#446 and #447: Aging, family, and boundaries

Dear Captain Awkward:

I’m having a bit of trouble with my parents.

To start off with, I’m in my mid-40s and have been living on my own since I was 19. My parents are in their late 60s. They’re both retired, but Dad has been volunteering his time at a local school to give him something to do. Because of this, he is not home during the day.

In the last year or so, Mom has been unable to drive, so I have taken up driving her where she needs to go when my father can’t drive her. At first this wasn’t a problem, but more recently it has become a huge headache. For starters, she has tried calling me for a ride when I am at work, which is obviously a no-go. If I try to arrange things for another time, when I am available, she gets huffy and combative and acts generally displeased the whole time we’re out. This usually results in her complaining to my father about how uncooperative I am, which gets me a phone call from Dad telling me off for not being more helpful.

I really want to help my Mom, but I have my own life to worry about and I can’t change my schedule to fit hers all the time. It’s really difficult to approach her about the subject because she gets very defensive any time I bring it up. Do you have any scripts for talking with her about it? Also something to help with Dad would be nice too.

Frustrated Daughter

I really feel for your mom and her loss of independence and freedom. She is not the bad guy for needing a ride, for aging, for needing care. But also, things cannot go on this way.

I think you have to sit down with both of your parents and talk about driving and boundaries and schedules, and it’s not going to be easy, and they are probably going to give you a bunch of pushback.

I think first, you should look at your schedule and plot out:

  • Work
  • Life stuff – working out, grocery shopping, errands, making dinner for yourself. Stuff you need to do to be okay and happy.
  • Social commitments
  • Leisure time
  • 1-2 regular time blocks every week where you will be willing and able to take your mom someplace. Be pretty conservative with these. One weeknight and one weekend day? Please don’t try to find little daily time windows or maximize available time in a way that they want to hear, you’ll make yourself nuts.

Make a chart with the days of the week and block out times you are busy as UNAVAILABLE and times you are free & able to drive your mom as AVAILABLE. Don’t spell out why you are unavailable, the absolute last thing you want to have to do is to justify every piece of your schedule to them. “I have another commitment, I’m sorry.

Then sit down with them and say: “Mom, I am very happy to drive you and spend time with you when you need it, but the haphazard way we are handling it now is leading to a lot of fighting and I don’t think it’s good for any of us. So I made a schedule of times I am free to take you someplace. If you can schedule appointments, errands, etc. as much as possible for those windows, it would make it much easier for us to plan and have a regular day when everything can get done.”

They are almost certainly going to push these boundaries. What if she needs you during one of your busy times? Why are you being so bossy? WE’RE YOUR FAAAAAAAMILY. They are going to do some forced teaming stuff to try to make it your problem to figure out how your mom will get around when you are not available. I say this with some confidence, because your dad calls you to yell at you instead of driving home to pick up your mom himself.

Outside of those regular times, your dad can find a way to handle it, or your mom can call a car service or taxi or a friend. There are sometimes resources available for seniors for things like getting back and forth to medical appointments, so I would call your local Department on Aging or Senior Center and do some research into what’s available. But honestly, I would refrain from making suggestions and let them work through it. There’s something in here about their marriage and some negotiating they need to do between themselves about how your mom’s changing circumstances mean that her husband has to step in and care for her without making it something she has to beg for. He’s not allowed to just abdicate this to you and browbeat you for not doing enough. There is also some coming to terms with “what is the long-term plan here as we both age? What would we do if we didn’t have a daughter to help us?” that you all need to deal with over time. I think the payoff for you getting involved in those discussions at this time is extremely low, which is why I suggest a script of:

I don’t have an answer to that right now. I just wanted you guys to have a simple way to schedule things so that I can give you the best help I can give.”

I would try to leave as soon as possible after saying that and let them discuss (and complain all they want!) in your absence.

If they really push you or try to guilt you about not being 100% always available, push back. “I want to help you guys out, but not at the cost of losing my job or us constantly fighting. I have told you the times that I can make something work, and I need you to respect them. I am your daughter and I love you, but that doesn’t mean I can be a 24-7 on-call taxi service, and it is unfair and unreasonable to get angry at me about that.

Then, see what they do. I predict they will pay lip service to making it work, but that they will test your boundaries almost immediately. Things you can do:

Don’t take their calls when you’re at work. Switch off your phone if necessary. Call them when you are done with work.

Do not get sucked into discussions about why you can’t drop everything. “Sorry mom, I won’t be able to make that work. Can’t talk now, but I’ll check in tomorrow about our regular Friday plans.

If your dad calls you to yell at you, don’t pick up.

In fact, if you find that they are always calling you and have an expectation of immediate response and interaction on their schedule, take a page from Comrade Physioproff’s book and do some work to reset expectations about how often and on what terms you talk. Caller ID means that you don’t have to pick up the phone immediately. Phones can be hung up or not answered for many reasons.

  • I was driving!
  • I was in the bathroom!
  • Forgot to charge my phone, sorry.
  • Had it on silent for a meeting, forgot to take it off.
  • Busy getting work done.
  • In a checkout line, need to not be on cell phone.
  • Was in the middle of another call.

If they are nice to you and respectful of boundaries, they get a lot of your time, attention, and help. If they constantly call you and complain, they get very perfunctory attention. You can decide how much or how little of that you want to communicate directly to them. They might figure out that constant calling & yelling gets them a brick wall, but being respectful gets them a helpful daughter (a few preset times/week).

Whenever you set a boundary that wasn’t there before and start to enforce it, things become tense and you may be tempted to scrap the whole thing. In cases where everyone loves each other and is acting in good faith, these tensions are temporary and people will readjust to the new boundaries. Give it a little time, let things roll off your back, and stick to the times you are actually free and willing to help and you should see at least some changes.

Hi Captain!

Last year I married this amazing man. Second marriage for both of us, after terrible first ones. We have a strong, healthy relationship with lots of communication, fun, and love.

Husband’s widowed mother (in her early 70s) and grandmother (in her late 90s) live with us. Actually, they lived in his home before I moved in. MIL is grandma’s caretaker. She also volunteers and is politically active. These are positive developments, as MIL was depressed and withdrawn for years after being widowed. I sincerely like and respect MIL. She’s been supportive, respects our privacy, and treats us as adults. 

MIL has trouble setting boundaries for herself, and it’s spilling stressfully into our lives. Last year she asked if she could foster a cat for two weeks, then brought home two pregnant cats who had 9 kittens – and parasites. Add the 6 cats we already have, and we had 17 cats – for two months. 

She’s never been diagnosed as a hoarder, but we can barely use most of the rooms in the house. She recycles, but only takes stuff to the local drop off every few months. She hangs on to plastic containers, broken furniture, even spoiled food. 

She polices the trash, pulling things out that we throw away. We often secretly drive our trash to other locations to throw it away, but if she catches us on the way out, there’s a trash interrogation. We try to have polite but honest discussions about the state of the house, but they all end with “But I need this stuff because of reasons.”

To her credit, she started working hard to keep the kitchen cleaner when we asked her to so we can at least cook. I know she’s tired, having taken on too much, but she also refuses to accept help – whether with recycling, taking care of grandma, or her depression. 

Asking her to move out isn’t an option. She’ll move out when grandma goes to a nursing home or dies. While that will be sometime in the next few years, there’s still this indefinite amount of time in which my trash is a prisoner in its own home, we can’t have friends or family visit, and we have to live with the mess and smell. The oversized room over the garage works as bedroom and retreat from the chaos for Husband and me, but we don’t know what to do with the trash interrogations. Any tips on how to keep our sanity in the short term? Maybe a script for when she asks “Why are you throwing *that* away?” or when she’s explaining why she rescued yet another broken appliance or plastic container?


Dear Trashed:

Oh, how stressful and upsetting.

I think your husband should try to get his mom diagnosed and get her some professional help as soon as possible. I don’t think that’s something you can do, as the newcomer, but hoarding is (or is part of) very real conditions that can be treated. There are some resources and links for children or families of hoarders here. Giving it a name and working with what is really happening is going to be very important. You said she is reluctant to accept help, maybe you could start small with a simple medical checkup.

Asking her to move out is not an option, you said. This is a pity. Is YOU moving out an option? It is an unwelcome one, to be sure, and an expensive one, to be sure, but it is something your husband can raise in talking with her. “Mother-in-Law, we need you to get some help and deal with this. You are making us (and your elderly mother) live with a stench and spoiled food. It is very unhealthy for all of us, and we can’t be around it. Are you saying you will force your own son to move out of his house rather than go to a doctor and help us all work together on making a happy and safe home?”

Because my dear Letter Writer, you cannot live with this for three -several more years. A studio apartment that you share that has no hoarder might be better than the health problems, constant tension, and probable divorce if this continues. I believe you that your husband’s ex was not a good fit for him, but as an outsider I can see a perfectly nice and compatible person run, run, running for the hills at the situation you describe. I also think that you should get some mental health support yourself, and encourage your husband to get counseling as well. You are going to find this illness of hers warping your reality and sense of what is normal in all kinds of ways, and you’re going to want someone outside of the family who knows the whole story to be your constant reality check.

Whatever you decide, it’s important that you and your husband be on the same team about this, and have a united front.

  • You need to be able to live comfortably and safely in your home and not have it be a health hazard.
  • You need to be able to invite family and friends to your home, and you are going to set an overall house goal for that to be possible.
  • Fighting constantly over trash is not normal and it is not okay, and you will fight together to prevent it from becoming the new normal and from letting her illness control everything about the way you live.
  • No more animals in the house. Period.

The hoarding sites I read stress autonomy. She is an adult who gets to decide what happens to her own stuff, so don’t throw things that belong to your Mother-in-Law away. However, she shares a house and you can ask her to keep her things out of common spaces, like the kitchen. Her room might indeed become horrifying, but if she can confine her piles there that is a win for you.

And just as she gets to decide about her things, you get to decide about your things.  So a general script for “Why are you throwing that away?” might be:

It is mine and I do not want it in the house anymore.”

Her response will be: “It’s perfectly good! I will use it!”

And you can say: “I’m sure you are right! But it is mine and I do not want it in the house anymore.

And she will cry and maybe try to take it back and you can say:

This isn’t actually a negotiation. If it’s hard for you to watch or be around me when I take the garbage out, I suggest you go back inside now.

And then you leave and you throw it away. And she will probably have a lot of feelings about that, and it will be very difficult to watch or engage with those feelings. But maybe sending a message that you can live with her upset feelings, you just can’t live with spoiled food and stench will do some tiny bit of good, for you.

Hoarding resources also emphasize using logic to point out how the hoarding is interfering with the person’s goals. Does she want to see family more? Does she want her son to stay close and be happy and proud to have people over to his house?

I think it would help to get her to agree to some procedures for spoiled food. “Mom, can we agree that old food has got to be thrown away? We know that you might have some strong feelings that come up when we try to throw it away, but we still HAVE TO throw it away, or we will all get sick. We’re not doing it to hurt you, please trust us.

Get her to agree to that, if you can. And then when she resists throwing away old food, you can say “I know this is hard, but you know and I know that we can’t have rotting food in the house.”

Her illness is setting you all up to live in filth and constantly fight with each other. I think you should try to get her some help, I think that if she can’t or won’t get help that you should move out for a few years and reclaim the house (ugh…this prospect, I cannot really imagine it, but I believe you cannot stay as things are), and I think you should be very firm about trash removal (your stuff, your husband’s stuff, rotting food). It may feel extremely cruel, guilt-inducing, and terrifying to engage with her emotional response when you do try to improve things around the house, but it’s important to say this: She will have crushing anxiety attacks when you try to throw things away, but she has that much anxiety all the time, anyway, no matter what you do. Your safety and survival > her feelings. The choice right now is:

Let your Mother-In-Law hoard everything, do not confront her + She has a mental illness that makes her feel very anxious and bad and ashamed + The house is filthy and unlivable.


Confront her, try to get her some help, and try to set some firmer boundaries about taking care of the house, maybe have a lot of fights + She has a mental illness that makes her feel bad, anxious, and ashamed + maybe the house gets a bit more livable for you.

There is no happy option where everything is clean and she feels okay without a lot of hard work and some serious negotiations and conflict, where you just stay cool and hang in there and suddenly someday everything gets better and you get a prize for being the nicest and most accommodating daughter-in-law.

She would never have chosen to behave like this, but right now her illness is ruling all of you and forcing you into a world where she feels bad all the time and you live in filth all the time and no one is getting anything that they want.  So you get to try to take some steps for your own well-being, even if it feels like you are hurting her.


Readers who care for aging parents, have you successfully dealt with any of these situations? The thread is yours.

157 thoughts on “#446 and #447: Aging, family, and boundaries

  1. I lived with my grandfather (and aunt) and drove him everywhere for three years. I was fortunate that I had a supportive family and flexible schedule and I didn’t resent it (because I did like spending time with him and I liked doing things for him), but the man had more doctor appointments than anyone and he was reasonably healthy. He also wanted to leave two hours early for everything and always wanted me to turn the car lights on, even on sunny June afternoons.

    He was so obsessed with being early that I made a chart for the refrigerator:

    eye doctor will leave no sooner than 45 min before appt (5 miles)
    dentist will leave no sooner than 1 hour before appt (10 miles)
    foot doctor will leave no sooner than 20 min before appt (2 miles)
    vet will leave no sooner than 30 min before appt (3 miles)

    etc., etc.

    I told him if he wanted to go sit in the car and wait, that was fine, but I was the one with the keys. We were never late, in all those years.

    Also, every time we got in car I preemptively announced, “The light are on and the doors are locked! All seat belts are buckled!”

    Fortunately, he had a good sense of humor and he could laugh at himself, but it did take me a while to make our anxieties congruous. Everyone in my family gets anxious about something, usually being on time or locking doors. It helps if we agree to be uptight about the same things. No one who leaves doors unlocked can be part of our family!

    My aunt was a borderline hoarder. She got much worse after my grandfather died and I moved out. She was hospitalized and my parents and brother and sister-in-law cleaned out the house. I would not recommend this course of action. It was humiliating for her and hard work for the rest of the family. Both my mom and dad got sick. My mom (my dad and aunt were siblings) is a thrower-awayer (seriously, if it is not nailed down she will toss it) and she had been itching for years to clean up that house. It was a real conflict of styles. After my aunt died, my parents rented a dumpster and it took 9 months to get the house into shape to sell. So that may be something you want to add to your script, LW, “We are interested in maintaining the property value of this house. We have no plans to sell now, but it’s important that while we are here we care for it so that it could one day be market-ready.” Hoarding can really damage the structure of a house, not just the cosmetic appeal.

    I honestly think that hoarding needs a combination of therapies. Logic and talking and pleading and reason and compassion and intervention did not work on my aunt, who was a wonderful, loving person who wanted to please her family. I think hoarders get worse and the sooner they get help, the better the chance for recovery.

    Good luck to both of you!

    1. I love your chart about when to leave for appointments. My husband’s entire family likes to get places massively early and I’ve never seen anyone address it before. I’m sure to borrow from it some day!

    2. Wow. I am one of those people who is just incredibly anxious about being late, to the point where if I’m going somewhere by myself, I will frequently wind up about 30-45 minutes early. It’s a point of frustration when travelling with people, because while as a group, we’re never late, I’m always afraid that we will be.

      So I’m really glad you posted this, because it seriously had not occurred to me that this was…not a reasonable sort of a time frame to inflict on other people, especially if I’m not the one in charge of transportation. So while I’m probably still going to be kind of anxious, I can at least try not to make it anyone else’s problem (by which I mean I’ll do my best to stop making worried “shouldn’t we be getting ready now?” noises when doing so would get us there more than 15 minutes before whenever we actually need to be there).

  2. Frustrated daughter!

    Good on your dad for voluntering and helping others as well as himself! You should tell him that just like his time at the school is important, so is your work. You can’t be disturbed there unless there’s a crisis. This is how you make money to pay for things like driving his wife around town.

    It’s nice of you to help your mother. Other than CA’s advice; stress to your mom that you’re doing her a favour, when you could have played Borderlands 2 or learned to cook chocolate fondant with that time. You like helping and being with her but feel it’s awkward for the both of you when your time together is all wired from stress. If she doesn’t like scheduling things to when you’re available, she should look for a new ride. You are their son, not their sherpa.


    I’d love to know a little more about your relationships with your MIL and gam-gam before you moved in. Did you have a chance to see their true colours?

    It sounds like you and your husband also has some troubles with setting boundaries. Your MIL asked about fostering one cat and then brought home two, who then proceeded to have kittens and live in your home for months. While I applaud you for taking care of the cats, what about taking care of yourself? It doesn’t sound like you wanted to have 17 cats at home, and yet… Did you and/or your husband talk to your MIL about it? Please stand up for yourself. You are important.

    I’d look in to some resources for hoarders and those who love them. I hope that will get you some support. You can’t fix her, especially if she doesn’t want you. But you CAN stick up for yourself! Call someone who knows about hoarding and have them come by the house and evaluate it. I don’t mean this as an ambush, just so that you will know how bad things really are. It’s easy to miss the forrest for all the trash-trees. This is a tricky one, but I really think that someone specialized in this could help.

    1. You’re right about “Trashed” setting boundaries, and I think the Captain has given her suggestions for doing just that. I don’t think it’s helpful at this point to rehash how she could/should have acted differently in the past. Either she didn’t know the extent of the hoarding before moving in or let her desire to marry her husband outweigh the difficulty of the situation, but either way she needs to deal with where she is right now and find the best way to move forward.

  3. My heart goes out to both LWs – what frustrating situations you are both in! I don’t have anything to add to the Captain’s excellent advice to LW445, but LW447, you might find this blog interesting and helpful: http://tetanusburger.blogspot.ca/

    It’s not exactly advice, although there is some mixed in, but it might make you feel a bit more hopeful and a bit less alone.

  4. Also, you say your MIL is trying. Pick a spot, like some newly emptied areas in your kitchen. Unless they stay empty over X time, that doesn’t count as trying. She can have the world’s best intentions but unless she follows through, they don’t count and they don’t help. And if she can’t keep some areas in one room clean, I’m sorry, here is where I’d look your options. You need a clean, safe home. You need her to at least be okay with you throwing things away.

    Please stand up for yourself. These things sneak up on you until you have dead kittens and mice droppings everywhere. For now, catch up on the awesomeness that is Matt Paxton.

  5. No one in my family seems to have tipped over into actual mental illness-level hoarding, but it is a problem, on both sides – my mother’s sister lives alone in another city but I know from past visits that her house has pathways through the piles of things! Here, my father has two rooms full of stuff, his old study and his current study, and part of why I sometimes find it hard to throw things out is because I’ve had my mother poke at my rubbish and pull things back out. The problem we’re facing now is that once the costs have been finalised we’re going to have to move out of our house for two months for earthquake repairs, and when we do it has to be EMPTY.

    I’m not sure if I can give much advice but I definitely agree that you cannot continue to live like this. At the very least the spoiled food needs to go. Food mess is on a whole different level from other mess and you need to talk to your husband in a stress-free time and agree on a united position to take so that you aren’t being the mean one. If possible he should be the one leading the whole thing since it’s his mother and even a 50/50 split can be seen in your disfavour.

  6. Trashed (oh, I don’t like calling you that…) this is just a silly idea, but would watching the TV show Hoarders together help? I know it sounds silly, but watching Jersey Shore with my teenage sister gave me plenty of opportunity to talk to her and listen to her opinion on things like sex and friendship and what have you. Watching that kind of TV together opens up all sorts of channels of communication. I don’t know if the family as a unit communicates well, or if you do things like that together, but if it feels comfortable to all sit down and watch TV together, that might be something to consider. It could be an “in”, so to speak, and a way to make the whole situation more tangible and concrete.

    It could also come across as passive-aggressive and accusing though, depending on what the situation is in your home. So… Like I said, just an idea.

    1. I would probably be careful about this. I have a friend who is concerned that she might have hoarder tendencies, and she has told me that she can’t watch that show because it’s just too painful and embarrassing.

      1. Yeah, Hoarders tends to have an “OMG look how filthy these people are” tone. There are a lot of sensationalistic close-ups of mold and feces that could be triggering to a lot of people. There’s a knock-off show on a different channel called Hoarding that isn’t quite as bad, though it still feels intrusive and exploitative to me. It emphasizes the therapy process and shows hoarders working through their issues. They set more realistic goals, have a higher success rate and are generally more compassionate. In Hoarders, they usually have 2-3 days to eliminate 90% of their belongings, but in Hoarding they focus on the process. I remember an episode with a woman who spent a month cleaning out the dining room with the help of a therapist, and her family celebrated by eating Thanksgiving together for the first time in seven years. She said, “For the first time in my life, I feel proud of myself.” I think that sets a better example than the many episodes of Hoarders where the protagonist has panic attacks or tantrums and then is branded a failure when they don’t finish the job.

        1. I’m familiar with these shows. MIL doesn’t rise to the level of what’s shown on tv. We’re more at the stage in which there’s no surface in which you can sit or lay something down that isn’t already covered in stuff, not the stage in which there are towering piles of trash with dead animals underneath.

          1. I definitely think there’s a difference between extreme clutter (my grandmother did this – after she died, my parents went to clean out her house and said things like “You remember that couch downstairs?” and I said “There was a couch?”) and full-blown hoarding. The former is deeply annoying, but not inherently dangerous until it morphs into the latter; the latter can cause disease and even death ( e.g. those famous brothers and their burial alive under the rubbish).

            I wonder – and ignore if this is hlepy – but would it be possible to maybe start with the Potential Actual Threats (animals with parasites, rotten food -> botulism) and then move on to the other things (general clutter) when that’s taken care of? While getting therapy for everyone along the way?

      2. Even worse, I have friends who’s really out there on the hoarder scale and who say “hey, I love Hoarders, really puts in perspective how normal I really am” :-). So do try to watch an episode and see whether that kicks off a reasonable discussion, but don’t necessarily make a habit of it.

        Jane Brody at the NYTimes health section has had a couple really good articles, with solid resources, in the past year or so.

    2. As a child of a hoarder, I would say that some hoarders don’t see their own mess. My father is a hoarder, and always comments on other people’s messes, but can’t see that a large part of his own house is unreachable because it’s filled with too much stuff. So watching hoarders might not open any lines of discussion, just reveal the depth of their denial.

    1. Yeah, it really does depend on the situation. If she’s already feeling guilt and shame, and maybe some pressure, probably not. We’re the kind of family who sit down to watch and talk about TV all the time, so it wouldn’t be a major thing if that show happened to be on, but I do realize that wouldn’t work for everyone. But if someone doesn’t realize they have a real problem, or the ramifications of having that problem, actually seeing it play out before your eyes can have some effect. I didn’t realize I was depressed until I saw a documentary about it. YMMV.

  7. LW #2, I feel for your MIL. I am not a hoarder at all, but I do have a few analogous problems that can make me a pain to live with sometimes.

    You should do whatever you need to do to make the house livable for you. She may feel betrayed and attacked and like you are trying to hurt her; you should do whatever you need to do to make the house livable for you anyway. You are not trying to hurt her; you are, in fact, helping her.

    That said, it sounds like you want to hurt her as little as possible, and if you’re willing to go slowly, I would suggest this: encourage her to get professional help if you can, and then take small steps. Don’t expect everything to get better immediately overnight, but DO demand that it keep getting better (even if it’s at a slow pace) without too much backsliding or stalling. A good first step might be no rotting food in the house, and no more animals apart from the ones you already have. Once she’s used to that, you can try something else–maybe agreeing upon a once-weekly recycling run. The more quality of life improvements you can make, the better you all will feel–and the slower you go, the easier it will be for her to adjust. That said, YOU get to set the pace with regard to any and all things that affect you, whether she’s ready or not; be gentle with her, but don’t stall indefinitely because she’s “not ready yet.”

    I suggest this because this is what my roommates have done for me. They are wonderful and patient people, but they don’t let me get away with things that hurt them. At least, not without evidence that I’m taking serious steps to solve the problem, even if it’s not entirely solved just yet. And I’m a better person for that fact. I think your MIL would feel like a better person if she were able to gain some control over her problems, too.

    1. LW #2
      Maybe try some 101 de-cluttering tactics: what helps me the most is putting stuff I am not quite ready to throw away in some kind of storage space (neatly!) and them getting back to it a few months later. By then, I will be more able to let go of it.

      Also maybe try sorting all the junk. I feel that once you know exactly how much has actually piled up, and how much of the same you own, you are more willing to give away doubles etc.

      Depending on how pathogical MIL’s condition is, maybe suggest to her working at the local charity thrift shop. I too do not enjoy throwing things out that just should have lasted longer (appliances etc), but seeing that not even a thrift shop will be able to use certain things will maybe change her mind. Or maybe there is a local arts recycling project where she could upcycle her stuff and maybe get a differen perspective on all of this?!

      Wishing you the best of luck!

  8. My mother and grandmother are hoarders. They are the same ages as the LWs’. It took me a while growing up to learn that they were hoarders. It took me a long time to realize that I am a hoarder.

    My mother is a food hoarder. But her house doesn’t smell. She takes out the trash daily. But the fridge and freezer are stuffed to the gills with unidentifiable foods from decades ago. She also collects fruit, (generally apples) that surprising do not reek when they rot; or if they’re in the basement they become mummified.

    For Trashed, I can’t imagine what it must be like to come from sort of “normal” life into a hoarding situation. What I can tell you, is that coming from the hoarder side – they really truly do not see what you see. You can see the house covered from floor to ceiling in stuff that will obviously topple over and crush someone. They see a few things that might be out of place. It’s like the world is zoomed in until only a fraction of what others see can even be noticed. Most importantly, everything has a pattern.

    Growing up, whenever I cleaned my room and had things to throw out, my mother would open the trash bag up and go through item by item to make sure there was nothing salvageable. When I was 6 it was annoying. When I was 17 it was an invasion of privacy. I remember pretending to go to bed at night, waiting until midnight when my mom was asleep, so that I could sneak my trash to the garbage can.

    This is going to be near impossible for you to confront – you are the outsider that came into THEIR home. Make sure you have your husband on your page, that he truly wants to correct the situation like you do. This is his family, and change will have to come through him, and he is going to need to defend you against his mom and grandma in order for change to happen.

    I recommend you make a list of the things that are truly important to you. I bet your husband is one of the first things on that list. You need to have this list, because hoarding is not an easy task to handle, and you are going to want that list to remind you that you are not crazy. This is a battlefield, and with the anxieties and depression and whatever else leads people to hoarding, letting them know you think it’s a battlefield is one of the worst things you can do. Because they’ll think of you as only The Enemy.

    You need to start with doable goals. Lets say they collect empty toilet paper rolls. Don’t tell them to get rid of their collection. Start by when they add by saying that they have to throw one away before they can add it to the collection. Say it with love. This is hard work. Keep calm – losing patience is only going to make things more stressful. Just work on throwing that one roll away each time they add one, or if they add 5 at a time, start with only adding 3 today and 2 go to the trash.

    I strongly recommend you get a therapist for yourself, and like it was mentioned look into services for hoarding. This is a family problem, and I worry that your marriage will become even more stressed if you are the catalyst of change.

  9. Dear Frustrated,

    I feel you. Oh do I feel you. And I own my own business and work from home… therefore I must be available 24-7 right? Right? No, no I am not. One of the easiest boundaries to start with is to become hard to get in touch with. I got one of the phones that announces callers so I don’t even have to get up when someone calls. I do have to check my voice mail often because I do want to be available in the case of a true emergency, but over time, I have managed to train my mom that I am available at the times that I said I would be, and truly unavailable when I said I wouldn’t.

    And they probably will try to guilt you, lord knows, mine have. But there are other options available, other than just you. Your dad could take a day off, your mom could take a cab or a bus or call another friend. Or they could do like my husband and I did for a while when we only had one car– we coordinated our personal schedules so that we could do personal errands and appointments together as much as humanly possible (hooray for tandem dentist appointments… they’re only slightly weird) They’re using you as a cab service because it’s easiest for them. But that’s no reason why it has to be all you all the time.

    Dear Trashed,

    I think one of the first things you should do is get someone out to evaluate the property– looking for things like increased ammonia levels from the animals or evidence of bugs or rodents. Because there are some problems caused by hoarding that are serious and absolutely need to be dealt with immediately, especially with grandmother’s health to worry about. That will tell you what needs immediate attention and what can wait. Spoiled food and health threatening issues absolutely have to get dealt with in a practical way pretty much immediately.

    Then, I think you and your husband should find a family counselor that you trust and can see individually and together to talk about boundaries and how to have difficult conversations. Then there is a support person in place so you can bring in MIL and even grandma as a part of the overall conversation about your household dynamics. You could come at this issue a little bit sideways if she’s prone to being defensive. Begin with the household dynamics and how you and your husband have almost been kicked out of your own home, and how can we free up more space within the main house so that everyone can be comfortable and social. She does need a check-up and someone to help her with her anxiety and depression. But her son, and a family counselor that ya’ll are all already working with would be the people who are in the best position to do that.

    If you’re not making any headway within a few months and/or your husband isn’t on board, I really do think that you need to move out. It’s just not healthy.

    1. Trashed:

      “Then, I think you and your husband should find a family counselor that you trust and can see individually and together to talk about boundaries and how to have difficult conversations.”

      Yes yes yes. Just because she won’t go to a counselor doesn’t mean you can’t. Even it just means an hour a week that you get a sympathetic ear to vent to.

      1. And counselors can give you tools for dealing! Especially if you can find one that’s dealt with hoarders before, so they have experience with this specific problem.

  10. “Asking her to move out isn’t an option. She’ll move out when grandma goes to a nursing home or dies.”

    LW, please don’t take asking her to move out off the table. Your grandmother could go to a low-care facility, and would be better off there than if this situation gets (or is already) to the point where it’s unsafe, unsanitary, and unworkable enough to constitute elder abuse/neglect. Because your MIL is in her 70s, you and your husband could be the ones charged with elder abuse – of both your grandmother and MIL! Also animal cruelty: it worries me a lot that there are 6 cats normally (how many are hers?) and that she tries to add more. And that most of the rooms in your house are unusable. That’s gone beyond the trying to reason with her stage and into the calling the authorities stage, I’m afraid. And if your husband grew up with this, he may not realise how bad it is or that he doesn’t have to live like this.

      1. Oh god yes. When you call an ambulance they’ll often tell you to open the door, put any pets in a closed room, and make sure there’s a route to where the ill/injured person is. Defibrillators aren’t as huge as they used to be but they’ll still need space to get that in if she has a heart attack plus at least two people and a stretcher, etc (and then probably out again).

        1. Yes, having basic access for emergency personnel is the absolute
          MINIMUM requirement for your home, since you have two seniors living there. If things are as crowded as you say they are, emergency personnel may also be legally obligated to make a report to Adult Protective Services, city code enforcement, etc. Is the home in your husband’s name ? If so, the fines, etc. may also be issued to HIM, even though he is not the accumulator.

          1. Also, they need to be able to perform maintenance on the house. They need to be able to give an electrician access to fuse boxes/wires, plumbers access to pipes, etc. Some of the more heartbreaking episodes of Hoarders show people who don’t have running water, heat or electricity because the clutter prevents household repairs. I shudder to think of a senior having to live in an environment like that.

    1. Maybe she could go to a low-care facility. Many are very restrictive about maximum age and state of health and will only admit new clients over that age limit into their full nursing care programs. Moving into a facility can also be detrimental to a person’s mental and physical health, so that may not be a solution that prioritizes GMIL’s health after all. It also may simply not be economically feasible, but MIL may be able to get some help through Medicare (assuming US LW) or local senior services.

      Second, these legal points are worth considering, but are best assessed by an attorney in your area who practices elder law. At least in the US, the law in this area is extremely variable from state to state, and municipalities may have additional rules to consider.

  11. Hey Trashed, I watch Hoarders, too, and one thing that comes up in 97% of the people that are hoarding is a very frustrating circular logic, for why something is useful and cannot be thrown out. It is like they have lost the ability to discriminate between something useful and something worthless, and can not understand that their living conditions are hazardous, unsanitary, unhealthy, etc.

    I have to respectfully disagree with the Captain’s advice. If you, your husband and grandmother were to move out, and left the MIL in your house, your entire house WILL become a hoard. However, If your MIL was moved to a studio apartment,or senior’s residence and her unit became a hoard, well, she would have to answer to the landlord, health department,etc.. While you as a family member may have to assist with the clean-up when/if she was evicted, please consider the actual volume of a 450 square foot bachelor apartment v.s. an average house with a basement, perhaps 1400 square feet plus a basement and yard. You and your spouse will have to pay the expenses for the disposal of the hoard, which can easily run into thousands of dollars, if there are not worse surprises like structural damage from the weight of the junk, or moisture from rotting food, animal waste,neglected roof, leaking pipes, etc..

    There is a really insightful book about hoarding, “Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things” by Gail Skeketee and Randy Frost


    It seems to suggest that the condition can be very difficult to treat, though perhaps slightly less so in people who are motivated to change. Some anti-anxiety medications can help some hoarders. Please reach out to some established family- member of hoarder groups online and/or locally, if there are any, and hopefully someone there can direct you to a local therapist, who is experienced with this issue(very important!)etc. for you and your husband AND your MIL (appointments together, and appointments separately).

    The more I watch Hoarders, the more that I feel that some of the featured hoarders are really, really mentally ill, and have been completely failed by no in-patient facilities. Even as they battle the therapists and clean-up crew, and their horrors and compulsions are exposed, they just have an utter lack of comprehension about how not okay their situation has become, and often the hoarder will literally chose a piece of trash over a family member who is sobbing right in front of them. They seem very similar to addicts who cannot recognize how selfish and damaging their self destructive behaviour is to their family and the people that care about them.

    Since MIL is the caregiver for grandmother, is it possible that BOTH of them could move to a senior’s assisted living facility ? Has MIL been checked for cognitive dysfunction, or things like blood pressure or heart issues that can affect the ability to think clearly ?

    And finally, is your husband on your side with regards to his mother’s hoarding ?

    1. I second the book recommendation (“Stuff”). It’s hugely informative, but still compassionate, and the notes at the back have a wealth of information on resources and ways to get help for hoarding.

    2. I must say I agree with this – if you’re going to give up on a hoarder and give them free reign, it’s much better to do it in a small studio than in a 4-people family house! Since you’ll be stuck with the shoveling out eventually, much better to have to dig out 400 sq feet rather than 1400. And since no amount of stuff can satisfy that urge, giving more space and possibility for more stuff won’t solve a thing.
      Another good book: “the hoarder in you” by Robin Zasio, the show’s resident psychologist.

  12. Ugh, Trashed, this brought up a lot of Past. My mother was a hoarder when I was growing up–cats, dogs, animal shit, rotten food, bags full of fast food trash, etc. I mostly can’t stop thinking about how your grandmother-in-law, who has the least control of her life, must be affected by it, even if she doesn’t show it.

    Your MIL needs to see a therapist stat, and she needs help, whether she wants it or not. I think Captain’s suggestions on how to get that for her are spot on. But please don’t wait another minute. “Warping your reality” is chillingly correct. It took me years, YEARS, to realize how abusive my childhood was because I was so preoccupied with defending my mother, who was, after all, a nice if depressed person. One doesn’t have to be malicious in order to deeply hurt and damage people one loves.

  13. To Trashed! – As a proto-hoarder who is working hard to avoid becoming the full-fledged deal, and as someone who comes from a family of pack rats, a lot of the anxiety comes from thought patterns like “but I might need it someday!” or “but what if I never get another thing just like this one ever again?” It’s a sort of apocalyptic view point. Every hoarded thing––even gross stuff like spoiled food––represents an opportunity, and every time you throw something away it represents an opportunity wasted. That is some epic anxiety there, lemme tell ya!

    When you start the process of confronting her (kindly!) about her illness––and I really think you should, because someone else’s anxiety controlling your life is even worse than your OWN anxiety controlling your life––it may help to come up with scripts to derail these ever-escalating thought processes. Two mantras that have really helped me are “everything is replaceable” (in the sense that, should I ever REALLY TRULY need an object that I have gotten rid of, I can either recreate it or find another one––honestly, I will never REALLY TRULY need an object I have gotten rid of, but it’s great comfort to remember that I’m not actually stocking up for the end of the world) and “I will see another [object] again” (in the sense that I don’t need to prepare

    1. if you’re looking for support/more resources, there are great discussion boards at unclutterer.com/discuss. There’s an ongoing ATAD (“a thing a day”) thread for getting rid of at least one thing every day, some other challenge threads from easy to totally minimalist, interesting emotional discussion (have you ever gotten rid of something and then regretted it? what’s better since you started decluttering? what fantasy self did you just let go of in order to get rid of associated objects?)

      It’s not a hoarder/COH spot, but everyone’s working on becoming farther from the hoarder end of the spectrum than where we started out.

    2. Yes. It’s very much (at least in some cases) a byproduct of scarcity – my grandmother got her “KEEP EVERYTHING” mentality from growing up during the Depression, and I picked up a bit of it from her. I’ve been making a lot of progress in the last decade or so in being able to get rid of things I don’t need anymore: broken things go to the trash or coiner’s scrap (if made primarily of metal), and still-okay-but-I-don’t-want-them things go to Goodwill. I actually find that donating to the Goodwill helps my anxiety about the items, because they’re not “going to waste” — it’s just that somebody else will be able to use them now. (But it’s very, very important to not use the “someone can use this” reasoning to give Goodwill total junk. They don’t need or want your junk.)

    3. Seconded on the “everything is replaceable” thing. I am a pack-rat and I have to be very careful to make sure I’m not keeping things for the sake of keeping them, rather than because I actually want them. I recently went through my shelves and threw out everything that I was keeping because I owned it rather than because I actually liked it — it was actually really hard, because I kept going “this glass clown was a gift from my grandmother, so I should keep it even though I don’t actually like it at all,” or “this cat cookie jar is big and kind of ugly and I never use it, but if I get rid of it I’ll never be able to replace it!” It was actually really helpful for me to get rid of stuff when I realized that mass-produced crap will always be replaceable, so when I regretted throwing out that cookie jar, for example, I was able to go on Ebay and see that I could buy the exact same one for twenty bucks. Also it helped me realize that if I wasn’t eager to pay twenty dollars to replace it, then it probably wasn’t important enough to me to keep in the first place.

  14. Aw, shucks. I pressed enter too early and now I’m not sure whether I’ve written this twice. Well, here goes:

    (in the sense that I don’t need to prepare myself and my possessions for the rest of my life right now).

    I don’t know whether these two phrases will help you in particular, whether you’ll need to tweak them or replace them entirely, but being ready to respond to some of the mental sleight-of-hand your MIL’s anxiety is playing with, and that she sees as emotionally true, may come in handy. You deserve to live in a clean, bright home that works actively to make you happy, as does the rest of your family, including your nice MIL whose brain isn’t letting her achieve that right now! I wish you all the best of luck.

    1. IDK if this is helpful, but I have some minor hoard-y tendencies and the way I got through cleaning out my old bedroom was by asking myself “do I expect I’ll ever use this again?” – not in terms of “can I imagine a theoretical situation in the future where this would come in handy?” but “is it *likely* such a theoretical situation will occur, if my life goes as it has in the past?” with an added dash of “if I did, sometime in the distant future, need this item, would I remember that I still had it/be able to find it? would keeping it now be easier than getting another one then?” 99% of the time the answers were no, no and no.

      1. Yeah, exactly! Questions like these which force you to practically confront the hoarding can be really helpful and reset otherwise destructive thought patterns. So again, LW, once your MIL is in a place where she is ready to hear this kind of thing, asking her things that make her reevaluate her reasons for keeping stuff might be really helpful. But it might also be really stressful, so be prepared to back off, too. Rome wasn’t cleaned in a day and all that.

      2. Another good question that I ask myself: “Have I used this in the last X years?” (I usually use 5) Anything that I haven’t used in 5+ years and have no serious sentimental attachment to (I mean, I’m not going to get rid of the outfit I got married in, or anything like that), I consider getting rid of. (Note: I am pack-rattish about certain groups of things, like clothes, for Reasons, but not nearly to the hoarder category)

        My grandmother is … well, not a hoarder in the way that I’ve seen described here, her kitchen is reasonably clean, she doesn’t hoard food or anything that gets disgusting, but because my grandfather periodically goes through things and throws away anything that he doesn’t greatly value without asking her if she wants to keep it (like, say, the tablecloth she inherited from HER grandmother), she does collect piles of newspapers (that she intends to save clippings from) and books, and clothes –although part of the piles is, or was originally, also due to not being able to clean much anymore. One aunt and uncle periodically go through her things and throw or give away her stuff that they think is unimportant or inappropriate, again without asking her –this is not helpful. But when I’m there and I go through things WITH her, and listen to her stories about why she kept some of the things and respect her reasons for still wanting to keep some of them, we get rid of things without upsetting her and she actually enjoys it. Even though it’s way too slow a process that way in my aunt and uncle’s opinion.

        I have no idea if this applies at all to your MIL’s situation, Trashed, I just was reminded of it really strongly by the thing about how throwing away a hoarder’s things without their being involved can make the hoarding instinct stronger.

        1. We are definitely not hoarders in my family – in fact, sometimes I have to stop my mother from throwing things out. After my dad died, mom needed to sell their house, and the process of getting it ready put her in a “throw out ALL THE STUFF” mindset. But my mom also tends toward a lot of self-doubt and self-questioning, and fortunately also listens to me and trusts my judgement. So she’d call me and ask if I thought she should throw out certain things.

          So now we have the same kind of “have we used it in the last X years” rule, although we go by 2-3 years. Certain things are excepted from this rule (“no, you can’t throw out my ice skates, I realize I haven’t been skating in the last couple of years, but it took too long to find a pair that fit”), but for the most part, it works admirably.

  15. Frustrated Daughter,

    One thing that might help is setting up a time when you call your mother and organise what things she needs lifts to during the week. Don’t agree to anything that doesn’t fit your schedule, and keep the calls brief so she can’t make her trips your problem. You’ll be able to give her advance notice that you can’t take her somewhere, and tell her to let your father know so they can work out some other arrangement. If you have a changing work schedule, this could help because it will prevent your mum from saying “Well, I didn’t KNOW that you were at work when I rang!” But if you have stable hours, then I think that following the Captain’s plan of making a chart with your ‘not free now’ times marked in.

  16. Regarding the first letter and driving – for a period of nearly a year and a half my father couldn’t drive, which for a man only in his mid 60s was very depressing for him. However, there are a number of driving services particularly oriented for seniors who for disability reasons can not drive and are often far less expensive. Also, having a relationship with a specific taxi driver may end up seeming less impersonal than dealing with a nameless taxi service.

    However, there are many services available for driving – and it took a considerable amount of stress off of my mother and brother. Obviously if family issues are getting in the way of resolving a technical problem, then that’s another issue to deal with. But there are many options for those who can no longer drive.

    1. The shuttle service is a great idea. There was one in the small town that I grew up with, so can’t imagine that there isn’t one where you live unless you live in a very rural area. If your mom is balking against the “senior” label, maybe gently remind her that these services are used by seniors, but also by young and middle-aged people who have mobility and or sight issues that make it difficult for them to get around.

      Another thought I have is that you making one day a week a more social event for the two of you, instead of just you being her chauffeur. If you can schedule a time (a weekend afternoon, maybe) for you both to do your errands together, and then have lunch or coffee together, you might be able to make it into something you both look forward to, instead of you feeling put upon and her feeling guilty.

  17. Frustrated Daughter, if your father can drive, he should be taking your mother to appointments, on errands, for grocery shopping, and so on. Your paid work time trumps his worthy retirement volunteering. There is absolutely no reason for you to be called upon as chauffeur if your mother lives with someone who can drive. (The time for that may come when neither of them can drive.) The advice above on setting boundaries is excellent, but. But. The root problem here is that your mother cannot drive and she is living in a place where that is essential to everyday life.

    If your father also cannot drive, then:

    1. Are shuttle services for seniors available in the area? They may require advance booking; may cost something; will certainly be less convenient than picking up the phone and nagging a daughter to drive. They are also the right solution for a person who does not drive and whose daughter works for a living. Taxis are often not good in suburban areas, and public transit is often unavailable; if these are options, your mother should be using them unless she has a strong reason not to (e.g.: no money; disabled, and transit service accessibility is poor; scheduling during the day is too infrequent to be useful).

    2. It is time for these people to reconsider whether they can live where they are living, if they cannot get to needed services without assistance.

    This sounds harsh to you, I am sure. However, I speak from experience. If you do decide to continue driving your mother around, set an immovable limit on your availability. Do not take PTO to drive your mother to her appointments. Offer part of a weekend day, or other day you would normally have off, no more than twice monthly. She sounds like she is able to manage well enough to arrange other transportation at other times, should she need it.

    Best of luck with this. It is certainly the most grinding part of dealing with aging parents.

    1. FD, all of e’s suggestions are really good things to think about.
      It’s eery that this would come up now, when I’ve just had a long talk with a friend about a similar problem. Our conclusion was that her father has never been that helpful around the house, or at all really, and it’s just getting worse. Her mother’s used to that, and thinks asking more is useless, so she transfers all her frustration/fear/pain onto her children. In fact, in that family, the regular day-long times where the daughters help the mom almost invariably end up with them getting berated about what lazy-no-good-kids they are and how they never help her :-(.

      I suggested in that other case that it’d be helpful to have a big calendar, where the kids could note all their interventions – R took mom to the pool + errands 10-6/S brought dinner 2h/etc. Then it’d be a lot more obvious how much the kids are in fact doing (and might even help them plan). But my friend objects, probably accurately, that arguing with the insane won’t help them see the light. Still, if it was me, I’d like to be able to point at the calendar -“but this week I spent 14h, 80% of my free time, doing things for you, and daddy did 20mn, or 0.12%”.

      This problem won’t go away FD, and will probably get worse. Like when you figure out your father’s been driving blind for 3 years, or some such lovely but common parental surprise. It’d pay off in the long term to address right now that your father’s compulsive volunteering needs to be a bit redirected in a more internal direction. Maybe you can estimate how much time your mom really needs, and ask your father to provide at least half of that? It doesn’t seem unreasonable, seeing how you’re working an all :-(..

      But also you might try to put pressure on your mom to accept outside help. The thing of refusing someone else than your daughter to help with housework, transportation etc is really heinous..

      1. Doing something similar helped a great deal in my relationship; my partner was entirely (and vocally) convinced that I did nothing around the house, and that they were doing EVERYTHING. Four weeks of logging all the housework, and if they still feel like that, I don’t know because they stopped complaining since there was evidence to the contrary (I did three times the housework they did in those four weeks, while working longer hours, and I’m chronically ill to boot).

        It was a simple thing that probably stopped us breaking up in sheer frustration at each other.

        1. Mmm. I wonder whether you should keep up the calendar and try to rebalance the actual load there? No fair to be doing 3 times the housework no matter what the other circumstances, aside from the bitching issue :-)..

  18. Trashed – my first thought here was “how on earth is there enough food left over to start rotting in these dangerous quantities?”. While your MiL does have some serious problems, I can totally see the reasoning behind not wanting to waste food, so maybe part of the solution could be examining the food shopping and working out why you’re buying more than you can all eat? Trash has to come from somewhere; maybe look at what’s coming in as well as what’s (not) going out.

    1. My grandma was a borderline food hoarder. She was very neat about it, but her house was piled to the ceiling with cans and bags and boxes of food. Blame trauma from near-starvation during WWII for that one. Her relationship with food was something so deep and profound, we couldn’t possibly grasp it. It wasn’t a matter if what she needed vs. what she wanted, it was life or death for her. In her mind, limiting the food supply = starving her. It was very tricky. Because you need food. That’s the problem with any disorder that includes food as a focal point. If she’d been collecting, say, newspapers to the point of excess, that’d be one thing. You don’t need newspapers to live. You do need food. Even if it is rotting. For her, the food didn’t need to be healthy or tasty, it needed to keep her alive in case of famine, and even rotting food does that job just fine.

      I don’t know if that’s the case here though. It can also be a matter of not disposing of leftovers properly, like cleaning the kitchen after making a meal, or scraping the plates. That’s a whole different problem altogether.

      I’m sorry, don’t mean to lecture, you probably know all that. This letter just made me think. My grandmother passed away never having addressed those issues, and I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand.

    2. I think that goes for other things too…

      Some hoarders buy new things, but even then, I think some of it is a reflection of how our society as a *whole* has become incredibly unhealthy when it comes to stuff. Where it comes from. Where it goes. What we do with it. How we see it.

      Honestly, watching Hoarders the show, I was incredibly sympathetic to their point of view– and I think given what we are doing to our environment now, in 200 years if those clips are still available, it won’t be the “identified problem” person who will necessarily be seen as the one with the real problem, but just as a way among many that someone could snap in such an unhealthy culture of stuff…

      1. I’m catching up on readings as the summer semester ends and I just did one for Endangered Cultures by Robert Merrill which talks about the Western concept of rights being based on property, like there aren’t really many (if any) treatises on identity that don’t frame the person in relation to one of God, other people, or what they own. A bit over halfway through the text he starts talking about the obsessive need to constantly own more as being a way to feel psychologically whole and that it could or even should be seen as a kind of psychosis. As far as I know he’s not a psychologist (presumably an anthropologist?) so the actual psychosis part is really best read with that in mind but the whole piece sort of blew my mind how he lays out the evolution of Western understanding of rights over time and how more and more things are being commodified as property, like information and knowledge and the genetic coding of plants and animals and even people, and referred to Harley Davidson trying to trademark the noise their motorbikes make. It’s an indigenous culture paper so the text links this in to indigenous ways of thinking and discusses how it impacts indigenous peoples quite a bit where the property rights of transnational corporations are used to justify killing huge numbers of people and dispossessing even more because our whole system simply can’t operate without ever-increasing reliance on resources that are starting to only be available in areas that were previously left alone until our technology and desperation had advanced enough. It’s definitely a paper that’s been making me rethink some things.

        1. There’s a really good novel that plays on this idea, called “Ishmael” by Daniel Quinn. It’s actually science fiction, but it’s not called that because the sciences it draws upon are anthropology and ecology rather than the more usual physics or biology.

          1. +1 Ishmael. (Although the only supernatural/scifi part is the telepathic gorilla; everything else is just philosophical treatise.)

          1. Merrill, Robert 1996 “Theory and Progress of Human Rights: The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” is what my paper lists it as but it seems to be a chapter from Foerstel, L. (1996). Creating surplus populations: The effects of military and corporate policies on indigenous peoples. Washington, D.C: Maisonneuve Press. Full info on book

        2. I think I can’t reply to you below due to the depth of the nesting, but thank you very much for the cite!

    3. Some Hoarders buy large quantities of food in bulk or on sale, either on impulse or because they think it’s thrifty. If there are other mental health issues at work, like dementia, OCD or depression, they may also have a hard time cleaning out rotten things.

      My mothers parents were hoarders and they would buy things they didn’t need because they thought the low price was saving them money; for example, my mom’s father bought two cases of orange soda, which neither of them drank, on the off chance that guests might want some. They also both had Alzheimer’s and tended to forget about expiration dates. When my mother’s mother died in 2010, we started sorting through their house and found milk in the fridge that expired in 2006. They also used to pick raspberries from the bushes in their yard every single day, wash them, and freeze them though they had far more than anyone could ever possibly use. Over time freezer burn ruined them anyway, but they refused to throw them out, and even bought extra freezers to contain them all. Some of the storage labels said ‘Spring 1994’ when we cleaned them out in 2010.

  19. With the first letter. I cannot help thinking that the lifts are not the problem. The problem is that your mother is home all day on her own with no way of getting out. I wonder if she is using your lift service, and calling you to arrange it, as a way of generating some company and social interaction in a life that seems sort of empty to me. Des she have other friends? Could she go online? If she has a hobby online could help her feel less alone. If not, could you arrange to get her to go to a class or a coffee morning or something? I think that if you set boundaries with the lifts (which you absolutely have to) then other issues may start coming up, possibly about not seeing you enough etc etc. could she volunteer at the school too? Anyway, best of luck, but please be aware that she may not be upset about lifts or your unavailability, but at being isolated and bored.

    1. This is a very good point. Has your father moved from office work to volunteering after he retired? Did your mother stay at home while he worked? It might be necessary to point out to your father that their retirement should be for both of them to enjoy more time together, rather than sticking to the patterns of his former working life.

      It took my mother’s serious illness for my dad to realise he had not properly let go of his working identity. He gave up most of volunteer projects to be with her, and luckily she recovered enough for them to get used to enjoying much more time together. This includes him doing an equal share of the housework and cooking. Mum is so much happier because she has been able let go of her stay-at-home housewife role, they socialise more together, and generally hang out.

  20. Seconding the applying-logic-to-every-item suggestion. I’m not a hoarder, but I feel like I easily could be someday, so that is part of why I watch hoarders and try to incorporate some of the cleaning thought-process into my own. My system for making sure I keep my house tidy is to fully examine every item I have when I clean. When she is making keep/throwaway piles, she is going to be feeling what she needs to keep, rather than actually thinking about it. If she was thinking about it clearly, she probably wouldn’t collect garbage. So, yes, she was having a really good day when she was eating that pot of yogurt, and yes a yogurt cup can probably be re-used to do lots of things! But how many times have you used an empty yogurt cup in the last year? How hard will it be to acquire a new yogurt cup, should the need arise? Is the price of a new yogurt cup worth having a home filled with garbage, and worth making your family unsafe and unhappy? Does throwing away this yogurt cup mean that good day you had when you ate it never happened?

    And keep in mind, her not wanting to go to a counselor DEFINITELY doesn’t mean you can’t arrange to meet with a counselor who specializes in hoarding, and try and get tips on how to deal with a hoarder. Any possibility you could, with the help of a counselor, say, “I need [this room], and I can’t use it with all of this stuff in here. I don’t want to just go through and throw out everything, so you and I need to set out [amount of time] every [very often] to sort through this stuff and decide what needs to go and what can stay. Let’s sit down and make a schedule of when we will work on it, and a timeline for getting this done. And if for any reason you don’t want to be involved, that is fine. [Husband] and I can probably just about manage it on our own.”

    If she asks why you need the room, you can say guest room, craft room, office, or just say that you currently are unable to use it, and need it to be usable. If she says you don’t need that, or tries to pick apart your reasoning, just shut down and redirect the line of questioning to say that this is what you need, and you hope she will be respectful of your needs and help you decide what needs to go.

    Then, if she agrees, probably one of two things will happen.

    One way, you will tackle the problem, and the process will be SLOW and painful, because you will need to reason her out of throwing away every piece of trash, and then put it back in the garbage when she fishes it out, and then give her a blank face when she tantrums over garbage and then re-apply logic as necessary. Until every piece of trash leaves, one by one.
    In the more likely scenario, she will just totally blow off the schedule. Your options are: clean the room on your own, and deal with her FREAKING OUT and having a meltdown on you, while you try to calmly explain that she is still welcome to help you, but that the room WILL be cleaned. Or, tell her that you clearly expressed to her that you NEEDED this, and she blew you off, and that that is not acceptable.

    Then proceed with the advice about moving.

    I am seconding and thirding and fourthing and hundreding advice that SHE moves, not you. And that grandma goes to a facility that will help care for her. You shouldn’t be living in this, but grandma really REALLY should not be living in this. The very old are much more susceptible to disease and infection than young people. MIL could very easily make your g-maw-in-law sick with her habits, and god knows that must be the last thing she wants. Her hoarding could very easily contribute to her mother’s death. I would seriously look into options for places that grandma can go, that MIL can still come visit her often, and help with her care (I know nothing about old-people care, but presumably you’re gonna need to know about this pretty soon anyway, so I’d jumpstart the researching now). I am so glad that your MIL is so committed to her mother, but they cannot share a space as long as your MIL’s lifestyle exposes her mother to possibly-deadly pathogens. That is just a thing.

  21. I thought you didn’t diagnose people’s possible mental illnesses online? Sure, suggesting strategies for coping with someone-who-acts-like-we-laypeople-understand-hoarders-to-act is great, and your suggestions look pretty solid. But you called the MIL of LW2 a hoarder several times when the DIL says she’s never been diagnosed.

    Also, LW2 stated that her MIL had depression. Since this is phrased like it might be an actual diagnosis, the “hoarding” behavior might be related to that.

  22. I can’t help but notice that as well as the common thread of problems with ageing parents between these two letters, there is also the common feature of husband/son who isn’t taking responsibility for their role in the situation and thus letting the burden fall onto the LWs, especially in the first instance.

    For LW1, why does Dad have his voluntary commitments which he has taken up as a hobby/time filler respected, but the LW doesn’t have her JOB respected?

    I thought this was really key in CA’s advice:
    There’s something in here about their marriage and some negotiating they need to do between themselves about how your mom’s changing circumstances mean that her husband has to step in and care for her without making it something she has to beg for. He’s not allowed to just abdicate this to you and browbeat you for not doing enough.

    I agree they need to do that negotiating themselves, but is there a conversation you can have to kickstart some of that? They are obviously not doing it at the moment and have just defaulted to the idea that it’s your responsibility. Maybe something along the lines of:
    ‘Dad, I think it’s great that you’re volunteering up at the school, but I’m worried about Mum being on her own all day especially since she’s had to stop driving. Have you guys talked about how she can fill her time and what she can do about lifts when you’re out of the house?’

    If he tries to suggest that you help her out I think you are perfectly entitled to turn that back on him and put it to him that you don’t have the flexibility in your job to just walk out on work during office hours (or whatever the situation is with your employment), but that as a volunteer he does and that maybe he could drop a few of his hours at the school to help your Mum get around. Of course there are lots of solutions that don’t involve him giving up his volunteering, but I think it might help to draw attention to the entitlement and double standard he’s displaying.

    For LW2, I don’t know anything about hoarders, but I do feel quite strongly that the first conversation that needs to happen is with your husband.

    1. Manatee, I second your observation that in both situations the husband should be taking responsibility for assisting his wife with the issue at hand. Yes, granddad should be volunteering less if his wife needs him more for things like transportation, and the obligation should not fall on the employed daughter. This is a completely unfair dynamic, esp. as granddad is able to drive !

      And Trashed needs to sit down to have a straightforward conversation with her husband about the conditions in the household, and he needs to be actively involved in the solution. If he is not on the same page with you about the severity of the issue then I think you might be on a sinking ship…

    2. Yes I agree, Dad should be the one dealing with the first situation. He’s managed to avoid it and hide in his volunteering, I’d be betting he’s an expert at not doing anything he’d rather not do. I would be aiming the conversation directly at him.

      And as has been said by Badsack and others, the husband is the one who should be manning up in the second letter.

      Both these men have the support of the LWs and aren’t on their own in dealing with these situations, but they need to be made aware they are the ones primarily responsible to make changes here.
      Good luck with that!

  23. Frustrated Daughter:
    My grandmother lives alone, doesn’t drive and lives on the other side of the city me and my family live in and sounds very very similar attitude-wise to your mother. My mothers way of dealing with this for the last 30+ years and particularly the last 10 or so where my grandmother has gotten frailer and frailer and unable to take public transport has mostly been to give in whenever my grandmother demanded attention. This led to my mother becoming extremely depressed and tired and anxious and in return dumping anything she can’t do on me which also led to me feeling this way.

    I’ve been working with my psychologist for the last year or so and she has given me this advice:

    >Be very clear on boundaries. Once my grandmother realised when my mother said “no” and meant it, she stopped being as needy and complain-y.
    >Ask around and see if you can find a taxi service that offers discounts or free rides for the elderly – even a local shuttle bus or something.
    >A timetable – like the one Captain suggested. This has worked EXTREMELY well.
    >As your mother gets older she will become more and more selfish and oblivious to anyone’s needs but her own. This happens with everybody as we get older. Try and keep that in mind, it helps me with my frustration sometimes.

    These have all been super effective, so I hope that you’re able to find some peace and work out something with your mom.

    1. “As your mother gets older she will become more and more selfish and oblivious to anyone’s needs but her own. This happens with everybody as we get older.”

      Really? Is this some kind of established universal truth I’ve never heard of before? Not being sarcastic; just a bit freaked out to be honest. I knew someone elderly who became like this in their final years, but I figured it was a Them Specifically thing. I don’t have any elderly relatives to look to for a comparison, and I’m now feeling a sense of impending doom that I will finish out my years as a selfish bitter old woman and there’s nothing I can do about it. I would much rather be a plump little old lady who smells of cookies and warm hugs. I know this is a somewhat romantic fantasy, and that I will most likely smell of cats and pee at least some of the time when I am elderly, but I’d really like to believe I’m not destined to become an unpleasant person. 😦

      1. No, it’s not a universal. What is closer to universal is that many people become less inhibited emotionally as they age, which can lead to some characteristics being magnified. My grandfather, during the last few years of his life, occasionally said things he would never have said (but might have thought) ten years earlier. It took him from being a sweet, gentle soul who was quietly uncomfortable about some of the ways the status quo had changed during his life (the civil rights movement, feminism, gay rights) to being someone who was vocally uncomfortable and occasionally hostile. My two grandmothers went through gradual changes that were similar in kind though not in effect — one found herself more easily moved to tears, which she found disconcerting.

        Someone who is already selfish and petulant is likely to become more so with age; someone who is self-effacing is similarly likely to become more so with age. So you’re not doomed to end your years as a selfish bitter old woman. Go for the cookies and hugs and cats.

        1. My mother’s father’s doctor said that in Alzheimer’s patients, one of the first parts of the brain to deteriorate is an area related to inhibition and self-control. (I’m not a doctor, so any neuroscientists in this thread might have to correct me. I also don’t know if this applies to non-Alzheimer’s dementia.) Some patients become handsy, while others may become more outspoken, for better or worse. In mom’s dad’s case, he was more openly racist and borderline psychopathic. I’m not exaggerating; for most of his life he hid his pedophilia but when he grew older he began making unwanted advances on almost any female over the age of 10, and he started bragging about killing animals. However, her mother went from being angry and bitter to sweet, cheerful and even childlike because she would forget perceived slights before she had a chance to develop new grudges. Unfortunately, she could still remember her old grudges and paranoid delusions, and if something reminded her of the past her old personality would come back.

          Like Maz says below, I think the loss of social inhibitions and verbal filters can exaggerate personalities. I think it’s fascinating how memory plays such a big role in identity too. I think that unless you’re a closet psychopath like my mom’s dad, being more outspoken in later days could be a good thing. I like to imagine being Dame Judi Dench when I grow up. Or Shirley Maclaine’s character in Downton Abbey. Or any role Maggie Smith has played ever.

          1. On of my extended relatives ended up having to be placed at a seat in the dining hall at the nursing home where they would face a corner; this stopped their loud, uninhibited commentary on everything and everyone they could see. As their health deteriorated, they lost their internal censor, so they forgot that such commentary could be rude and hurtful, and they had difficulty getting their hearing aids in (and hated wearing them) so they tended not to, and just couldn’t hear how loud they were. The person in question was always outspoken and not always polite with their opinions :-/

        2. It was probably related to age as well, but there was a definite change in my grandmother after my grandfather (her husband of >50 years) died. Previously, they were both okay people — some bad parts (very racist) but not the worst ever. (And they did good things too.) After he died, she turned into a cruel person who said awful things about everyone around her. It was probably some combination of the “getting older/fewer inhibitions” thing and the “sudden grief/trauma -> depression -> no treatment -> hate spiral” thing.

      2. My experience with elderly relatives is that they become “who they are but more so”. If that makes sense. So the one who was a darling sweet gentle kind person, is tht same person, but even more so, and likely to give away her own things because she feels so sorry for someone in need. And the one inclined to say unkind things is even more inclined to. The one who has harboured a grudge for decades is so bitter, her sister prays Jesus may come for her soon, and the one who never complains has adult children who have no idea that she’s in pain a lot of the time. Just my observations.

      3. In fact many studies show that older people tend to be more emotionally well-balanced, more appreciative of social life, kinder towards others, and happier in general. Let’s not confuse possible symptoms of Alzheimer with “getting older”, and certainly not all older people don’t get Alzheimer. Even the Alzheimer association, whose figures may be a bit inflated, claims at most 1 in 8 (for people who live long enough). So there is no cause to feel doomed :-).. and even less to treat every person older than you as potentially pathological.

  24. Lots of people have mentioned MIL and grandma moving out for the second letter writer. I just wanted to chime in and say that there are really great apartments that could accommodate them and they aren’t scary “old folks’ homes.”

    My friend’s grandmother and great grandmother live together in a cute two-bedroom place, and my own grandmother has a darling studio. They have little kitchenettes and residents are really independent–it’s not assisted living, but there are resources available for emergencies. There’s a dining room for meals, or residents have their own in their rooms.

    Somebody mentioned it would be good for her to answer to a landlord and that having less square footage would help as well. I completely agree with this. Also helpful is that at my grandmother’s apartment there is a housekeeping staff that visit her once a week for linens, vacuuming, and the bathroom. Maybe the combination of a fresh start and somebody outside helping maintain would be nice. She’d also get the chance to make some new friends and socialize.

    Try not to completely discount a new living arrangement if you have some preconceived notions about what that might entail. Helping my grandmother get settled in her place completely redefined what I thought a retirement apartment was. Any place in your area should offer tours for you and your husband, and eventually the whole family. Yes, the transition was hard (had to deal with her preconceived notions as well), but since she’s moved in she’s been so much happier. She went from hardly leaving her room at my mom’s house to visiting with friends and even going to the salon on her own, which is a bigger deal than it sounds like.

  25. Dear Frustrated,

    I’m sure your fathers volunteer work makes him feel good, and no doubt it is important, but charity begins at home. The needs of HIS OWN WIFE for transportation, and his daughter’s need to work at her paying job and have her own life trump the needs of local school children for his tutoring services. And if he doesn’t see it that way, it’s up to him to explain why to his wife and daughter.

    1. I really don’t like the statement “Charity begins at home”. My family (who are able bodied but untidy) expect me to prioritise tidying up after them and driving my little brother to school (he can walk it’s 20 minutes and he’s 15) over my studies and my volunteering (to gain experience to get onto the masters course).

      It’s like that blood is thicker than water, but you can drown in both!

  26. RE: Trashed

    My mother is a hoarder. It’s very, very tough to change their behaviours. I agree with everyone else who suggests you see a counselor. Also the folks at http://www.childrenofhoarders.com are GREAT and knowledgeable and supportive. They are an invaluable resource to people trying to help their hoarding loved ones.

    Some techniques that have helped me deal with my mother (and perhaps you or your husband could adapt) are:
    – gently emphasizing how a certain item in the garbage or at the Dollar Tree is not worth as much as the space it occupies. My mother used to pride herself on being clean and organized, so I stress CLEAN and ORGANIZED a lot when we talk about the garbage.
    – donating items. I talk up how much someone could use item a and b, and how helpful it will be for children and needy families to have those books/toys/clothes. You have 4 desks and are only using three, can you not spare one for a person in need? This is a slow process, but sometimes it sets a fire under her butt and she goes crazy throwing things into donation boxes.
    – inviting people over that she admires. I do this sparingly, because it stresses her out, but man can she ever move fast to clean and empty out her public living spaces when she wants to impress someone.
    – buying her new food items to replace the rotten ones (usually one item replaces 5 or 6). My generosity mollifies her and she doesn’t argue when I throw out 10 bottles of salad dressing from 2002 and replace it with a fancy bottle of dressing that I know she loves. I have to talk the entire time in a very positive, gift giving, excited way that gets her motivated. Food hoarding really worries me. Elderly people can be hit hard by listeria and other food borne illnesses.

    Obviously these techniques may not work on your MIL; every person who hoards has different anxieties and triggers. I try to take advantage of my mum’s personality traits (her need to impress people, her kindness and generosity, her idea of herself as tidy), and perhaps you and your husband can do this as well. I suspect that my mother hoards more as she gets older because she feels overwhelmed and powerless, so I work hard to get her feeling motivated and powerful. I hope that makes sense. Also these measures are merely stopgaps, they don’t “cure” the hoarding.

    1. These are amazing techniques. In the community development sector, there’s been a shift from fixing deficits (the classic “we are so needy” appeal) to building on existing assets. I love the appeal to her innate generosity.

      In some ways, I see my hoarding tendencies as an individual reaction to our collective throwaway culture. Bulky item pickup week in my neighborhood is my own minefield – there’s all this perfectly good furniture headed for the dump, I should rescue it! Now the second step is to post the items on Freecycle and get people who actually need the item to pick it up…

      1. @spamandkimchi – The disconnect in our house seems to be between rescuing things from going to the dump and actually getting it donated. It all goes in stacks and piles of stuff that will be donated or recycled or given away at some point in the future. MIL has been dumpster diving our own curb, thinking that she’ll do something or another with all.

        The recycling is out of control. There are bundles and bags and of it, and I think somewhere in it all she’s got a system, but it’s not one she’ll share or let us participate in. I’m to the point that I get a rebellious thrill from throwing away a plastic bottle!

        1. I hear you on the rebellious thrill of just throwing something away. My good intentions (all veggie and fruit scraps go to the worm bin!) can lead to crappy outcomes (fruit fly house party!), especially when I haven’t let anyone else in on the super-secret yet-not-that-complicated system.

          Is there such a thing as a recycling party? Freecycling party? Maybe someone in her environmental advocacy group can be a recycling/donating buddy? No answers here, just a lot of sympathy and empathy for when good intentions seem to never lead to actual actions.

          1. Totally off-topic, but what kind of worm bin do you have? At first fruit flies loved our Worm Factory 360, but we found that if you add an extra shelf on top and fill it with shredded paper they can’t reach the processing shelf. Eventually they stopped breeding.

        2. If much of the problem stems around recycling/donating things, have you thought about making weekly/monthly trips to the recycler/donation site. There are some places around here where the recycling can be placed in an unsorted state.

          One of my ways of knowing that I’m OK with donating something is filling a donating box, taping it up and dating it. If it goes three months without being opened, I donate the box as is.

          1. I’ve tried offering to take the stuff to the recycling places. I’ve bought bins to separate stuff into so we can all work on the recycling together. She won’t use them. She will pile stuff on top of them instead. There are lots of different places the recycling has to go, apparently (I don’t know why, and she never wants to explain it). Some goes to the local military base, some even goes to the next state over. But she insists “Oh, I’ll just do it.” I can only offer to help so much.

            Our kitchen sink is usually full of things that need to be washed before being recycled. We spend more time cleaning our trash than cleaning our house. Then once it’s clean, it gets piled in bins that are almost always overflowing. Putting stuff on the top of the pile usually means risking the whole thing fall over.

            Before I married Husband and moved in with him and MIL, I honestly never tried recycling. I’ve been trying to learn to respect her passion and commitment to it, but she really seems to want to manage it herself even when she doesn’t have the personal resources to keep up with it.

        3. Could you or your husband make a weekly or monthly dropoff-and-togetherness date with her? I have done this with a friend when I was heavy-duty decluttering, having a weekly donate-&-dinner date. Saturday morning dropoff & brunch, or something?

          What you said about her wanting to do all of it herself…recognizing that you have limitations and can’t actually accomplish everything can be emotionally difficult. One of the things the hoarding specialists say is that a lot of times people are avoiding doing things/making decisions because doing it means experiencing negative feelings. It’s possible that if you ease her into letting someone help, she’ll get firsthand experience that not doing it all herself is not so bad AND that getting the crap out of the house feels good. You probably can’t rationally convince her that those things are true but if she experiences them, it might make bigger steps later seem more worth trying.

  27. My fiance and I live in a house that he inherited from his grandparents, located next to his parent’s house across a shared driveway. When I moved in, it was an episode of Hoarder’s because my fiance’s father constantly fought his effort and got upset when he tried to clean out the house to make it liveable. Since I’ve moved in we have done a lot of work, but there is still a ways to go. Fiance’s Father still seems to think that we are there only to be caretakers to the dead grandparent’s things and don’t have the right to throw anything away. He once walked in on me when I was cleaning out a kitchen drawer and started yelling at me.

    Things came to a head last summer during our town’s large item trash pickup, when he came out to our shared driveway and started screaming at us for setting some things from our basement (which has dangerous levels of junk in it and we still cannot use). I told him that he needed to accept that we had the right to take steps to clean out our house and throw things away and we did not need his permission. Fighting continued despite my attempts to separate Fiance and his father. I then told him that I would call the police and report him for domestic disturbance if he didn’t go back inside and leave us alone. His response was to threaten to get his shotgun and shoot me.

    Fiance got him back in his house after that, and we went to file a police report so his threat is on record. I have since avoided all contact with him, but I still find it hard to take any furthur steps on getting the basement and back yard area clean, which will require the rental of a dumpster and there’s no way to go about it confrontation free that I can see.

    On the plus side, I’ve come to accept that I’m free to not take into account his hurt feelings and no longer have any guilt for upsetting him and I feel proud of myself for standing up to him. But oy vey, this sucks hardcore.

    Trashed, you have all my sympathies.

    1. Postscript: I love the ‘this isn’t really a negotiation’ script and am filing it away. Are there any other responses that the Awkward Army might suggest if engagement goes straight from ‘you can’t throw this away, yes I can’ to threatening to hurt themselves or others because we are being mean and ungrateful and purposely making them sad?

      1. If someone threatens to hurt themselves or others, you call 911 immediately. If the person making the threat intends to follow through, then you need the authorities there. If they are just being dramatic, they are going to get drama all the way to the police station. It’s not your job to figure out whether or not they mean the words they say. All violent threats need to be taken at face value. Don’t let your fear of “making a big deal over nothing” allow them to use this as an argument tactic. This sort of talk is a very big deal, and needs to be dealt with seriously.

        1. Or you don’t tell someone venting what to do. Calling 911 isn’t always the best thing.

          trashprisoner: wishing you all the best. I’m sorry you live literally across the road from someone who’s threatened to shoot you,

          1. I was answering kalathur’s question about what to do when you get pushback to setting a boundary. I’m sorry if my hardline tone was insenstive to trashprisoner’s situation. I agree that there are plenty of times when calling 911 isn’t the best thing. I do think “You are so awful for trying to set a new boundary that I’m going to hurt myself/others!” is a good time to make that call, however.

  28. Frustrated Daughter, there are at least two huge missing stairs here:

    –Your dad isn’t carving time in his volunteer schedule to drive your mom to things.
    –Your mom isn’t learning to drive.

    CA’s answer is a great answer because it addresses the part that you can control. But I feel like you should at least be aware that, yes, stairs are missing.

    1. I read it more as Frustrated Daughter’s mother is unable to drive now (for whatever reason) and previously was able to do so. But I agree that if her father is able to drive but instead he/they are choosing to prioritize his volunteer time over her actual paying job that’s a huge missing stair issue.

    2. I got the impression from the letter that the mother had lost her ability to drive due to age-related issues, not that she had never learned.

    3. As a grand-daughter of a public menace who learned to drive after her husband’s death, I’d add that even if FD’s mom had never learned to drive, doing so now may not be in anyone’s best interest. You can’t always rely on them only killing themselves, my grandmother stopped only after she nearly killed her neighbor along with herself (and potentially the 2 truck drivers as well). And you wouldn’t want them to merely kill themselves either. Driving is dangerous, objectively.. and it requires a basic level of functionality that every older person doesn’t have. If an older person in your family decides that they shouldn’t do it any longer, count your blessings and support their decision!

  29. Something that wasn’t clear to me in Trashed’s situation…who actually owns the house?

    If it’s the MIL, then there’s the distinct disadvantage that Trashed and husband are technically in HER house.

    If it’s the husband’s house, then I especially think he should see a counselor as much as anyone in the situation to deal with why and how he’s been okay with letting his mother do this to HIS house.

    1. I think this is pretty important, because it’ll determine who gets to make the decisions when it gets down to brass tacks. Someone’s going to be able to declare My House, My Rules, and it’s important to know who.

  30. LW2, you don’t mention it in your letter, but if you and your husband might want children someday that’s another thing to bring up in the safe-and-healthy house conversation. My mother isn’t a hoarder, but she was avoiding treatment for serious health issues just after my brother got married. In the discussion of why we wanted her to be healthy, my brother gently but firmly emphasized that he wanted his future children to have a healthy grandmother and to fully experience the love and joy she had given all of us growing up. Though it wasn’t a magic cure, it got through to her in a way that some of our other points didn’t, particularly due to my brother’s delivery (not a a weapon, but a legitimate, loving concern).

    I don’t presume that marriage=kids, it didn’t for me, but if it does for you (or if the people you want to invite over have young kids) then that is something you can gently mention to you MIL during the discussion about healthy living. It might add a different perspective to the situation that helps get/keep progress happening.

  31. LW #447 (Trashed) here, with a few thoughts and clarifications…

    Thanks, everyone, for the fine responses. With limited space in my initial question, I didn’t get much of a chance to explain that a lot of what you’re all suggesting here is already underway.

    Husband and I both see a therapist and we’re big proponents of mental health services. We’ve been fighting the good fight on house the house is kept for about a year (when I first moved in). The house isn’t as bad as the ones I’ve seen featured on tv shows (though the garage is). We’ve made a fair bit of progress with much of the boundary-setting, but we seem to be coming to the same impasses when it comes to taking out the trash. (The house is Husband’s, but MIL helps with a lot of the bills.)

    I absolutely have Husband’s support. He’s done nearly all the confronting and discussing with her when we’ve taken back areas of the house. He was the one who said “absolutely no more animal fostering or taking in strays” after the 17-cat debacle.

    To be clear, MIL doesn’t leave plates of rotting food around the house. We have an extra freezer in the garage, and she stuffs it to the gills. She stuffs our regular fridge and freezer, too. I finally got to the point that any food that starts sprouting mold, I’ll throw away regardless of what she wants. Now she mostly tries to freeze everything before it gets to that point.

    Somehow MIL found a service that will send bi-weekly boxes of frozen food that are pre-portioned and supposed to be nutritionally balanced. She ostensibly gets this food for grandma, but grandma requires all pureed food now (and has since last summer). Yet the frozen food deliveries continue, despite the fact that neither my husband nor I eat it and MIL doesn’t seem to either. She occasionally gives some to the nurses’ aid that comes a few hours each week, but we’ve got it coming out our ears (not to mention all the packaging that comes with it). Husband and I cook healthy, fresh meals almost daily. We plan carefully and have very little waste.

    Our compromise in the kitchen was that she gets a small section of the counter where she can keep her stuff. Anytime we clean up the kitchen, we pile anything she’s left about into that small space. After about a week of that, she started keeping after it most of the time. The rest of the kitchen I’m ruthless about.

    MIL keeps grandma’s room and the path she takes to the living room and bathroom clear and free of trip hazards. She also has help from a nurses’ aid that keeps fresh food pureed for grandma. MIL also takes grandma out on lots of activities (including political protests and dog parades!), and really it’s those kinds of things that are keeping grandma going. That’s why I say that asking them to move out isn’t really an option. Grandma’s 97 years-old and her health has been a roller coaster as long as I’ve known my husband. Everyone, including her I think, is surprised she’s still with us. We never really expected that this living arrangement would be this long term.

    MIL has a home in another state and is looking forward to moving back to it. She keeps promising to take the stuff she’s hoarding in the garage, her room, and two of the bedrooms to this other house. The problem is that another family member is living there too and there’s no room for all the stuff there either.

    She tells us that she knows she doesn’t need to hang onto everything, but worries she won’t have the money to replace stuff she might need since she’s living off her retirement. I think being suddenly and unexpectedly widowed contributed to those kinds of fears of the future, which I can understand.

    She also does environmental advocacy volunteering, which means she wants to recycle everything. The house is covered in stuff she plans to recycle, but never has the time to take to the local drop-offs. She also takes on projects that cover the house, like having her church collect empty pill bottles to send to an organization that fills them with encouraging messages for nursing home patients. Only those pill bottles never got sent – they’re just more boxes sitting around. She doesn’t want me to take stuff to recycling, and she doesn’t want me to mail these pill bottles – she’ll get to it all someday in a mythical future in which she’s got unlimited time and energy.

    I understand these kinds of compulsions because I have shared them in the past. I learned to keep my own life free of clutter and excess projects, and it feels great! But having to live with someone else doing it is stressful.

    @Smilla, I appreciate your suggestions, especially the one about inviting people over. I’ve mostly been embarrassed to have visitors, but it’s true that she works really hard if she knows someone is coming over. I think I’ll try that one!

    Thanks everyone for the great feedback, I’ll be following the thread.

    1. I wonder, in terms of the projects/recycling if it would work, instead of just saying “no”, to say “after you finish X”

      We have been mid-kitchen remodel for so many years at my house, that has become my answer to just about everything: no new projects until the kitchen is done. Space is a real limit, like time. “That’s a great project, MIL, but there’s no room because you haven’t homed the pill bottles.” or “Maybe after we haul all the recycling away”.

      It’s like telling a little kid “you totally can do that! As soon as you do THIS!” instead of just saying “no you can’t do that because you haven’t done this!”

    2. Really pleased to hear you and your husband are on the same page with this, are mutually supportive, and that he’s taking a lead role in talking to his mother – it’s always great to hear about couples getting that dynamic right! It sounds like a really solid foundation to make these wider changes in your living situation from and I wish your family the best.

    3. ‘She doesn’t want me to take stuff to recycling, and she doesn’t want me to mail these pill bottles – she’ll get to it all someday in a mythical future in which she’s got unlimited time and energy.’

      Hi LW! Great to hear from you!

      It sounds like she really means well. Like Rosa says, I think the key here is that she can only do these wonderful projects if she completes something else first. Either you can help her recycle them or she doesn’t get to bring more stuff into the house.

    4. It sounds like you’re doing all the right things LW, and I agree with you that moving someone into a new situation at 97, no matter how attractive, is bound to be counterproductive. But the patterns you’re establishing with MIL now will no doubt come back to the fore in later times, when she’s 97 in turn, so I want to encourage you to keep plugging at them. Your analysis of the insecurities brought on by widowhood is probably right, so maybe you can help the details by paying a lot of attention to the fundamentals “it’s great you’re taking such good care of grandma, but don’t worry, you won’t be abandoned when you’re old either, let’s find a way to improve matters now so we’ll all be happily living together if you need it in turn” etc.

      Sounds like she has very good intentions, but not the energy to go through with them. Recycling is admirable. But do keep pointing out that recycling is actually less useful than cutting back on the inflow to begin with. Perhaps instead of picking up stuff on the sidewalk, she can concentrate on posting a timely detailed report on freecycle? These things work, and if she sees the stuff going directly to people who need it she can be encouraged in leaving it out there for them. Maybe you can get her to use a camera to make the juiciest bits more attractive :-). And for your internal recycling I really like someone’s previous suggestion of a regular recycle-and-brunch outing too – built-in reward, helping but with her participating, not going contrary to her ultimate wishes, it’s all good..

      1. “But do keep pointing out that recycling is actually less useful than cutting back on the inflow to begin with.” YES. Very much this! Especially with the frozen food — point out to her how wasteful that is of natural resources *and* food resources. Is there a way you can change the address of the subscription, so it gets sent to a homeless shelter or something until its prepaid duration runs out?

        Remember: They put “Reduce” first for a reason.

        Good luck, and thanks for checking back in!

    5. Can you just cancel the food-delivery? Call them and explain? And then have some distracting other thing ready for when she finds out?

      I mean, ideally someone would sit with her, holding her hand, as she made the call and then did something AMAZINGLY AWESOME with her as a reward.

      But she might not be able to do that, and in the mean time you are getting this frozen food nobody eats arriving and arriving and arriving….

      It’s got to be expensive, too! IF she insists on still having it delivered, can you work with her to donate a unit of it (that part of the freezer, say) to a shelter or something? Or divert new deliveries to someone who will actually eat it?

    6. I don’t know if this will be relevant to your MIL, but I bring it up because you mentioned her depression and being suddenly widowed. Do you know if the hoarding behaviors started getting much worse following the loss of her husband?

      My Aunt P (dad’s sister) was always a packrat. But when their mother passed away very unexpectedly from a stroke, Aunt P went from organized packrat to clinical hoarder (although never, thank god, with animals). It was her way of creating a sense of control following a situation that was terribly sad and felt horribly random. It came directly from her grief, depression, and anxiety related to that loss. I remember my dad asking her why she had three broken washing machines in her garage, and her answer was, “My kids might need washing machines someday, and I want them to have these if something happens to me.” Never mind that the washing machines *didn’t work*. It made sense in her head because of my grandmother. It was her way of holding back the chaos of time and death.

      So this is all anecdata to say that maybe if you could get your MIL to talk with someone about her husband’s death, it could help her with the hoarding behaviors as well? And might be something she’s more open to than going to someone just about her hoarding?

      Either way, I’m wishing you all the best.

      1. @VA, Husband says that his dad once told him that when his mom packed the car to go off to college, she had to leave a pair of shoes behind because every other possible nook and cranny was full. He jokes that he didn’t know that that was a cautionary tale!

        She’s always been a general pack rat, but I think your assessment of the devolution after being widowed is spot on. She’s a good woman and I am amazed at all that she does manage to accomplish. But like I said in my original question, she’s got trouble with setting boundaries for herself and it affects the rest of us because we share a home.

        Husband and I spend a lot of time talking about the balance between our needs and our compassion for the stuff she’s got going on. I really appreciate the responses that have shown some understanding for her as well as what we’re going through.

        1. I used to watch Hoarders and Hoarding pretty regularly (especially when I felt the need to get motivated to clean), and one thing that struck me was how many of the hoarders had experienced some kind of loss, like the death of a loved one or a sudden divorce or suddenly losing a lot of money or something similar (in particular I remember one woman who had gotten pregnant in college and gave up the child for adoption. She’d married the father and had three other children, but seeing her guilt and sadness over the feeling that she’d ‘lost’ her child was really heartbreaking).
          I haven’t done any research to try to find any studies that link a traumatic loss to developing hoarding issues, but I do wonder if there’s a relationship there. My mother is not a hoarder, but she has hoarding tendencies, keeps multiples of the same item when she only needs one, and has that “I can’t throw this item out, I may need it / use it / may do something with it” way of thinking about possessions. She was also widowed very suddenly as a young woman. I really worry about what will happen if my father predeceases her – her hoarding tendencies are really only kept in check by his refusal to let her fill the house with clutter. Her room and study are full of stuff.

    7. Late to the party here, but my mom is a professional organizer. Such people do exist 🙂 This depends on how much your MIL wants to change, but perhaps a consultation with a professional organizer could help. Since it sounds like she has a severe stuff problem, but not a really scary problem. Just a thought.
      Sources: http://www.napo.net/get_organized/

  32. Dear Trashed,

    One thing that worked to not cure hoarding, but motivating serious change for a relative of ours was the fire marshal showing up and saying your property will be condemned, you will lose your home without compensation and the elderly relative in question who was also there would be taken into protective services as a ward of the state. Many people don’t realize this, but leaving an elder in a hoarding type situation is considered abusive, and can be criminal. Every state is probably different so I can’t say this is the case where you are, but it may well be and BELIEVE ME it is better to be proactive than reactive in this situation.

    Yes, your MIL has a problem – but the law doesn’t care about that. In our situation, we were able to blame the law for everything that got cleaned out of the structure; our relative with the problem raged at the fire dept for years, but not at us, and we got to clean the property out. Was it the healthiest solution? Probably not but it is the solution that worked.

  33. I don’t know if this applies to LW #447, but something else to consider when cleaning out a hoarder’s clutter without their input/help (aside from how painful that is) is that there may actually be objects of value hidden throughout the hoard. I don’t know if LW’s MIL has other mental health issues or what they might be, but sometimes dementia can make people paranoid enough to hide valuables. My mother’s mother hid jewelry in piles of old clothes, and legal documents in her stacks of newspapers. Naturally, she promptly forgot where she hid them. After her death, my mother had to sort through all those papers page by page to avoid destroying deeds and certificates.

    1. This. My grandmother and my MIL, who both had Alzheimer’s, did this sort of thing all the time.

    2. And as the sister of a hoarder (who in fact was on Hoarders) told me, things have equal value to many hoarders, so something incredibly important can be covered with trash because it’s all important in their eyes.

    3. People with no sign of dementia may do this, too. My father-in-law’s books had several valuable letters in them, and I think that’s also where we found an envelope of foreign currency left over from a European trip (it wasn’t a huge quantity, but significant — IIRC something like $75 once we got it exchanged, which was tricky as it was pre-euro).

    4. When my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s really started affecting her she would wake up during the night not knowing where she was, and convinced that there were prowlers in the apartment. She would jump out of bed, run to her jewelry box and grab handfuls of her very expensive jewelry and fling them into the corners and behind the furniture. So it would be harder for the burglars to find. The wonderful lady from the cleaning service alerted us to the jewelry flinging and we moved Grandma to an assisted living facility. It didn’t really help with her fear and paranoia, it just gave her a whole new set of things to be afraid of. But at least she was supervised, fed and her meds were given to her. Alzheimer’s is a bitch.

      1. I hear you. It seriously effing sucks.
        Before we moved my grandmother into a home and before we knew about the alzheimer’s, she was doing the panicked jewellery hiding, including wrapping expensive pieces in tissue or newspaper and ‘hiding’ them in the bin because burglars wouldn’t think to look in there. Unfortunately she’d forget to retrieve them when the panic subsided and they’d just get thrown out with the trash.

  34. Oh, yes! Valuable things. I remember friends returning from helping a woman clean out her overstuffed house after her husband died. Really upset. One of the biggest issues was the walls completely covered in bookcases filled with 30+years worth of back issues of magazines. They’d already taken a couple of trailerloads of stuff to the dump, including umpty magazines, when somebody dropped a stack of them when making ready for the next load – and a flurry of $50 notes flew through the air. They then had to shake out every single magazine before trashing it. Added up to thousands and thousands of dollars. (This also was an early life thing, like the food hoarding mentioned above, not a dementia issue.)

    In the end, they couldn’t retrieve anything from the dump and just had to be relieved, if not glad, that they’d found out before they’d thrown any more money away.

    As for getting “cooperation” from the MIL with the hoarding behaviour. Sorting and counting some items could be **a** strategy. With neatly labelled boxes – but no, never any, trash bags as storage devices.

    Yes, mum, yogurt cups can be useful, but we’ll never need more than 10 at a time. If we wash and dry the best of what we’ve got, we can safely discard the rest of what you now have and you won’t need to keep any more because =this little box= on this shelf of the pantry, holds all you’ll ever need and they’re easy to find – right here. Sorting also identifies that there really are seven sewing/mending kits or craft projects or boxes of xmas decorations totally unused. Put the best one in a particular spot and the rest have to go. For most of the stuff, acknowledge that it’s useful – but to someone else. There must be charity shops that would take some of the clothes and other stuff. Giving the opportunity for someone else who can use it – right now – can be some comfort to some people. Only you and your husband can work out, probably with a counsellor, what buttons are available to push.

    The rotting food has to go. Guilt her over her mother’s health, or her own, or yours, or your visitors if you have to. (Even if grandma doesn’t fall ill, who’ll take over her care if mil gets sick.) But get rid of it.

    1. When a Depression-era uncle died, we found cash stuffed into random crevices in furniture. Scarcity does weird things to people’s brains.

  35. A lot of cities have health departments and regulations, and hoarding can be considered a violation of health regulations or of fire regulations. If you want something neutral to blame, maybe tell her you recently heard from someone that stuff like what is happening in your house can be illegal and can get you in trouble with the government, and you don’t want to risk that sort of exposure. I’ve even seen it get prosecuted, when people refused to comply.

  36. I saw Matt Paxton’s name mentioned early on in the comments, and he’s probably the main reason I watch the show regularly. He has a very genuine way about him, and he absolutely loves what he does for a living (he’s one of the cleanup specialists, not a therapist, but he gets results helping people deal with their emotions, too). He has written a book called “The Secret Lives of Hoarders” which has a ton of useful information, stuff he’s learned from years of working with people who hoard.

    1. Matt Paxton is on my top 5 list of people who I’d like to have lunch with just to hear them talk for two hours. (I’m a stage manager, so dealing with the practical fallout of people’s cognitive dissonance is also sort of what I do….) He and Dorothy are the only people on that show who don’t annoy the ever-loving heck out of me.

  37. #446: Good luck setting new boundaries with your parents. Having set, predictable times definitely helps manage the demands and your stress.

    Before we bought a house together, my partner lived in the same area as hir father, indeed just a mile away for a year or two. And my partner decided that zie wanted to work on improving their poor to nonexistent relationship, so zie would mow the lawn, deal with snow removal etc. Well, when we began cohabitating, it was at least a 90 minute drive to hir dad’s house, so it wasn’t easy (or frankly, affordable or practical) to keep providing these services. And yet my partner often did, dropping everything when dad called, to my intense frustration and disappointment. Frankly, I was extremely angry when zie abandoned me on Christmas Eve a few years ago (after we’d made it clear to both our families that we would not be travelling and instead spending a quiet holiday together) because there was a big snowstorm passing through, and hir dad wanted the driveway cleared right away. I spent the holiday alone, stewing right along with the ham that was already cooking when the call came.

    We had a long talk after that. I pointed out that it wasn’t reasonable for my partner to jump on command, that dad had sufficient money to hire a service to care for the yard and snow removal, that responding immediately and positively was just going to keep encouraging further demands. Oh but, dad is too inflexible, things have to be done his way, he’s not going to change so we have to accommodate him, etc. I pointed out that was all true when zie was a child and hir father was the authority figure, but actually, the power dynamics don’t have to and shouldn’t continue in the same fashion for the rest of hir adult life. That if hir dad wanted attention and support, then he had to accept boundaries and find other solutions at least some of the time.

    Anyway, fast forward to last summer. My partner has been dealing with ongoing medical drama and demands for transportation from hir father since last July. Dad calls for a ride to the VA hospital for shortness of breath. We convince him to come to the VA hospital in our city, instead of the one equidistant from both cities (and 2 hours away from each). They end up going to hospital ERs 3 times in just a few days before dad is finally admitted. The man is an alcoholic with a serious smoking habit and chronic breathing problems, on oxygen, and in and out of hospitals frequently since last summer. Check himself in for respiratory distress and/or addiction treatment, check himself out against medical advice. Rinse and repeat for several months.

    Each time, he’d call my partner, who would drive up there and chauffeur him to the ER (at least locally, after the first round of long-distance medical transports). And I would point out that if he’s having a medical emergency, it was much better for him to call an ambulance, not wait 2 hours for his child to show up. Didn’t make a real impression. And the cycle didn’t stop until December, when my partner received the call as zie was leaving for a trip, and hir ride was in the driveway ready to go. I insisted that zie continue with the day’s activity, which had been planned for awhile, and leave the phone with me. Zie did so and had a good day, tough after an extended phone conversation with dad while the ride waited patiently. Zie began to let go a little more after that, to say no and set boundaries. And hir father began calling on other family members and finally ambulances.

    My partner is currently out of town helping hir father during the latest medical emergency. Hir father has finally begun to accept that he can’t live independently anymore and has started to make arrangements for a nursing home. I sympathize with my partner getting pulled between competing demands–hir father wanting hir to run errands of whatever sort, and me demanding that zie set good boundaries. Zie agreed with me that hir father was choosing to kill himself slowly, and that nobody could really stop him. It just took my partner a long time to agree to voluntarily get off the roller coaster hir dad was driving.

    Don’t let it get to that point. It definitely strained our relationship.

  38. #447: Definitely professional help is needed. Even with the best of intentions, helping clean up the accumulation simply creates a vacuum that attracts…more stuff. I had a very generous friend who spent several months going once a week to a hoarder’s house to help clean. She did a lot of work, and they cleaned and cleared out tons of stuff. But she ultimately realized that progress was minimal to nonexistent, because she was helping manage the most obvious symptoms, and the house would fill right back up in an appallingly short period of time because the behaviors weren’t being addressed.

    I come from a packrat background and definitly have accumulation tendencies. Especially books. Lots of books. So does my partner. We both tend to create piles everywhere and have lots of projects in the works. However, I also have very strong organizer tendencies, and tend to go through cyclical binging (well, usually more gradual) and purging of stuff. I used to not be bothered by messy, and would clean my room about every month or so, when going to bed entailed wading. But now as I’ve gotten older, I find that physical clutter generates a mental haze. I simply can’t think or work in a mess, and long-term clutter tends to make me really itchy, restless, and irritable. So my weekend routine generally consists of moving through all of the public spaces of the house, picking stuff up, putting things away, etc.

    Part of the challenge of living together is getting my partner to understand that an exposed surface is not an invitation to set something on it, or worse, leave something there for an indefinite period of time. I’ve tried to establish designated areas for placing mail, keys and cell phones, stuff unloaded from the vehicle, things that are leaving the house, current reading/projects, etc. And those designated areas are neither the dining table or kitchen counter. I try to move stuff off those 2 locations as soon as possible (whether I do it myself, or preferably ask my partner to move it). And I really stress that personal stuff needs to not stay in the public areas.

    I try to follow my own policies, which can be hard sometimes, but I am doing my best to police myself, model the appropriate handling of stuff, and so on. I am not particularly neat, but I try to keep it contained to my side of the bed and my home office. If my partner doesn’t deal with hir stuff in public areas within a reasonably timeframe (usually 24-48 h), then I dump it in hir office, or hir side of the bed. And I try to stay out of those areas as much as possible. It does require continued policing and enforcement and vebalization of these boundaries on my part. And when my partner does handle stuff appropriately, I make sure to thank hir–positive reinforcement and validation and all that. I try really hard to be patient and calm, consistent and firm when reminding hir to move things. After a couple of years, the situation has improved somewhat, but it is by no means resolved.

    The overall accumulation of stuff…is harder to manage. We do have a large house for just 2 people, and we both worry about it getting crammed without us noticing. And we’ve had to be very firm with family who want to keep giving us furniture, knickknacks, pictures, what-have-you. Additionally, my goal is to slowly upgrade from crap furniture from student days to nicer, more durable pieces. The trick is to get rid of the previous item rather than holding onto them. We’ve discussed our furniture plans and reached general areas of agreement, and we evaluate each new item carefully, with each of us having a veto option.

    Then there are supplies. I tend to hold onto reusable containers. So we do have quite a stockpile of plastic containers, paper bags, etc. But I try to set a threshold beyond which I start recycling (now that the city handles most plastic)–usually 1-2 of whatever container is holding them. I am about at that boundary now for some items. Plus I go through stuff at sporadic intervals and thin out my holdings. For example, last year, I went through a good decade’s worth of magazines and disposed of those that I was sure I was never going to read. I still have a pile of them, and I’ll probably go through a second round this year or next year. And I go through my files maybe every 5 years or so. In other words, yes, I have the potential to become a hoarder, but right now I am managing it just fine.

    My partner also has issues. In hir case, it’s holding onto broken stuff because zie has a shop and likes to fix things. But zie is very slow to get around to such items. Hell, I am still waiting for my camp chair to be repaied–it broke when we were still dating about 5 years ago. Zie insisted on my not trying to fix it myself or getting a replacement because zie could repair it and make it even better. Sigh.

    I am starting to work on convincing hir to let go of some of these never gonna happen projects. The first step is to not accumulate any more of them. Then as we try to get the shop up and running, to clear out more of them. We’ll see how it goes.
    And I am trying to do the same for myself–the pile of stained or damaged clothes that need repair…

    Good luck addressing this. I am afraid I don’t really have any useful advice.

    1. My dad used to do that [never actually] repairing thing. >.> He’ll also give unasked for Input when I try to do stuff myself, like when I needed to buy chicken wire for a rabbit pen and he instead firmly suggested going to a recycle/resell place (not a bad idea) and then to use a plastic version instead since they didn’t have any in metal. You know what rabbits have? Sharp teeth. That didn’t work so well.

      What I was actually going to say was, with the books, have you done a clear out of them before and how did you do it? Because in my bedroom I have seriously two walls that have bookcases everywhere there isn’t door or window, filled with books, and I really want to decrease the number before we have to move out for repairs. (Also need to reduce general Old Nostalgic Things, Craft Supplies, etc, but the books is a good start.) It’s a little overwhelming, especially since I live in a small city (400,000 pre-earthquake, new census being done this year) and my friends are spread across the country.

      1. I did! When my son started cruising, we realized that about 2/3 of our bookshelves were not stable enough to coexist with small children.

        I suggest starting with whatever’s easiest – in my case, it was finding books I wanted other people to have. I used bookcrossing and gave books to specific people and sold to genre-specific used book stores. I think the next layer was all “sold” for store credit at the one used bookstore in town that takes EVERYTHING (I ended up taking in books by the laundry-basketful, multiple times in one summer). Now I mostly just donate to whatever’s easiest at the moment – ARC usually because our ARC has a drive-through dropoff that’s open long hours.

        But the key is just to start. If you make a sweep and get rid of just the books you are sure you’re not going to reread/finish, in a few months when you go through again you’ll see books you’ve become magically less attached to in the meantime.

        1. “But the key is just to start. If you make a sweep and get rid of just the books you are sure you’re not going to reread/finish, in a few months when you go through again you’ll see books you’ve become magically less attached to in the meantime.”

          Thank you for saying this! I really needed to hear it. I tend to hoard books because they give wherever I’m living a sense of permanence, even though they also make me feel trapped for the same reason. Hoarding behavior isn’t just for the elderly! I know a lot of third culture kids who either hoard or throw things out compulsively because they associate belongings with stability. As someone mentioned upthread, it’s amazing how many emotional associations people have with the objects they own.

          1. Yep. I never lived in any town more than 4 years before the place I am now. In the 10 or so years before I moved into this house i averaged more than one place a year.

            So I had a couple years of relative stability (moved twice in the same metro) and then we bought this house and all the sudden all the stuff I owned was centralized in one place and…whoah. Overwhelming.

            I have found that is just gets easier and easier, though. But I’ve been getting rid of more stuff than I bring in for 6 years now. It’s like weightlifting or studying a new topic – you just do it, and keep doing it, and at some point you realize the things that were really hard in the beginning aren’t hard anymore.

          2. Yeah, I was used to moving a lot and living out of a suitcase, except for all these ridiculously impractical boxes upon boxes upon boxes of books, and now that I have a semi-permanent apartment, my family sent me the rest of my stuff from various basements in various countries. And it freaked me the frak out to actually own things. I want to throw out any sheet, plate or glass that isn’t strictly necessary, but still hate letting go of books or cardboard boxes.

          3. Yeah, as soon as we had A Permanent House my mom started divesting things onto me. All my childhood art projects. The decorations from my baby room (and now that my child is not a baby, does she want them back? NO. She just didn’t want to be the one to throw them away). China.

            And part of that is I lent some moving boxes to a friend and she just RECYCLED THEM WHEN SHE WAS DONE and it totally freaked me out (those things are expensive! We might need them! What have you done!) also…some of those boxes, I had colored on in my childhood, in between various moves. What probably should have freaked me out was that MY MOM SAVED CARDBOARD BOXES FROM THE 70S AND GAVE THEM TO ME.

            The good news is, if you’re under 50, you’ve just moved up the date you have to deal with all this crap to an earlier, easier one. You will have years to gradually get better at dealing with stuff instead of suddenly dealing with the death of a parent and the influx of all that stuff all at once when you have less time and energy to recover from it. Friends who used to laugh at me for not knowing what to do with the influx of stuff (can I toss out great-grandpa’s baby dishes? are they coated in lead paint?) are now, ten years later, suddenly being given boxes of their own old stuff and going, what? what do I do with the scout patches? the baby books? the wedding album of my divorced parents?

            (my mom is not a hoarder. She downsized from our family home to an RV with no drama. But all those unstable years of my childhood were unstable years of her adulthood. No point in throwing out a box if you’re just moving again in a year)

      2. The one thing I really have the urge to hoard is books. I’ve found it useful to start with x amount of shelf space and then to make a rule that anything that can’t fit on the shelves (no double-shelving) has to go. This worked particularly well when I was moving house, since everything went in boxes and then when it was being unpacked, I had to make the call. It really made me face up to those ‘probably never going to read it but feel like I should’ books!

      3. Fellow book hoarder here who has recently done some clearing. Some things that helped me:
        – Ask myself why I acquired book in the first place and if that need still applies. That helped me clear out books I’d bought to prep for job interviews in sectors I’m no longer interested in, for projects long since past, introductory books to subjects I’m now proficient in, novels I picked up out of curiosity but which weren’t life changing etc.
        – Make a pile of books I’m keeping for significant memories and choose a small handful to represent that time. This was particularly good for clearing the books I’d had as a kid from my parents’ house. I kept my favourites and said my goodbyes to the others passing them on to someone else with young kids. This was really hard, but felt good in the end.
        – With popular novels which I was unlikely to read again in the next 5 years, I reminded myself that they were so popular I’d be able to find them in a library if I wanted to reread.
        – Started thinking of the cover price of the book as paying for the several hours of entertainment it gave me rather than as paying for an object, like a cinema ticket.
        – If you use an e-reader I know others who have had success with replacing codex novels with e versions.

        I also made a rule of not buying new novels until I’d read all the unread ones on my shelves. I haven’t stuck to that strictly, but it has reduced what’s coming in.
        Good luck!

      4. For clearing out books over the years, it’s been different things. I went through a phase where I felt like if I was going to have fiction by a certain author, it had to be all or nothing by that author. So if there were books I couldn’t stand, then the whole series and everything else would go. That led to some regret and buy backs. But it sure beat the phase when I felt like if I liked some books by a given author, I should have a comprehensive collection. For genre fiction (especially science fiction and fantasy), I tend to dispose of books that feel very derivative, same old, same old. Mysteries I’ve just tried to avoid acquiring, though that rule is eroding right now.

        Mostly, for fiction, if it’s a meh book, it goes. If I think I’ll reread it regularly, or it really moved me in some way, or had some particularly memorable aspect, then I keep it. Also, I tend to rely a lot more on the library for fiction reading. So I mostly know an author pretty well before investing. Not always true, though. And I’ve tried that rule of reading everything before acquiring more. Hasn’t quite worked out, but I am trying. Also, I have something of a library moratorium to encourage me to read my own books sitting neglected.

        For nonfiction, it’s a lot harder for me, because I consider it more of a reference library. If it seems no longer relevant to my interests, or I’ve found a better book on a given topic. Can’t say that I’ve let go of a lot of them.

        We didn’t have enough bookshelves when we moved in together. We haven’t acquired any more shelving yet, so now the books are getting stacked on the shelved books and in front of the bookcases, so I recognize that we are approaching critical and need to take action this year. We’ll see how that goes.

        Mostly, whenever I get into reorganization mode, sorting, cleaning, and repositioning whatever the item class is, I try to take a critical look at the stuff and thin it down. I just did that with cookbooks, and picked 4 to dispose of. Then I brought home a new one. Still a win.

        1. Yeah I already know I’m going to end up highly skewed in favour of non-fiction, rather than the roughly even split I have now. Especially since the fiction tends to be easier to find in electronic form – quite a few of my non-fiction books are a bit obscure so they only exist in hard copy.

      5. I am a book hoarder too. I’ve greatly reduced inflow, mostly by having a kindle. I’ve only just recently begun to consider the possibility that sometime in the future I might get rid of some of my books.

        It’s in the same category as The Yarn Stash.

        1. Yarn Stash. 😦 I have one of those too. I suspect one thing I have to do is figure out which crafts I really want to stick to instead of doing a bit of everything.

        2. In re: yarn stashes, I knit things both for other people and for charity. If you have a yarn stash that you just can’t toss, you’re welcome to mail it to me. Cheap acrylic, I convert into pet items like small animal hammocks (or dog blankets, if there’s enough), and clothing-grade yarn gets converted to scarves or shawls for donation. Email to miss.arabella.flynn at gmail dot com, if you’re interested.

          1. Oh, I am nowhere near actually getting rid of yarn! Goodness gracious no.

            But I have taken up weaving, and while I have acquired a bunch of yarn for that, I do go through it a whole lot faster now.

          2. I’m actually thinking I should turn some of my Yarn Stash into scarves/bags/whatever for charity, too. It would be productive, and creative, and happy-making, and benefit other people — a win all around.

    2. The trick, for my household, with upgrading to better furniture, was to look at those of our friends who are uni students or unemployed and living in bachelor sharehouses (met through various hobbies, so in a different stage of life to me/us) and really really appreciate being given the furniture we’d like to upgrade from. This transmutes the feeling in the household from “we’re wasting Stuff!” to “we’re being awesome friends!” which means stuff gets done.

      We aren’t getting rid of the bookcases, though. We HAVE increased the home and contents insurance, because the sheer volume of books (pun intentional) in the house, most of which were acquired second hand, would be the costliest thing to replace (we are slowly cataloguing them so that we can, in case of fire). We read a LOT 😛

      1. Yep, I’m right there with you. The book inventory for insurance purposes was the main reason I joined LibraryThing. It’s online and therefore not going to be destroyed by a house fire along with the books themselves. My books are all inventoried, but haven’t managed to do that for partner’s books yet.

        And having been the recipient of hand-me-downs from various friends over the years, that is generally how we approach household durable goods. First, check among friends circle, then thrift, then curbside right after trash pickup to maximize the chances of reuse. That last one doesn’t accomplish much anymore now that I live on a very quiet residential loop going nowhere.

  39. Trashed,

    Thank you for giving us more information. It sounds you’re handling this issue incredibly well. As someone who was/is a minor-league hoarder I’d like to suggest you (and your MIL) look up the message board “Stepping Out of Squalor,” some of which is about actual squalor and some of which is about hoarding behaviors. The people there give lots of support and encouragement. They also have strategies for cleaning and for thinking about tackling cleaning jobs and making choices about what to keep and to let go. They really stress changing your thinking and developing healthy habits bit by bit along with cleaning and un-hoarding your home.

    Good luck and congratulations on handling this difficult situation so well.

  40. I really feel for the mother-in-law in the latter section … there she is caring for her aging parent, doing activism, and in a good relationship with her son, but then her son gets involved with a neat freak who moves in and wants to rule the house. Well, screw that.

    1. The Mother-In-Law is legit under a lot of pressure. But creating a stench by holding onto spoiled food and going through the garbage and making people in the house fight over every single item going to the recycling goes far beyond being tormented by a “neat freak.”

      1. Indeed. I’m a slob and a packrat, and living in the environment LW #447 has described would do bad things to my mental health.

    2. “…but then her son gets involved with a neat freak who moves in and wants to rule the house woman who would like to be able to use most of the rooms in the house rather than having to live in a room over the garage, and who doesn’t enjoy item-by-item interrogations when she attempts to take out the trash.”

      There, fixed that for you.

    3. Not wanting to live in a house that smells like rotting garbage makes someone a neat freak? I am very glad that I can’t see, or smell, your house if that’s your perspective.

  41. The point that mental health problems exist no matter what really stuck home with me. My mother has anxiety problems and I have spent so much of my life dealing with her outpourings of anxiety indused rage and weeping and guilt trips. It really helps to realize that I can’t change her anxiety and nothing I do can get rid of it for her.
    Yesterday I began addressing her behaviour, my needs and boundaries. It went very badly from her perspective and she is curre tly giving me the silent treatment, but it’s nicer than the tantrums were. Just taking it a day at a time, we’ll get there yet.
    So thankyou for making that point

  42. Yikes – just reading that letter made my heart speed up and me start sweating a little bit. I have one parent with hoarder-ish tendencies, and I really don’t know what I would do if she ever needed to live with me, other than tell her she could have one room in the house that she could do whatever she wanted with, but that anything wandering outside of that room would be immediately pitched.
    That may sound harsh, but my parents have been unhappily married for several decades, and her inability to curb her problems, unwillingness to compromise, and refusal to look into professional help made our childhood a misery because of the constant fights between my parents. It’s something I don’t think I’ll ever forgive her for – having a mental illness does not make you a bad person (I have one too) but I think spending upwards of thirty years refusing to bend or try in the slightest while ruining your marriage and driving your children away is a pretty shitty thing to do. Especially when it’s over something like the right to keep thirty empty vitamin bottles.

  43. LW 447: Move out.

    It’s going to be expensive. Move out.

    MIL is going to cry at you. Move out.

    Husband might be mad at you. Move out.

    Your options are “live in a house that is a trashcan” or “move out”. That’s it. Those are the options. You are not a wizard and you cannot make MIL stop being a hoarder. You can either live with her hoarding, or you can move somewhere else.

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