Dear Family Advisor

Mom's a hoarder whose "stuff" is keeping us apart!

Last updated:

April 20, 2010

In the last five years, since my brother and dad died, my mom's living habits have become shocking. I've tried to help -- I've cleaned, reorganized, had garage sales -- but within a few months, it's back to being awful.

I love my mom -- she's funny, giving, and great company -- but I can't come home to this chaos every night and spend my whole night fighting with her because I have to move stacks of newspapers off the stove just to cook or find she's taken in yet another stray pregnant cat.

I'm not sure what's going on -- dementia? -- but she's changed so drastically in the last few years that I know it must be something. How do I get through to her that hoarding is unsafe and I simply refuse to endure this situation?

Getting our parents help when they need it is part of being an adult child and a caregiver. We have to be their advocate when they can't, or won't, be one for themselves. At the same time, we have to create healthy boundaries for ourselves. It's possible that you'll eventually decide sharing a home isn't the best situation for the two of you.

I like the way you described your mom -- funny, generous, and great company. That's a good place to start, focusing on what's good about her and her life. Thinking about the ways she benefits you even now helps especially when things get harried and you get overwhelmed with all that "stuff" around you.

Before you can tackle the hoarding issue, you do need to know what you're dealing with. The [causes of hoarding] (https://www.caring.com/articles/causes-of-hoarding) can be psychological or neurological. You really need a physician such as a neurologist or a mental health professional to diagnose your mom. An expert can also give you practical advice on [how to keep a hoarding mother safe] (https://www.caring.com/questions/my-mother-is-a-widow-of-2-years-she-does-not-bathe-or).

In addition to any prescribed therapy and medication, I recommend encouraging her to visit a bereavement counselor, support group, or both. Losing a son and husband can have a profound, possibly devastating, effect. She might also be suffering from depression. As much as you love her, you can't be her all-in-all. If you're having a difficult time with grieving over your own losses, share that and tell her that you'd like to find grief support together.

You might not like this part, but I have to ask: Are there ways that you enable her? Do you take her to garage sales because she likes to go -- even though you know it feeds into her hoarding? Do you give her attention for her behavior, even if it's negative attention, by complaining constantly about the "stuff?" It's really hard to look at what our role is in our loved ones' unhealthy choices, but we often feed into their lives just as they feed into ours.

Even with help, the hoarding problem isn't going to go away fast. You're still going to be tested and frustrated. Be consistent. If she needs medication, make sure she takes it. If she needs therapy, make sure she gets there. She'll be looking for you to forget, get tired, and give up, so don't.

You can do these things whether you're living right there with her or not. If you do decide to keep living together, is there a way to create your own space? Could you have a bedroom door you can shut (perhaps even lock) when you're not home, and your own private bath? That could make a big difference while you work on the issue with professional help. Some caregivers mark off with blue tape a "clear zone" of, say, three feet around a living area.

I also find that focusing on the word "beauty" is a less-insulting way to discuss the clutter. Try telling your mom you need to clear the table so the two of you can have a space of beauty to eat your dinner.

Continue to protect a separate life from your mother. When I cared for my mom, I learned that I simply couldn't meet all the physical and emotional needs of another human being -- it was too much. So ask for help. The more we create a circle of care around our loved ones, the more we help enrich their lives -- and open our hearts to others.

Often we learn from our parents in unexpected ways. Perhaps your "life lesson" here is to learn to create a sense of space and serenity in your heart no matter what your outside surroundings may look like. I've known people who lived with hoarders and later took up feng shui or became a professional organizer! What I'm saying is, try to glean something good from being with your mom. That's what we have to do with life. Forget making lemonade out of lemons ---make margaritas!