Question: My husband and I are both in our forties and we have three children. Two are at home, ages 16 and 12. My mother-in-law, 84, lives alone in a house in our small town. We are on their farm. She is and always has been a hoarder. The issue is food safety and health. She refuses to clean out her fridge, puts excess food on her steps in her garage for weeks. She then invites us to meals. There have been times that food is clearly inedible. Our two eldest and I refuse to go anymore, yet my husband badgers us and insists our son go, and he is too young to object. We have had many heated arguments. I have tried discussing this with her, but that just results in further heated arguments. I have talked with my husband about her need for homecare, but he won't decide. What am I to do?
Dr. Amy: What an uncomfortable situation you find yourself in! I have an important question for you: Do you think your mother-in-law might have dementia? If you do, you need to call her doctor to discuss this. The bottom line is that we should never ignore signs of dementia.
If dementia is not concern and you think that home care would be helpful, perhaps your husband might suggest it to his mother on a trial basis. Home care can help with shopping, cooking, housework, running errands, doing the laundry—and would give her some additional companionship as well.
But I am not sure homecare will solve the hoarding problem. Assuming your mother-in-law does not suffer cognitive impairment, she has the right to decide how she will run her house. Food in the garage for weeks doesn't sound like a good idea, but that's her call. Perhaps the best approach is to side step the whole issue. You can do this by offering to bring the meal when you go to her house. Ask your husband to negotiate that. He doesn't have to raise your concern about the quality of food. Instead, he can simply and firmly say that you both want to save her the bother. Another approach is to pick her up and bring her to your house to dine. The goal is to look for creative solutions to manage the issue while still keeping family relationships as harmonious as possible.
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