How can I get my mother to clean up after her pets?

Uncle leo asked...

My 75 year-old mother lives with one dog and two cats. Her house reeks of urine and feces because she rarely cleans the litter box.  I love taking care of her and shopping for her but can only spend a few minutes there at a time. I have asked her over and over to open a window or something but she seems fine with status quo. Any advice?

Expert Answer

Laura Juel is an occupational therapist at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. She works in the Outpatient Occupational Therapy Program and the Duke Driving Program for older drivers.

If the litter box is not an issue for your mother, then chances are she is not going to change her behavior.  I recommend that you look into some specialized odor control cat litter to help reduce the odors. Some cat litter is flushable, so if the box is located in the bathroom with a scoop and a reminder note to clean, you may have a better chance at follow through. If the home has soiled rugs and furniture, the smell will not be easy to get rid of. Check out your local pet supply store for odor eliminator products.

Animals can be a important addition to to an older person's quality of life, but it is also important that your mother keep her home safe and sanitary. Check in with her to make sure she's as content with the situation as she seems. It could be that she is overwhelmed by her pet care duties, but isn't sure what to do about it, and doesn't want to loose any of her beloved pets. Talk to her about the work and expense involved in taking care of animals -- food, basic preventive care, and exercise, and ask her how she feels she's managing.  See if together you can come up with an alternative solution, i.e. have the animals live outside or in the garage, gate off part of the house, pay a teenager in her neighborhood to help with pet care, or get rid of at least one of her animals. Try to come up with a written plan of action and set a deadline to reassess.

But beyond the unpleasantness of her living situation, my greater concern is that if your mother is having difficulty taking care of the animals, she may also be having difficulty taking care of herself. Take a closer look at her self-care routine, medication management, and finances to see if they are being addressed. 

If your mother seems to be managing well in other areas, and you can't agree on a clean-up plan, I recommend that you call her an hour prior to your visit and ask her open a window.