How can i help my Mom clean up her house?
August 28, 2006 8:27 AM   Subscribe

I don't know what to do about my moms apartment. It is uncleanable in it's present state and she won't get rid of anything.

Mom is 88, in great health, and a packrat. She lives in a three room apartment, connected to my house, but with a separate entrance. There is a dirt basement underneath. I just got back from taking her dog to the vet for a checkup and it was loaded with fleas and the resultant tapeworms. I have asked her over and over to just start getting rid of a box or bag a week, She will try but eventually gives up. When I suggest moving her out for a month and doing a thorough organizing/cleaning she freaks. I don't have much money, so please bear that in mind. Help!!
posted by haikuku to Human Relations (24 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Not that it's any help, but my mom turned 88 4 weeks ago, and sounds somewhat similar. I think the packratting is at least partially a generational thing, complicated by some OCD tendencies. She saves everything - especially cardboard boxes and plastic/paper "for packing up my things for each of you kids when I'm gone." Her extra shower at the facility when she lives in a 2 bdr apt. is half-full of boxes. No attempt to go through stuff and get rid of it goes un-subverted by her, bless her heart. As frustrating as it may be, just be glad she's next door where you can keep an eye on her - mine's a 12-hr 700 mile drive away. Good luck.
posted by Pressed Rat at 8:34 AM on August 28, 2006

Will she let you go over to her place for a few hours a week and clean and organize? She can sit and watch and tell you what's important to her and what's not and you can discuss what's to be done with the things. If the place is only three rooms it shouldn't take that long before it's bearable. It sounds like she's at least somewhat willing to get rid of stuff, but at her age a job that size is really too much for her to handle.
posted by orange swan at 8:36 AM on August 28, 2006

The only way to help her is to a) get her professional counseling or b) kidnap her, lock her in a hotel for a month, and throw out literally everything in that house, then fumigate it. Although honestly, the only way to get packrats' homes really clean is with a bulldozer. Ugh. Good luck.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 8:39 AM on August 28, 2006

Well I guess the first question to ask is whether she is still ok living on her own or whether she should move to a care home? I mean this hoarding junk thing can't go on forever. Does she have friends you could all sit down with and talk about it rationally and not confrontationally? It would really make sense for her to go somewhere for a while and the apartment to be cleaned. The current state of things is not good for her, not good for the dog, not good for you.
posted by keijo at 8:40 AM on August 28, 2006

If getting rid of one box or bag a week is too much for her, how about one item a day? Or one item in the morning and one in the afternoon?

I know, I know, it's a drop in the bucket, but it's easy to achieve, and it might ease her into the habit of shedding unwanted things. Sometimes, I glance around for just one thing to put in the Goodwill box and get inspired to spend an afternoon sorting and tidying.
posted by Elsa at 8:42 AM on August 28, 2006

I'm not sure there is a graceful way to reorganize your mom's life. I am guessing your mom has been a packrat for quite some time now, up to nine decades in fact, and that nagging does little to help. The best solution is probably trying to clean with her, but this could be messy if she is really attached to the stuff she's been collecting.

Personally, I'm waiting for the inevitable shuffle off the mortal coil to conquer this problem.. On preview, is it really fair to attack "the current state of things" now?
posted by shownomercy at 8:42 AM on August 28, 2006

And I mean friends of her own age that would understand the situation somewhat, and then friends of your own that might help. 3 rooms doesn't sound like a huge job a few guys for a Sunday if there's pizza and beer in store afterwards for example. And your mom can still stay in charge and tell them what to do. I'm sure she appreciates cleanliness as much as mine did. It might even be fun!
posted by keijo at 8:43 AM on August 28, 2006

How often do you go over there? Instead of pinning the responsibility of getting rid of a bag per week solely on her, you could try making a deal with her that you'll take a bag a week. She can have it prepared for you when you come, or you can go through it with her when you're there, but you're taking a bag a week. That way she has the motivation of accountability and a deadline.

FlyLady has some strategies for getting out of the packrat cycle, maybe you could adopt some of those with your mom.
posted by heatherann at 8:50 AM on August 28, 2006

From your description, it seems that you lack the emotional leverage to convince her to change her lifestyle. Put in practical terms, it seems that she cares more for that lifestyle than she she does for you.

Might there be another friend or family member she holds in higher regard? Such a person (or perhaps two or more people working in concert) would stand a better chance of persuading her.

Otherwise, your only recourse might be through legal means. Since you own the residence and attached apartment, you should seek to evict her from the premises. Given her advanced age and presumed lack of resources, she should qualify for extensive medical aid, and perhaps even entrance into an assisted care facility.

If she is able to find residence at another relative's, at least she'll be out of your hair and you'll be able to rehabilitate the space for subsequent rental or private use!
posted by The Confessor at 8:50 AM on August 28, 2006

Does she understand the link between her lifestyle and her dog's health? A little dog-got-sick-'cause-of-you guilt trip (phrased a bit more gently) might work.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 8:53 AM on August 28, 2006

Is she just your average packrat, or does her home look like these? If so, you may want to read up on compulsive hoarding, which is related to OCD.
posted by MsMolly at 9:04 AM on August 28, 2006

Someone close to me also has two sets of the packrat gene; I found the Children of Hoarders website useful.

Here's their page on how to help a hoarder.
posted by jamaro at 9:07 AM on August 28, 2006

Does she actually want to save everything or is she just overwhelmed at the idea of doing it? If it's the latter, maybe several sessions of holding up an item and asking "keep or give away?" would do it. If it's the former, well, I empathize and I have no solution.
posted by needs more cowbell at 9:13 AM on August 28, 2006

Is there an external storage place accessible to you? I know that you probably don't want to spend money on a storage unit but if there's a garage or shed available then maybe you could move some of her items into storage and you would face less resistance from your mother if she knew where they would be. Then when the storage area filled up, you could Freecycle, sell, or otherwise dispose of unimportant items and fill up the storage area all over again.

If she's like most packrats then she'll feel assured by knowing that her things aren't going far, but she also won't miss them once they're out of the house.

Good luck, this sounds like a tough situation.
posted by mezzanayne at 9:16 AM on August 28, 2006

needs more cowbell, I know a hoarder and trust me, that won't work. Tried it. Would be nice if it did... The usual result is that 1 hours worth of work gets, at best, a VERY small box filled and the other person is in tears and drained for at least 1 week before they're willing to even consider doing it again.

These people have such strong emotional bonds to things. Think of it like this. Imagine you had 10,000 friends and someone said you should only have 10 or 20 at most like "normal people". You might already feel ashamed (if having too many friends were considered a bad thing). If someone asked, one by one, if that person should never be contacted by you again, you'd quickly put up strong resistance.

One of the best ways I've found is to help them understand the toll hoarding is taking on their life. If they like money, phone up local storage companies and work out the cost per month to keep the stuff, then show them how many hours a week they would have to work to keep their stuff. If they like friends, show them how friends react when they see the place such a terrible mess. Etc etc... Eventually, when the hoarder agrees that hoarding is damaging their lives, they are ready to start with some help. Until then, good luck!

(I'd love to read the childrenofhoarding website, but it doesn't work for me. :( )
posted by shepd at 9:26 AM on August 28, 2006 [2 favorites]

We did this with my grandmother before she and my grandfather moved (she is also a hoarder). With my grandfather's permission, we had some family members take her out for the day to keep her distracted. Unbeknownst to her, we then had a dumpster service deliver a dumpster and the family went through the house all day. In the end, the important stuff was saved and the junk was discarded (600+ aluminum baking pans, hundreds of plastic containers, old boxes of cereal "saved" just in case, you get the picture . . . )

She was shocked and a little angry, but eventually understood. In her new place, she is much more organized and practical with what she saves. In the end, she recognized that it was a problem and worked to correct it. Granted, she is now in her 70s, so there is a little different generation mindset between her and your mother.

I'm not saying that this type of situation is best, but if her place is becoming a health hazard as you say (first pets, then humans . . . ), something drastic and quick might be in order.
posted by galimatias at 9:49 AM on August 28, 2006

Ouch. I feel your pain. I just went through moving my grandmother from her huge house to her small apartment in a care home. She was a hoarder to a degree, but I wouldn't say packrat. She would keep things like the foam from meat packaging, or chineese takeout tins to store food in. *shudder* The biggest problem was getting her to agree to get rid of things. She hated the boxes in her apartment, but when it came to tossing things she would cry. The result was deep emotional stress for everyone.

What is working for us (after weeks of carefully dropped hints and coaxing), was emphasizing how things she didn't use anymore could help others. We cycled through the various charities, (Salvation Army, Goodwill, and heck, even Value Village), before she settled on the Church (who has annual fall fairs), as an appropriate place to contribute something to society. She felt good about her generous donations, and we got to toss eight of the twelve ugly large lamps.
On a more horrible note, some sneaky hand work is good too. She would sit in a chair while we would present items to her, and she would make a decision (garbage, church, do you want it, and keep). After she agreed to 30 or so tea cups to keep, I just started sneaking half of them into the charity box. Sure it's mean, but lets be honest, most of them she didn't recognize and wouldn't realize were missing. They were chosen on the fact that the wern't cracked or chipped.
We did this every day for weeks. Encouragment and praise goes a long way. When we finished a box we would show her the results. She was kept up to date with our progress. We would arrive with gifts (fruit, some beer, specialty coffee), mixing reward with getting things done. A lot of the resistance we met was because she felt she was physically unable to take the stress, so she decided it was easier not to even try.
If you want this done for her, -you- are going to do a hell of a lot of work. But it's worth it.
posted by billy_the_punk at 9:54 AM on August 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

She's 88. She thinks you're getting the house cleaned up so you can sell it and put her in a home. You have to come to an understanding about that first, then you can work on the other stuff.

Or you could just get a family member or two to distract her and have a go at it yourself.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 9:55 AM on August 28, 2006

I love this book and mentioned it in another thread recently. If she won't read it herself, maybe you could go through some of the arguments with her. This one is also good and doesn't have the Feng Shui connection.
posted by teleskiving at 9:59 AM on August 28, 2006

I'd play up the health and cleaning issue.

But she wants to keep all kinds of random stuff, no matter how annoying it is to you, it's not a problem that needs to be fixed, as long as the house can be kept clean and vermin-free. If she wants her home to contain seven sets of dishes and all of your baby clothes in boxes, well, so what.

If someone went through my house and assessed what's "important" and what's "not important", and threw away anything deemed in the latter category, I don't think I'd ever forgive them. (And I am not a packrat. But I do keep things that wouldn't make sense to anyone else.)

On preview, I like the "do good by giving away things to people in need" idea.
posted by desuetude at 10:03 AM on August 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

Although it's possible Mr. Gunn is right about what she *thinks*, it sounds instead like you're wanting to clean up exactly so that she can stay. Emphasize this, in a discussion of the health issue (if the dog is sick, your mom's health is also in danger) and the safety issue (are there stacks of boxes, making it hard for her to get around? are there things that might fall on her, or that she might fall on?). You want the house to be more liveable for her, because you love her and want to help her stay independent as long as possible.

If she watches TV, there are TV shows about home organizers -- who come into houses that are full of junk, put it all out on the front lawn, and then help the occupants get rid of about half of it. All of this in a positive spirit, and the people are happy about going back into their cleaner, more liveable home. There was one on TLC a couple of years ago which is probably still on; I think it's called Clean Sweep or something like that. If she's of sound mind (ie, not trending toward paranoid), this might get her in the spirit.

It's a tricky strategy of theirs, to put everything outside the house to sort it. That way the owners must positively decide which things to bring back in -- the default course is that things are to be sold in a garage sale, and the remainder are given to a charity. As others said above, she might feel better, thinking that her stuff will go to a good use, not just be thrown out (even if that's not true).

I agree that you -- or someone you hire, eg a couple of local church youths or something? -- should work with her, doing the physical part so she doesn't get exhausted from that. If you and she have conflict, it might be best to have others do this part. It does sound like just *suggesting* she get rid of a bag a week isn't working, so maybe it's time to be a bit more forceful. The vet exam is a good spark; it's something empirical, it's not just your opinion that the house is unhealthily messy.

Good luck!
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:45 AM on August 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

The first question is whether your mother is really willing to part with all this stuff or not. If not, my suggestion won't be much use.

If she is, you could do what my sister did with our mother (who isn't pathological, but does have way too much stuff). She went over to my parents' place and (working just on clothing for the first visit) sorted through every item, getting rid of anything that didn't fit, wasn't usable, or hadn't been used in the past year. She was very peremptory about it "Mom? This? Come on. It goes." Didn't give my mom much of a chance to say No. By the time she was done, 4/5ths of my mom's clothes were in the donation pile, and none of it was missed.
posted by adamrice at 10:56 AM on August 28, 2006

I wish I knew how to deal with this, since my Mom is also a packrat (a child of the Great Depression, she never outgrew the fear of deprivation). The clutter drives her crazy but she can't actually bring herself to get rid of it. Nothing anyone can do will convince her to let go of a large volume of junk at any one time (a single shopping bag is an exhausting, traumatic process of deep emotional pain), but I've found a few approaches that help her let go of one or two things, now and then.

First is the appeal to help others - as a child of poverty herself she empathizes with poor people, so she likes the idea that her unneeded item will be used by a needy person. Never try to throw anything remotely useable in the garbage - it has to be donated somewhere. (A good approach for many reasons, really.) If you hear of a charity drive to collect certain things, like baby clothes or winter hats or whatever, you might be able to persuade your Mom to donate to this worthy cause. With luck, that's a shopping bag full of stuff out of the house.

Stuff that elementary school kids could use for arts and crafts supplies can also usually be donated safely, since most Moms like to "help the children". This can include lots of oddball things like styrofoam trays, egg cartons, old greeting cards and wrapping paper, empty thread spools, etc. However, a wholesale slash'n'burn cleanout will undoubtedly result in tears, resentment, and emotional exhaustion, as shepd and others have said.

The other approach is to make stuff look unuseable, basically dirty and damaged. That old kitchen spoon may be battered but it's no worse than the last time she used it. And it worked fine then so you can't argue that it's useless, even though Mom doesn't actually use it any more. So what you do is deliberately sabotage the spoon: you use it in the garden because "it's the perfect tool for [whatever task]", and then it gets all dirty and maybe even broken. At that point, and no sooner, it is safe to throw it away because it no longer looks like the spoon Mom used to use.

The general concept here is to use Mom's old junk in ways that will render it unrecognizeable, filthy, and maybe even busted. Your Mom may look at that old spoon and think about the pots of soup she used to stir with it, and family dinners when the kids were young, and so on down memory lane. But after a season in the garden, that spoon won't look like the one she remembers - it will be an anonymous dirty piece of junk with no sentimental history.

It can be kind of a game, trying to find new and hopefully damaging uses for old stuff. Gardens are great destroyers of household goods. Working on cars, painting the house, messy hobbies like dyeing or silkscreening - think of the drop cloths you'll need! And the protective smock or old clothes you'll gunk up! Not to mention shop rags and towels, and the old toothbrushes that are perfect for cleaning carburetor parts, etc etc. As long as Mom thinks that her old stuff is being used for something worthwhile she'll be happy to see you get some use out of it, and then you can quietly dump it in the garbage when it's good and trashed.
posted by Quietgal at 11:33 AM on August 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

First off I want to thank all of you for answering my post, it is my first post, and I REALLY appreciate the help. To answer some questions. When I think of going in there alone, ( I am an only child), and dealing with whatever I may find, and dealing with her fears and anger, well, I just can't. It's very touchy, she is defensive, I am frustrated. Bad combo. The external storage could be do-able, also the health link argument.. I also know that she enjoys helping people, she does volunteer work and has been giving odds and ends to the Huname Scoiety yard sale for years. I think that will help her feel better about things going away. Shepd's answer seemed right on with the analogy, thanks for the kindness! Once again, THANK YOU, I am on my way to the suggested web sites.
posted by haikuku at 1:57 PM on August 28, 2006

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