Best way to approach intervention with relative living in filth
September 7, 2020 10:09 PM   Subscribe

My sister’s home has gone from regular untidy to health hazard hoarding and filthy. My parents are desperately anxious about it, I think it’s a mental health issue, please help me intervene in the most positive way possible.

Background: We are not close, there is a significant age difference and we struggle with a ‘successful/good/academic older sister’ ‘failure/naughty/non-academic younger sister’ dynamic that I hate. I am not looking for solutions to that particular issue right now, but am flagging it because I have never been able to find a way to talk to her seriously about her life/choices/challenges without her responding with almost immediate tears and refusal and/or 'you think you're better than me' responses. She does have a mental health diagnosis and is taking medications and has been for a long time – it is an example of the failure of our relationship that I do not even know what this is: my parents said it’s depression, but I think it might (also) be bipolar.

Problem: I found an excuse to visit her house for the first time recently, after pressure from my parents to go see it (she has never invited me, I always seem to end up as a host). It is disgusting. I am talking cat litter spread across the carpet and the kitchen floors, filth ground in across every surface in the bathroom, shit and urine on the toilet and around the toilet base, mould growing in the kitchen. Every surface had a tacky sticky dusty layer of dirt on it. It stank. It looked like a house on a TV documentary about extreme cleaning; I am emphasising this to make it clear that this is not just a mild difference in housekeeping personal standards.

It upset me enormously to see her living like that. I know it’s not always been like this because a few years ago she ran a catering business from her home and had full hygiene certification for her kitchen and house. I know she must be aware of it because she regularly posts photos of her home on social media, and now I realise that she has taken extreme care to angle them in such a way that the dirt doesn’t show (this is partly why I was so shocked to see the state of the place in reality). She lives with a partner, he does not seem to mind, but I also know he has never done any housework or house maintenance activity.

My parents are desperate about her – in part for her physical health, as she has asthma and there is visible mould all over the house – and are pleading with me to intervene. What the hell do I say. Is there anything beyond the ‘I love you, I care about you, this scares me, how can I help’ formula?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (22 answers total)
Hire a cleaner for her, handle all the logistics, and don't make a big deal out of it? Even a polite lie like, "this is the service I use when I am too burned out to vacuum, I totally get that doing it yourself is a PITA."

When I am in a depressive episode I absolutely can't clean but I ALSO am super self-conscious about it.
posted by athirstforsalt at 11:20 PM on September 7 [4 favorites]

This is a can of worms. And, from the hoarder shows (I am told), interventions as commonly understood don't stick over time.

I dated a woman with a similar, but not quite health-code-y situation (except the vegetable drawers in the fridge). Mental health issues too (mostly under control).

I cleaned a lot, without resentment, cheerfully. It will never get better. The best guidance I have: it's a two-part problem first, mental health treatment (gentle, loving encouragement). And, kept completely separate: the simple practicality of keeping the place clean.

Pay someone or do it yourself. Just abandon the concept of changing her. Then, the place is clean. Goal met.

Trying to push a mentally ill person clearly beyond their capacity is just no good.
posted by j_curiouser at 11:26 PM on September 7 [3 favorites]

While the above answers make sense, it seems to me that sister will resist any offer of a cleaning service as implicit criticism, particularly when it comes from OP.
posted by Omnomnom at 11:33 PM on September 7 [26 favorites]

If at all possible push back against your parents pressure for you to get involved. I honestly believe that no good can come from you getting further involved.
If you can tell your parents you do understand their concern and share it but , due to the dynamics of your relationship, any intervention by you will be of no use.

Unless she has children living with her, i believe that nothing will be gained by alienating her.
I have family members living like this, and found through literally decades that it is not possible to change someone who lives like that. The TV shows are only a snapshot and even though the person may even be sincere in their intention to maintain the new standard they cannot over time.

As your relationship is already strained, i think for your own mental health sake, make clear to your parents you cannot be involved directly. Offer them your support but dont let them use you again to gain info on your sisters life.

I do know this is hard but in the long run you need to save your own mental strength.
posted by 15L06 at 12:00 AM on September 8 [29 favorites]

Yeah you don't have any way to intervene that's any better than your parents' options, which I'm guessing they'll have already been trying for a while. There's an obvious side question here about why they think they can rope you in for a solution, esp. given the sibling dynamics. Do they think that you can/should fix it because you're supposed to be the "good" one? But whatever their thought process is, you don't have to take it on.

Adults get to make their own decisions about how to live.
posted by rd45 at 12:18 AM on September 8 [13 favorites]

I get that you want to do something to fix this, but nothing that you’ve said suggests that you’re the right person to help. I think the only argument for trying anyway would be if she had kids living there, and even then I’d be tempted to just call social services (not because that would save your relationship with her but because they would be able to protect any kids if they felt it warranted).

Is there a reason why your parents haven’t tried to intervene? Do you know anyone that she might have a better relationship with who might be able to help?
posted by plonkee at 12:37 AM on September 8 [1 favorite]

Why haven't your parents been able to do anything? Given they sound as though they're closer to her (have been able to visit the house before), I think the ball should be in their court in terms of intervening. As you said, she's likely to ignore or react badly if you do anything, which might end up backfiring and making everything worse. I agree with Mefites above saying that you shouldn't feel compelled to "fix" her in any way.

I would go back to your parents and say you share their concerns, but you can't be the one to intervene because it won't work. They need to be the ones to hire a cleaner (or you can do it but just make sure she knows they're responsible).

Alternatively, how is your relationship with her partner? Could you mention the health concerns (asthma and mould is not a great situation at all and definitely needs to be fixed) and see if he'd be on board with the cleaner idea, possibly paid for by your parents if they can handle that?
posted by fight or flight at 6:03 AM on September 8 [1 favorite]

Nthing that you should not intervene. I have the same dynamic with one of my siblings and there is absolutely no way you can help that will not come off as you trying to fix the broken sister.

Set the boundary with your parents that you will not interfere with your sisters life and they must stop asking you, and hang up the phone if they keep asking you too. This shit is partly how your relationship with your sister got this way and they need to stop playing you off each other. If they think there is a problem that can be solved by a third party, then they need to do it.
posted by jessica fletcher did it at 6:39 AM on September 8 [20 favorites]

Find several cleaning companies that will do this hazardous job. It's better to offer her options so she has some semblance of control. Even if it's cleaning the bathroom only, having 1 clean space is a start. Most regular cleaners won't want to take it on; this requires specialists, and the specialists need to be kind. It doesn't sound like there's hoarding, and that makes it a little easier. But I'd search hoarder cleaning cleanup %mylocation because that who does the job.

Will your parents make the offer, and will she be more likely to accept it from them? Framing: Listen, I/We love you, and it would make me/us feel better to have a regular cleaner some in and help you get caught up. I think maybe you got overwhelmed and just need a fresh start. Depression and ADHD are often contributors to this. Once it gets out of control, it feels overwhelming to cope with. She probably really knows, has lots of guilt, so offering help without judgement is more likely to work.
posted by theora55 at 6:42 AM on September 8 [1 favorite]

It is a mental health issue. It's hoarding and there is as yet no cure. It is garden-variety hoarder won'tclean that looks like imminent death to anybody not in it. It has likely been wildly exacerbated by COVID--mine certainly has. It's not going to kill your sister (not immediately, anyway). I bet she gets a ton of dopamine from those stills with the perfect angle making her look like Marie Kondo while piles of whoknowswhat stack up everywhere the camera can't see. I spent this weekend footling around in Zoom and teams doing the exact same thing. I threw dozens of cookbooks on the dining room floor where they are likely to remain for months so that I could put the silly sideways stacking bookshelf thing they use to be on behind me and stage my Zoom shot with books like on The News Hour. Meanwhile the top of my workdesk looks like a file cabinet exploded and I have not examined the contents of the crisper since maybe January and we're eating on a little tiny square foot of open table space because the cookie cutters and wrapping paper are still out from CHRISTMAS because I live here but I don't know where anything goes or where it goes is full of stuff that doesn't go there.

To do: 1. Be glad she lets you come into the house; when they won't let you come in anymore, it's likely to be because they've hoarded themselves into actual imminent danger. 2. Leave her alone about it and tell your parents to do the same. 3. If you think you can do it without activating the sibling dynamic, encourage her to see a doctor about the asthma.
posted by Don Pepino at 7:32 AM on September 8 [5 favorites]

Y'know, it's easy for it to get like that bit by bit over a period of time, for instance the last 6 months of living mostly at home with cats while depressed due to a pandemic? I have certainly struggled with that myself this year, and I know others have as well. It gets even harder when you're depressed and you're mostly sitting in one or two places a lot of the time, so when you do go to clean, it starts to hurt your back within like a half hour. Digging out of that is a process, and especially if her belongings are all over the place, she's not going to want to hire a cleaner right away. Can you start to help her clean? If she doesn't have the right cleaning supplies that would be safe for her asthma, can you bring her the gift of some natural/organic cleaning products and start to help her tackle areas of the house one by one? Does she have windows with screens that she might be persuaded to open a crack to start airing it out, as long as it's safe for the cats?

I do take issue with the idea that this will never get better. Personally, I've had periods of time where I was cleaning on a regular basis and periods of time where I was too depressed to want to clean. Sometimes it takes help to dig out from under the burden of catching up on the cleaning to be able to even contemplate cleaning more regularly. But the past 6 months have been a bit extraordinarily triggering of everyone's mental health issues, and I wouldn't leap to judgment on this at a time like this. What can you do to help? Stop judging, first, and start helping, if you can. Even if you don't do the work yourself, maybe you can help her make a list and assess what needs to be done, if she's open to it. Talk to her about it in a nonjudgmental way and offer sincere help and you might be able to get a lot done. I mean, for myself, it's weird; I grew up in a house with a parent with major mental and physical health challenges, and I hated that situation, and I wished it was clean, but now that I'm an adult, I do see how I've been a bit inured to the dirt. I prefer my space to be clean, but I can also live with it being dirty a lot longer than a lot of people can. As long as everyone is actually healthy, pets included, it's not a dire situation. She just might need some help to get started.

I've got some crystal litter that's tracked onto a rug next to the litter box that I've been meaning to vacuum up, for instance. Before that, it was a different type of litter getting tracked around. Not sure what type of litter she's using, but that'll happen no matter what kind she uses, most likely. And does the litter need to be changed more often? That could be a fairly innocuous source of bad smells, even if it doesn't look great. For my part, I also have long hair and a lot of cat hair around here, and so the hallway has some dust bunnies in it. They don't look great but they're not hurting anyone. I just need to get out the vacuum and a lot of that will be solved. So can you help vacuum or sweep it up?

In the kitchen, if the dishes have piled up in the sink, especially if they have dried cat food on them, that'll also be a source of bad smells. Can you put on gloves and help dig into that while hanging out and talking to her? Are there recyclables in the sink that you can just throw out? Are there bad vegetables or is there old food in the back of the refrigerator? That's another easy thing to just get a trash bag and start dealing with, if you're able. If you do that, though, please get her involved and at least have her there while you're doing it, give her veto power over anything that you might not realize is actually OK to keep, and don't just rearrange things without her. I've appreciated help cleaning out the fridge the most when I was actually consulted about what to keep and not keep and when it didn't end up getting rearranged to the point where I couldn't find anything (that will just make it worse, because then she won't touch stuff in there). Same goes for cleaning out the cabinets if that needs to be done—don't rearrange things, but check for things gone bad, with her permission.

I use hair spray, so in my bathroom, dirt and grime start to stick to every surface, from the ceiling fan blades to the walls, because stickiness gets swept up in air currents. Add to that poor air circulation in general in there and now you've got a toilet that has some mold growing in it regularly, after even just a day or so. I've also been dealing with some health issues, so I've got a whole lot of little bottles of things I've needed to take or try out littering the counter. To start cleaning everything in there, I'm going to have to take it in steps: clear things off the counter, clean the toilet with cleansers and such, get on a step stool to try to scrub the tops of the walls and ceiling. I don't have asthma and that stuff can still leave me a little breathless, so she might be feeling a bit anxious about all there is to do in there. I know I feel that way. Is there something easy you can do to help her get started?

If stuff is getting ground into places across the house, well, that'll happen if there's a lot of dirt around and cats. Could you give her the gift of, say, washable rugs like Ruggable ones? I have two of them, of course, in the hallway, and I haven't gotten around to washing the top layer of each, but that's on my to-do list. But something like that might help her lay down a layer between dirty things and the floor that'd be more easily cleaned, once the floor is cleaned up.

Oh, and yeah, my stove definitely has a dirty tacky layer of grease and cat hair on it. One counter has some sticky ash on it from previous visitors that I've meant to handle. It's not great, but it's not dire, either. The stove situation is just what happens when cats walk around on a sticky surface like that, especially because in my case, the stove hood stopped working and I've avoided asking the building manager to come in during the pandemic. It will be solved by taking some wipes to the surface, but again, I just haven't gotten to it, between my depression and everything else going on. So can you take some natural, organic wipes with thymol or similar to a few surfaces like that?

I know this is a long comment. I just wanted to go piece by piece over some of the things in my space that remind me of things you've just described in your sister's space, to make some things clear. First, she might be perfectly aware of the situation, though she and her partner might not realize how bad it's gotten bit by bit over time. It's possible to be self-aware about the situation, as I am, and still not always be able or willing to do a lot about it on a given day. Second, she might be amenable to help, if it's offered in a spirit of kindness and with a true willingness to help, rather than just judgment. It could be fun to clean up together. But if you're going to do that, you have to be able to do it without throwing in any snide comments the whole time. If you think that might happen, don't bother. Third, she might not want to bring in outside help, especially with the pandemic. If that's the case, are you willing to help her yourself, or to settle for something like collaborating with her to make a list or giving her gifts of cleaning supplies or rugs or similar?

It's good that you care and can offer her outside perspective, but don't make this a battle. She has a partner and it's up to them how they choose to live together. Don't emphasize your own outrage and alarm over her wellbeing. That comes off as concern trolling if you're not willing to talk to her like a person and offer sincere help without judgment.
posted by limeonaire at 7:51 AM on September 8 [7 favorites]

N’thing this goes back right your parents. Your relationship with your sister is likely fractured because of them and you taking any parentified action towards your sister is both counter-intuitive and will possibly implode what is left of your relationship. That your parents so freely smack-talk your sister (while probably simultaneously holding you up as as the ”perfect child” when talking to your sister?) certainly indicates the dynamics in your family involve black sheep and golden child labels.

So how do you help her? By treating her as a person not a diagnosis or a hoarder. Work on being judgement-free. Invite her to your place often if she enjoys that. Get therapy yourself to help you deal with any issues you have wanting to control another adult. And if she asks for help, show up. You have to play the long game as quick fixes do nothing.
posted by saucysault at 8:06 AM on September 8 [5 favorites]

Spend the next year, minimum, becoming close. Get to know her. Let her get to know you. Try to become friends.

You can't fix her situation, right now. But if you put in the work - and it will be work - you can maybe build a relationship with her, and as the relationship strengthens you can discover ways to help.

There are similar dynamics in my family that have taken years of relationship-building to overcome.

You don't want to do this, because it will mean a lot of hard work involving your sister. But this is the only thing you can do that will help.
posted by weed donkey at 8:07 AM on September 8 [9 favorites]

Get yourself a cleaning service.
Talk about how helpful it is to have a cleaning service because you could not cope without one.
Fire your cleaning service and say they quit, and now you need to get around to finding a new one and the house is getting awful but you don't have time to find one.
At Christmas have "your parents" purchase cleaning services for both of you as Christmas gifts.

Tell your sister that it is not fair that you got all the breaks and have more money than she does when she has all the talent. List all her talents. Suggest that it would be fair if you paid for cleaning services for both of you because frankly you would feel awful if you got them and she didn't and you need them sooooo badly.

Start by getting her used to you dropping by and visiting so that she knows you know how much mess she is dealing with. This will help you identify some of the potential system problems that have easy fixes, such as lack of space to put things away, lack of ventilation in bathroom to prevent mold, infrequent garbage collection days, physical inability to get down on floors etc. Convince your sister that it would be a sisterly thing if she came over to your house and helped you clean - all her experience in professional kitchen cleaning standards - and then you go over to her house and help her clean. In order to be closer, visit each other and clean together regularly.
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:18 AM on September 8

Get yourself a cleaning service.
Talk about how helpful it is to have a cleaning service because you could not cope without one.
Fire your cleaning service and say they quit, and now you need to get around to finding a new one and the house is getting awful but you don't have time to find one.
At Christmas have "your parents" purchase cleaning services for both of you as Christmas gifts.

That's a great idea! She would absolutely know what's up, but maybe considering the work you would have to go to to set this up would make her tear up from the very evident love you have for her and she'd not get mad, you never know. You'd want to give her months of warning and of course offer to help tidy for the cleaners.

Can nth that having a cleaner really, really helps. My house used to look like a normal person and not a pair of honey badgers lived here but my cleaning person quit to save her back a year+ ago. She wouldn't touch anything on the floor, so I had to pick it all up and put it somewhere. She would clean the 'fridge, even if I told her to ignore it. I wish she could come back just one more time to do that thing she used to do where she found the ridiculous horror fossils in the 'fridge and put them front and center like, "Is this a piece of your brain?" I loved her so much: it wasn't just that she cleaned, it was they way she did it, like she saw my dysfunction and understood and sympathized and appreciated it. I hope you find one like that for your sister.
posted by Don Pepino at 10:32 AM on September 8

A lot of people in this situation are stuck in part because of the molecule-deep shame they feel over it, and you cannot just "get a cleaner". It is not fair to the cleaner, just as a starting point, because it's not just dirt; it's stuff, it's property (most of which will have intense emotional importance to the owner) that a cleaner cannot and should not have to navigate the disposition of, so you can't just "get a cleaner". Also your sister is an adult even if you don't like her choices and even if you recognize there are contributing mental health issues you can not force her to accept strangers coming into her home against her will, so you cannot just "get a cleaner".

Accept that no headway is going to be made there until she's ready to make it or she is forced to make it, and it does not sound that that is in any way imminent (in which case, getting cleaners may be the only option, but that situation does not appear to be this situation).

Although...since you are the bad guy already, it may be worth taking advantage of that to take her aside ONE TIME ONLY and say, "Hey, our parents have somehow decided that I should be the person to execute their concern over the state of your housekeeping. I just want you to know that I know you're dealing with it as you're able, I will try to get them to buzz off, but if you need anything and don't want to deal with them I'm here if you need me and I won't share anything back to them unless you ask me to." Leave it there, offer yourself as an ally and buffer, don't fixate on how bad the mess is so the shame doesn't spin her out. Rat out your parents to affirm where your loyalty lies.

People get stuck, and a lot of them get unstuck eventually. Give her space, take her side, deal with the parents on her behalf.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:50 AM on September 8 [25 favorites]

Just wanted to clarify - is the partner a recent addition? Did something in that dynamic possibly change? Because it’s also a concern that partner isn’t bringing it up.

I would try to contact people who deal with hoarding and mental health related cleaning problems for advice. More so a therapist than a cleaning company. Because this isn’t a clean it and it’s done scenario. There has to be either ongoing work by the person or an ongoing agreement to accept care and cleaning services. A therapist or mediator may be able to help with that goal.
posted by Crystalinne at 12:32 PM on September 8 [1 favorite]

Seconding every word of Lyn Never's comment, especially the part about acknowledging your parents' triangulation tactics and letting your sister know that you are not their enforcer.

don't fixate on how bad the mess is so the shame doesn't spin her out

This this this this this.

I am a person who struggles with depression. Low energy is one of the ways that it manifests. Being shamed, whether on purpose or inadvertently, drains any energy I happen to have and keeps me from moving forward. (And I empathize with the housekeeping issues.)
posted by virago at 1:36 PM on September 8 [2 favorites]

Yeah, you need to have a relationship that feels equal to your sister for like a few years before she will let you help, if ever. You need to be (appropriately) vulnerable to her and to include her in your life if you want to earn her respect. Helping someone with their disability is a role of immense trust and respect which you need to earn.
posted by The Last Sockpuppet at 1:54 PM on September 8 [1 favorite]

By my count your sister has three adults involved in this already - your parents and her partner. You have my permission to sit this one out. If four adults cannot solve the situation already it's unlikely that the addition of a 5th quasi-estranged person is going to resolve it.

The only times I've successfully intervened in a hoarding situation (I have one in my family and my partner has sometimes lost control of his stuff although it's always confined to one room and clean), it was when the hoarder asked me for help. That's it. No other point was ever close to successful.
posted by warriorqueen at 2:12 PM on September 8 [1 favorite]

Your question said it's hoarding, but your descriptions all just sound like filth. There's an important distinction there that I've seen representing tenants whose apartments are nuisances. Hoarding is, to some extent, active. The person seeks out things to bring home, orders things, keeps everything. It is a (maladaptive) choice. It is intentional. Filth is passive. Someone whose functioning has decreased due to a depressive episode, physical injury, age, etc. may end up with a filthy apartment through neglect. But it isn't intentional like hoarding is. The distinction is important because a hoarder will not want and often won't allow someone to come in and clean because they want that stuff. Their garbage is important to them. The second category of people often welcome the help. They didn't choose to have the garbage and don't want to keep it. They may be overwhelmed at the prospect of cleaning it out themselves and do better with a clean slate.

None of that is relevant to whether you should be the person to address this. It sounds like you shouldn't. But hiring someone to clean may be a more viable option than some people think.
posted by Mavri at 3:30 PM on September 8 [10 favorites]

Yeah, I thought about coming back here to mention that, too. I don't think what you're describing is in any way hoarding, and that might influence which of the strategies mentioned here is actually effective. I don't think people should shame hoarders or people with simply dirty spaces, but yeah, extra sure that shaming is not the answer here.
posted by limeonaire at 6:29 PM on September 9

« Older Home exercise ideas   |   Can I safely go outside? Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments