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I think hoarding is killing my father-in-law


Question: My in-laws are hoarders. They will never admit it but their house, garage, two sheds, two vehicles, 18 wheeler trailer and second family home are stuffed. My father in-law has battled cancer, had a hip replacement, pacemaker and most recently a medical grade staph infection.

After being hospitalized for several months with the staph he was released to the second family home. This is lived in by my brother and sister in-law and is significantly cleaner than their main house. My concern is that whenever dad is well enough, they travel to the main house to visit. They don't end up sleeping there but they spend time in the house. Either during the visit or shortly after they return he ends up with a high grade fever and back in the hospital. I have a strong feeling there is something in the main house that is making him sick.

My mother in-law is the root of the hoarding. She is very strong willed. I need to know a professional opinion on the health issues that this house may be causing my father in-law.The house has potential and we have plenty of help but unless she knows that this house is killing her husband she is not going to let us help her.

I need help. He's not well and we just want him home and healthy. This house is killing him and no one is willing to admit it.

Dr. Amy: When a house is crammed with stuff, it is hard to keep everything clean. Dust and dust mites can accumulate. Insects can breed, mold and fungus can grow. If a small leak or small hole appears and goes undetected, mice and other small animals can get in. Animal waste can accumulate. It's a recipe for disaster.

From a non-hoarder's perspective, it doesn't make sense to keep all this stuff. And since you fear the hoarding is injuring your father-in-law's health, you must be terribly frustrated. Before we talk tactics, it's important to say that I think empathy and compassion may get you further than your quite understandable impatience. This may be challenging since I am sure you are finding this whole situation very stressful.

I am going to offer a few suggestions below, and I wonder if readers have experiences and tips they can share.

You might start by consulting a home organization specialist who has experience with hoarding, if cost is not an issue. Even if you do consult an organization specialist, you might want to have an air quality analysis done in the home. This will tell you if there is anything to be concerned about. They can give you a printed report of their findings, which you could show your mother-in-law. A friend of mine had this done after she gutted her basement and it cost a couple of hundred dollars.

Try calling the local authorities and have them  inspect the house, as it may be a fire hazard. This could force your in-laws to take action. Here is the story of one man whose house was so bad he was facing jail time. This threat of jail time is what moved him to action, and with the help of professional organizer Dorothy Breininger, he managed to stay out of jail and get his house in order. I love this story and think there are two great lessons to learn: the first is that you have to begin from a position of trust. Dorothy started by telling the hoarder that she would not throw anything out. She also told the hoarder that he would likely want to get rid of some stuff once he realized he was in charge. Lastly, the specialist told the hoarder that if he got rid of some stuff, this would open up space for new good things to come into his life.  Miraculously, when he cleared the clutter, he started having people over and ended up marrying someone he met through these visits.

In addition to dealing with the house itself, perhaps you can also look for help for your in-laws. While we do not understand what causes hoarding, the Mayo Clinic says that with intensive treatment, hoarders can be helped.  Report your concerns to your father-in-law's doctor and ask for advice. If your father-in-law ends up in the hospital again, you can tell the attending doctor your concerns and ask for help too.

Good luck!



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