Question: My mother-in-law is a hoarder. Recently she had a loss to her garage due to weather. It’s packed to the gills and the roof was damaged. A lot of stuff was ruined and mildewed and sat for weeks while we waited for the insurance claims agent to get to her. She will not throw any of it away. She is bringing it into her already packed home to try to wash what she can and save it. Her whole house smells terrible! What can we do to force her to throw this stuff out? She is 87 and stubborn about her stuff.
Dr. Amy: I try to approach difficult situations such as this step by step. The first step is to establish open, two way communication where both people are able to really listen as well as express their views. One of the best ways to open the lines of communication is to express empathy and seek to understand the other person’s concerns. Can you sit and talk calmly with your mother? Try beginning by telling that you know that the loss of her stuff must mean a lot to her. Explore her feelings and let her talk. Once she is feeling that you have really heard her and understand her concerns, she may be more willing and able to listen to you. Don’t rush this first conversation. It’s where you build rapport. Once your mother is feeling heard and respected, you can express your concerns. Tell her what you are worried about. It’s important to speak calmly, even though you may be feeling anxious about the situation.
Once you are both feeling heard and understood you may be able to come up with a workable solution together. If not, step two is to ask for outside support. Perhaps if she has a clergy person she respects, the clergy person could talk to your mother to encourage her to get help. Or perhaps her doctor might encourage her to get some help with the hoarding. If you feel there is a significant health risk in this situation, you should contact Adult Protective Services, which is part of your county Department of Social Services. Good luck.
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