What options exist for confronting dirty in-laws?
September 24, 2007 4:32 PM   Subscribe

Do you have any advice on how to handle filthy, filthy in-laws?

Here's the super-condensed version-

Parents-in-law are filthy people living in a filthy house. No hyperbole here. There is animal urine and feces ground into the carpet in every room in the house. I've heard that there's mold growing in most of the house and they suffer from constant respiratory infections. (neither my wife nor I have stepped foot in the house in five years - we don't want to expose our daughter to the nastiness) Plus, they're hoarders, both of useless stuff and animals. Seriously, fire is the only way to clean their house at this point.

I don't just say this as a son-in-law either; my wife and her older sister agree on this point. They are in the process of talking with the younger siblings in order to form a consensus on what to do about the situation.

My question is, what can be done? Once the kids all agree that something needs to be done the options are confronting their parents and... what? Call the county? Have the house condemned? Call mental services? Sadly, just saying, "your house is dirty and needs to be cleaned," won't be enough, as there may be mental stability issues, and direct confrontation is likely to drive the parents deeper into their downward spiral. They're likely going to have to bring the force of law to bear, so what are the options? What services exist for this situation?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
A house that filthy might actually be something social services would be involved in. I have seen children taken out of houses (by social services) before over issues of filth.

IANAD, but I have seen what you describe in people I know who do have some form of mental illness. Where are you located? You if you have a Department of Social Services of its equivalent in your community, you can call them anonymously and see what they suggest.

Best of luck. I am so sorry you are going through this.
posted by 4ster at 4:41 PM on September 24, 2007

This is a relatively common disorder, and you are likely to need professional help.

Here's an earlier MetaFilter thread on the subject with links to Disaster Masters, a company which specializes in clutter management, Disposophobia, and a Squalor support group.
posted by fandango_matt at 4:41 PM on September 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Resources for compulsive hoarding (by state) might be of use. Good luck.
posted by macadamiaranch at 4:42 PM on September 24, 2007

And now, the MetaFilter link.
posted by fandango_matt at 4:42 PM on September 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

More info needed: are they able to function outside of the home ? Are they able to manage financial affairs? Most States provide a procedure for guardianship/conservatorship for folk impaired to the point of medical intervention. Family Dr. , if any , may be a source of info as well as "church" social services.
posted by Agamenticus at 4:45 PM on September 24, 2007

Imagine two or three different scenarios, assess their likelihood, choose one or two, and start planning, trying to anticipate every eventuality.

Seems like you have consensus: there is a problem that must be addressed. And it will be hard to break this pattern of behavior.

So, choose the scenario of either getting law enforcement, or, most realistically, the local health authority or building inspector (who can condemn buildings) involved. The house will be forcibly cleaned. But then what? Your in-laws will be emotionally wrecked at the very least, most likely angry. What about getting them committed? Then their mental-health issues can be addressed.

But there won't be any easy fix. If their mental health issues are addressed, you're going to have to work with the health care provider for a long-term care strategy. Who is going to ensure they are cared for? Will you share the responsibility? Or will it be just one sibling?
posted by KokuRyu at 4:48 PM on September 24, 2007

call your local department of health and human services. if they have pets who are neglected, you may find a way in by calling animal control. the house may be condemned because of mold, as well.

i'm really sorry. i think no matter what, it's going to be painful for them. they do and will need mental health care.
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:49 PM on September 24, 2007

Here's another resource: Children of Hoarders, and the documentary My Mother's Garden.
posted by kimdog at 4:59 PM on September 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

I had to do this with a cousin. There were several dumpsters worth of trash in her small two room apartment, and it literally impossible to reach many areas, but her carpet was molding something fierce. First, without a doubt, contact the state or county social services. The parents should have a social worker. Second, make a plan that will incentivize them to let you help them and for them to get more long term help.
Example: find a social worker and make sure you have the parents set up with therapists/whatever professional help is recommended by the social worker. Then have the following dialogue:
"Parents, I am afraid that the mold and animal waste in your carpet is making you sick. (insert support for tis statement here.) Will you let us buy you new carpet? For this to happen, your entire house will need to be cleaned, and you will have to deal with the piles of newspapers/garbage/whatever. This will be difficult, but it's absolutely necessary and we will help you through the process."
Then get someone to help them clean. We used something like Service Masters, and told the cousin that EVERYTHING she didn't want thrown away needed to be off the carpet when they came. Of course this didn't happen, but ended up not being a big deal. Working to pack up/collect/organize the things that were actually important kept her from panicking when we threw away the things that were really trash. ServiceMaster was instructed to communicate only with ME and not at all with the family member, and if she was concerned about something they were doing I could help mediate- "I'm not sure there will be room to pack this. Can we give it to one of your children or to Goodwill?"
Note that having therapists or psychiatrists in the wings, or even better having the parents start to see the therapist before the clean up happens is essential. They will need help in dealing with their perceived loss and with preventing the mess from happening again. It is also essential that the parents have a family member they trust with them through the cleaning process to minimize conflict. They will think of it as having someone on their side.
Good luck! It's a lot of work, but try to be loving and understanding but most of all patient.
posted by ohio at 4:59 PM on September 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Mom is a hoarder, Dad is a minimalist (oh, boy). The only way we could deal with Mom's mess was to wait until she had a stroke and went into a nursing home. Otherwise the hystrionics were too much for any of my (otherwise) very strong-willed syblings to deal with.

What I'm getting at is sometimes you just have to wait it out. Maybe you have other options, though, in which case you're fortunate.
posted by trinity8-director at 5:55 PM on September 24, 2007

Don't know where you are, but in NYC there's a city agency called Adult Protective Services that can forcibly clean out a person's home if it's in a dangerous condition. I imagine there's something comparable in most big cities. However, a forcible cleaning is very traumatic b/c the agency takes a scorched earth approach and gets rid of absolutely everything. If you can get the parents to agree to work with a social worker or agency to voluntarily clean that's the best approach. Hoarding is a common problem among older people and a geriatric mental health specialist in your area should be able to help.

Calling animal control is also a good idea to at least deal with that aspect of the problem.
posted by Mavri at 5:38 AM on September 25, 2007

Admittedly I don't know much about this, but might it help if the siblings all got together and rented a storage unit? That way, the stuff wouldn't have to be thrown away (which the parents probably wouldn't like), it could be systematically categorized, boxed, and then taken somewhere else.

Even as a temporary measure, off-site storage could help open the space up enough so that stuff _could_ be more successfully organized.

Temporary rental (say, pre-paid for three months) also could give you all a deadline to work toward. However, renting indefinitely (forever) might make the whole thing a little less stressful for the parents.

All this assumes that the parents have the means to get to the storage whenever they want; they may want to be assured that they can get to the stuff.
posted by amtho at 7:53 AM on September 25, 2007

My dad is like that. The off-site storage (read my attic) solution, is not a solution. It just means that he has more space to fill with more crap. The mess on my attic is an extension to his home and will never be cleaned up by him.

I am not from the USA so I can not answer your question, being in the same situation, I can not say the Dutch have found a way to help. I decided to stick it out. He likes life this way and so far it has not killed him yet, or is likely to kill him in the near future. It is not good for his health, but so be it, he wants it this way. My brother and sister both have a hard time dealing with it, but they also learned to accept dad the way he is (all with their attics full of his crap!).

It took me some time but I am ok with his situation now. My 6 yr old son does not see his grandpa often in his house and if he does for an hour he gets clean clothes and a shower. I do invite my dad to my home, so we still see each other. I love him. If this is the way he wants to have his life, so be it. I think we have found a nice way to stay in touch and leave him with his gigantic mess in peace.
posted by kudzu at 2:24 PM on September 25, 2007

Everyone else has covered the social services aspect, so I'm going with the environmental one:

Once you've gotten help for the in-laws (social services, etc.) and if they're going to stay in house or move to another place, make sure there is NO carpet. Anywhere. Only wood, concrete, linoleum or tile floors. No upholstered, cushioned chairs or sofas -- pleather, vinyl, plastic or something else than won't hold odors. No curtains -- just blinds. Seriously. Use the household approach that's taken by people with extremely severe allergies. Only furniture, flooring, etc. that can be wiped down with vinegar, bleach or ammonia. Or hosed down.
posted by Smalltown Girl at 6:54 AM on September 28, 2007

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