sister to make a plan to get the entire thing done in 3 or 4 days.
I would rent a nice size storage unit, and put up some shelving in there. Get a bunch of plastic storage (the heavy flip top lid), plastic file boxes for paperwork, and cardboard boxes.Maybe get a Pod if they have room for it, for stuff not going into storage.
First day, put them up in a nearby hotel and just pack what they need day to day, clothes, dishes, current paperwork, etc. Second day get movers to pack up everything else and bring it to storage. Leave the furniture they actually need, ie a china cabinet is not needed. 3rd day maid service for deep cleaning. Maybe a home inspector to see what needs to be done. They can come back that night or next morning. If contents of boxes are photographed they can find stuff in storage via the pics.
If you don't deal with it all at once the process can stretch on for years. (5 years ago I tried to convince my dad to just dump the Autocad 3 manuals, Windows 3.1 disks, and convince my mom that she does not need her 1981 copy of "What color is my parachute"; next week I visit to help them toss those, and retire some 286 PC's now that they claim they are ready)
posted by Sophont at 6:19 PM on September 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

Many good answers above, but one more thing. Find the smaller place first. (Rental or get a bridge loan.) If they are in a big house with lots of space there is very little pressure to actually cull the stuff. And, they may not actually move anyway. In a similar situation my folks (and other elderly relatives) have wound up actually moving a bunch of crap and only finally discarding it when there was no place to put it in the new place. Help them with house hunting online and then fly out to help with the actual move.
posted by Gotanda at 6:31 PM on September 9, 2019 [4 favorites]

Everything depends on where your parents are with this. I have had this “emergency” several times now, including my BIL spending over a week hauling literally 3 tonnes of stuff out. parents are still in their home + 2 garages full of less but still a lot of stuff. They could sell and move tomorrow but they keep moving the goal posts, like they will only move into a very short list of buildings they can’t really afford.

My sister and I know that it will probably come down to a crisis point. So, we have a plan for that point, assuming we get control. On that week we will 1. Give whichever parent is not incapacitated 5 hrs to choose what they need, and we will add some things based on our best judgement, and hire movers. 2. We will spend a day pulling paperwork and memorabilia out (and she can have what she likes, I want a few significant things but will cede to her, if she really wants ‘me). 3. We will get an auction person to come take what they think will sell, put that money towards the costs and give my parents any leftover (unlikely). 4. We will hire a junk service for the rest. 5. We will hire cleaners.

It’s horrible thinking in a way, but having the plan means we can ride out everything in between. I’ve told my parents I will help them as much as I can...the day they sign a contract to sell their house, but not before that, after all the false alarms where I spent hours going through minute decisions on one closet only to put most things back because it was theory that some new place wouldn’t have closets.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:50 PM on September 9, 2019 [8 favorites]

Unless you have a specific reason to mistrust your sister's word, you should believe her assessment of their abilities and needs over what you can tell from a long distance relationship and a once a year visit. She knows better than you whether your mother is struggling with her memory or whether now is the time to get them into a new place.

If you don't believe her--if you have a history of your family being manipulative or tricking you into doing things you don't want to do--that's a different assessment, but based just on what you say here, it sounds like your objection is that *you* can't see why your parents can't handle it themselves, which is NOT the best way to assess this situation.

Please don't think your sister is just worrying too much, though. Cleaning out a house is HARD, and people with memory problems can hide them. Believe her. And, if nothing else, she's telling you a) this needs handling and b) she can't/won't do it all by herself. That is fair of her to ask.

Also echoing fingersandtoes "I'm in; what's the plan" plan.
posted by gideonfrog at 7:11 PM on September 9, 2019 [6 favorites]

Hi! I was your sister. I did have some nearby family that could and would pitch in whenever possible, but I was still the one who had to ease into taking over the finances and start making life decisions. I lucked out tremendously that one family member was willing and able (medical background) to take over as health proxy, so I could just not worry about appointments and meds schedules. All I had to do was everything else.

Women in mainstream US culture are 100% conditioned to take on the role of caretaker when something like this happens, to a degree I couldn't believe until it happened to me. My entire mindset shifted like *that* and my brain was suddenly running two lives instead of one, and I had to work hard not to be completely (protective, controlling, afraid of failing in my eyes or society's) of that role and remember to reach out for help. And once a woman is in that role, mainstream US culture is conditioned to think "oh, that's sorted then, good" and go on about their business, secure in the knowledge that things are covered. It's brutal, and it's ingrained in us.

Believe your sister when she says they're less competent than they present themselves as. People are really good at faking it for a long time, and the odds are good they don't want to be a burden to their kids or don't want to admit to weakness when they've always been the ones taking care of other people. It's hard to make that shift. Their whole lives, they've bounced (or lurched, or crawled) back from whatever came their way back to something stable, and admitting that's not going to happen this time... Seriously, it's so, so hard.

Memail me if you want specifics on my family's situation and how we handled it. Every family is its own thing, though, and you'll all have to figure out what works for you.

My best advice is to start texting or better, calling, your sister pretty much every day to catch up on how things are going, let her vent about whatever she needs to, be a sounding board for her ideas. Offer to pick up anything that can be handled long-distance.

If she's handling the bills, can you take that over? Keep her looped in so she knows what's happening with the money, but pay everything on time and in full so that's one less worry for her.

If it's getting to be time for assisted living, can you do at least the initial research? All four of you can talk out (skype, speakerphone, whatever) what sort of place they'd like, and if they have a preferred area they want to be in. Then you start checking websites and making phone calls. If your parents want something more like a resort, you cross off the homier places; if they want someplace homey, cross off the fancy resort style. Etc. Once you've got a more workable list, with pricing and such, you and your sister go over it to see if you can weed it down to a handful of options. Then maybe you fly out there for a few days to go on site visits with her, to see what you both think of the places in person.

Whatever else you can think of, offer to do. She won't necessarily want you to, but the offer will mean the world.

Meanwhile, you guys are chatting every day, and you know the names of the places and people each of you is dealing with, at least on a casual basis.

Call your parents every day, too. Make sure you talk to both of them for at least a few minutes as often as possible. You'll have a better idea of what your sister is dealing with, and you can be a back channel for her. Report back every day on what you talked to them about. ... I just realized how creepy that sounds, sorry. But if memory issues are coming into play, sometimes it's the only way to get a handle on what's really going on. Also, if your sister sets something up for them that they hate, and they just quietly don't do [whatever] because [thing], you can let her know and she can find an alternative without it being a big deal.

Anyway. tl;dr, start ramping up to near-daily contact with your sister and parents, even if it's just a few minutes a day in each case. It's not the same as being right there, but it's a huge help, and you'll be able to gauge things much better.

Ideally, your parents will make their own choice about where and how to live - and as long as they're competent adults, they can do that, even if you and your sister hate their choices. But if dementia is in the cards, they're either going to need full-time in-home care or assisted living/memory care living, even if they don't realize it.
posted by current resident at 7:49 PM on September 9, 2019 [24 favorites]

Just want to say, if you do go "I'll be glad to visit when we have a plan, what's the plan?" You then need to take ownership of making sure there is a plan and doing some of the planning. It is your way to make sure the visit is productive, not your way to push back another task onto her list.

Hoarder family here. We would love to just swoop in with a dumpster or two, and the dream comes up sometimes that this time they'll let us clean out the (shed, basement, closets), and it always turns into a fight over which damaged old books "might be worth something!" And basically it won't get cleaned out till they move out and probably pass away. It sucks.

But it's worth being on the same team as your sibling whenever you can. Even if you don't think it's going to be possible to do cleaning, it helps to have the conversations where you agree it would be good and talk about what you can do instead.
posted by Lady Li at 12:18 AM on September 10, 2019 [4 favorites]

This is a similar dynamic to my sister and me. She couldn't stand the fact that my parents had so much "worthless junk" and yes, paperwork lying around. My Mom was somewhat incapacitated, but still functional, and my Dad simply wasn't into cleaning or tidying up the paperwork (which Mom had done when she was younger, but could no longer do). When my Mom passed away, my sister went there and summarily cleared away all of my Mom's things, and threw out or donated all of her clothing and personal effects.

Then she cleaned the house, and made my Dad a nice little office room, and set him up with a computer, which he never used, but he liked the attention, and the fact that someone else was cleaning things up for him. She also helped pay the bills, writing out the checks, etc. and straightened out the paperwork (and Dad would simply let it pile up until she came back the next month and did it again).

When my Dad passed away, she again went there and got one of my brothers to help clean up the yard and make the house presentable for sale. One of my brothers was living there, and had been, for the past 10 years or more. He wasn't into cleaning at all. So there was a huge conflict, about him squatting in the house, and she was trying to get it ready for sale, and also took over as executor of Dad's estate. Well, my brother who lived there died unexpectedly, and then she really went to town. She took all the furniture and brought it to her house, where it sat in her garage, and then proceeded to complain loudly and longly about how Dad had left everything a mess, including his finances, and she had to deal with it all. She is also quite well off, good job, house with a swimming pool, etc. I thought about going out there to help her deal with clearing the house out, but felt I couldn't afford it. I didn't have room for anything anyway.

The house had a lien on it (2nd mortgage), and there was an IRS lien, as my Dad had neglected to file taxes for a few years, and owed the IRS quite a bit of money, which he was making payments on before he died, but the balance was in the 5-figure range, nothing he could have ever paid off, even if he'd lived another 10 years. So she was really mad about that, too. The house ended up being worth less than she'd thought it would be, and she'd made several mortgage payments, paid the utilities, and had been expecting to be reimbursed when the house sold. Finally, she visited a lawyer (after months of me advising her to), who told her to just get anything she deemed valuable out of the house, and let the bank foreclose on it. Boy, was she steamed about that! Lots of pearl clutching and being a martyr, woe is me, look at all I did, and this is what I get for it! Etc.

We don't speak anymore, because I finally told her to stop talking badly about my parents, I didn't want to hear it anymore, and she took umbrage at that and flounced off, declaring me persona not grata. My life is a lot more peaceful now.

Ask you PARENTS what they want. Sounds like you already have, but call them up, and say, "Sister says you should downsize your house. Is that something you really want to do right now? I'm willing to help you in any way possible, but it's your decision."

It really is their decision. As long as they are deemed competent, she can make all the demands she wants, from you, from them, and guess what? They are adults. They have lived longer than both of you. It's their house. It's their life. Sure, maybe it would be better for them to clear the stuff out and downsize, but you cannot force two adults to do anything they don't want to do. Sometimes it does have to wait for a crisis, yes. So have a plan for that. But really, it's not up to you or her, it's up to your parents. I'd contact them directly, because if one of my kids was infantilizing me like that, I'd tell them to piss off.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 6:17 AM on September 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

I suspect this actually isn't about "helping to clean out the house" as such. I suspect this is more about her just needing help with the overall responsibility of parents, and this is the only thing she can think to concretely point to as a way you can help.

This is a situation about which I've thought a lot; my brother and I will someday be in a similar situation, although with the genders flipped (he's the one living near our parents and I'm the one with the limited vacation time living three states away). Our parents are blessedly and amazingly still hale and hearty and in great shape, but that will not always be the case, and I have thought about how my brother and I can navigate that.

His home and nearness and job flexibility will end up making it more likely for him to be taking on the bulk of their care on paper; my brother lives only 30 minutes away and he and my sister in law both work from home, and have also taken on a new business venture that's actually midway between their own home and my parents. Whereas I have a way more regimented work life and live 4 hours away and don't have a car and am a broke loser. So logically it makes more sense for him to be doing daily check-ins with them and doing the bulk of the care burden, as it would be asking a lot for me to totally upend my life and move back to look after them.

However - those daily check-ins are going to be a LOT for him. So I plan to take my brother aside sometime in the next year or so and say that when that time comes, I won't be able to move back - but I WILL be able to schedule an annual two-week vacation where I spend the whole time taking over for parental upkeep, to give HIM a chance at a vacation from taking care of them. Sure, my own travel plans wouldn't be as sexy, but my taking primary responsibility for two weeks as opposed to his fifty weeks out of the year is the least I could do, and it would give him a much-needed break in those days. And I know it is something I can do to help.

I suspect that what your sister is really asking for this kind of break. She's been shouldering a lot and just needs to tag someone else in for a while; check in with her about how it's been taking care of her parents overall, and maybe there's something else you could do to help instead. It may very well be that helping to clean out the house is the best thing to do after all, but at least you'll be more of a team in figuring out the best way to structure that.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:26 AM on September 10, 2019

Sister is possibly exhausted, doing her best, listening to them complain about everything being too much for them. However that's not the story they give you. You hear everything is fine and they deflect your questions, maybe even outright lie to you. I have heard my mother lie outright to doctors and social workers that yes she takes all her meds regularly and that she eats properly, etc. In fact, there are pills all over the table, and her meals are boiled eggs and Campbell's soup.

Believe your sister. My mother told her daughters all the complaints and problems, told the brothers everything was fine. Base your plan on your sister's story, and don't take her for granted.
posted by Enid Lareg at 11:23 AM on September 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

Read this with a grain of salt: written by a sister who finds her kid brother to be remarkably off the mark with a few basic expectations and responsibilities that everyone in the family but the brother are aware of and understand. Both working and neither is well off.

With this info...what if any advice would you give as far as making the decision to start coming home a few times to help my parents?
These are conversations to be had with the parents. If they keep saying no then its not a good use of your time to just show up for nothing to do. Alternatively, after talking to your sister (see below) and perhaps visiting them other than the once-a-year visit, you can gauge for yourself what it is that is precisely required to be done at your parents' home. Cleaning never completely finishes in one chunk of time anyway, so figure out what and how much needs to be done, and how to break it down and then take care of everything one by one.

Does it sound like the type of situation where I really need to get out there and help asap?
This is again something that you will know after talking to the parents and sister and also by visiting them. Most major things can't be taken care of 'asap' so for a working person to take a huge chunk of time off to take care of a huge chunk of household-related work is not realistic. Most house cleaning, in my experience, is a slow process accomplished somewhat close to completion with consistent effort.

My sister seems to think I should come out over the next month or two.
Assuming your sister is a reasonable person most of the time, I would talk to the sister over a few conversations to better understand where this sense of urgency is coming from. Secondly, is she insisting you help because she needs help to help the parents or is this a competition or match between the two of you as to whose responsibility it is and the other one is off the hook etc etc. (The latter is immature and unhelpful on both sides.)
It is also possible that if she has been visiting she knows what the ground reality is, and is possibly unable to take care of it all on her own (very reasonable). In this case, you dont need an invitation to come and clean, the right thing to do is to pitch in, in a timely manner without whining about it. Do the best you can with what you can, but do something without whining and without using that as future leverage as "hey, i did this then so I can't do that now" etc etc.

There are going to be other times down the road where I know I'll need to come home like when my parents are ill. Luckily they are relatively healthy right now.
This is a remarkably lousy excuse, in case this is how you are shunning your responsibilities and/or fooling yourself.
Life can end overnight or the next second. If you don't value
your relationship enough to see the parents beyond the ceremonial yearly visit or especially when they need the kids for some physical work or if you feel you are too busy to do that, then you need to think about what values form the foundation or your life and what you expect your children to learn from you, and in a few decades, the way they should treat you and mom.

On a different note: I don't know if men and women are really this different in terms of taking care or helping parents in old age. A friend once said, " A son is a son till he finds a wife. A daughter is a daughter for life". I found it very harsh at the time (and still want to believe so). In recent times, the hurt my sibling's lack of communication and behaviour has caused my parent has been very difficult for me to come to terms with. Its been heartbreaking. No excuse, esp work-related/busyness, can justify the choices.

That said, I hope you are able to see reason beyond your life and yourself and give some of your time, attention and help to your parents and sister when they really need it, not just when they are ill or dying.
posted by xm at 7:13 PM on September 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

If you want to maintain your relationship with your sister you need to do this. You also need to help your parents realise that a) they are nearing the end of their most energetic journeys b) if they are serious about moving into a more manageable space, it's better if everybody pitches in and starts shedding the detritus right now but also c) at some point, all that shit is going to need to be cleared away regardless, whether they be alive or dead. Nobody wants to inherit their 70 years' worth (or whatever) of collective, overwhelmingly-meaningless stuff.

As for your mother's dementia, none of that stuff is going to help. Certainly, not all of it is going to help. My mother has dementia, we tried keeping stuff around that was old and familiar, and it did straight fuck-all: it was just another thing to be confused about and fuss over and constantly ask the questions about. So it's all gone, now it's just things to sit on and items or objects of activity or engagement to keep her brain occupied (which they don't - she just sits and stares at nothing and ask whose house this is, despite living in it for 20 years). Her photos and her music and her books and her artwork are the only things we kept - she doesn't recognise any of those anyway, and what recognition she did have went fast. Those might as well be distributed to the family, now.

The idea of needing stuff to maintain a connection to familiarity is a false one. Your sister is doing the majority of the heavy lifting (as is mine, I fully admit - it's easier for us though as I live only 20 minutes away, she is retired herself, lives there rent-free, gets carer's allowance, and I help babysit whenever I am asked, and do whatever else she needs) and she doesn't need or want to be surrounded by all of that shit, because it's all just fucking admin that serves no function.

Your sister is asking you for help with her mental health. That your parents still exist is irrelevant. As suggested above, figure out a strategy, get a plan together, do up some action items, hire a dumpster, ask her to help defray your costs, whatever. Your sister needs your help.

posted by turbid dahlia at 10:33 PM on September 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

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