How can I convince my mother to clean up her home so that it is safer?

9 answers | Last updated: Feb 11, 2013
Annr asked...

My parents are both in their 80's and still living together in their home. Their health is reasonably good though I suspect my mother has dementia. My mother has always been a pack rat and her home is so cluttered it is not safe. She refuses help to get it cleaned up and says she is afraid we will throw away something she values. I live 900 miles away and let her know I plan to visit soon to help her get her home cleared so it will be safe. She flipped out and now will not speak to me. My dad is concerned about this too but does not want to upset her, so he just tolerates the situation. She blames him for the mess and for "telling" me about it. I have no idea how to handle this situation.

Expert Answers

Beth Spencer is a social worker in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with more than 25 years of experience with families who have a member with dementia. She is coauthor of Understanding Difficult Behaviors and Moving a Relative with Memory Loss: A Family Caregiver's Guide. She directs Silver Club, early-stage and adult day programs serving individuals with Alzheimer's and related illnesses.

What you're describing is called “hoarding” behavior in the mental health field. It's considered a form of obsessive-compulsive behavior and is very difficult to manage. There are medications that can help people control this obsessive collecting, but it can be difficult to get people to take the medications.

You don't elaborate on why you think your mother might have dementia. However, memory loss and cognitive change obviously complicate the way one responds to hoarding behavior. Safety becomes more of an issue when a person has dementia and no longer has the ability or judgment to handle this problem but it also becomes more difficult or impossible to reason with the person.

I think you need to tread softly here. Of course you are concerned about safety, but if you alienate your parents, you won’t be able to help and they will have lost their best advocate. I would suggest visiting, not arguing with your mother, but seeing if you can get her in for a medical evaluation. Use some other medical issue if you can, but alert the doctor to your concerns ahead of time. You also need to align yourself with your father -- be a friend and a sympathetic listener. I know you're worried and concerned, but you're not going to solve this issue quickly. Choose one safety issue and see if you can negotiate that (for example, clearing paper away from the stove, or clearing clutter from the stairs). Don't throw things away; ask if you can move them for safety reasons. You're going to have to move by baby steps here.

One more suggestion is to enlist a geriatric care manager to help; they can be enormously helpful to long-distance caregivers.

Community Answers

Jean's daughter answered...

Rubbermaid boxes in the basement. Label." Nothing is gone Mom. It is all here. The containers are helping to keep the dust off your valuable items (said with a straight face)."

Hunyhare answered...

I too have this problem with my mother who is in her 80's. My brother lives above her (the house is a two story duplex, mom in the downstairs unit, brother in the top unit) but he's just as bad or worse, than mom. One thing that got her to start cleaning up was the local fire department not being able to bring in needed emergency equipment when she had a medical emergency and the chief coming by to talk to her about possibly condemning the house as a fire hazard. I lived with her for a couple of years and moved out 4 years ago and the house was not so bad back then but it was a constant struggle because she was constantly going to garage sales and bringing home even more stuff, most of needing repair to be usable again and of course, it never got fixed. One thing that we must remember is that the folks of this age went through the Great Depression and nothing was ever thrown away; it was used and reused, fixed up until it couldn't be fixed anymore and then used for parts for other things. Almost all of my aunts had this same problem although it seems to have bypassed my uncle; he is constantly getting rid of things, even things (like my grandmother's roses) that others in the family might have wanted. I would enlist mom's doctors or other medical providers as was suggested by someone else and if your parents have a church or synagogue that they attend on a regular basis, perhaps someone on staff that they are close to.

A fellow caregiver answered...

I certainly can sympathize with you. I have this problem with my mother and a number of my friends caring for their elderly parents have had the same problem. Trying to give things away that my Mom wanted to keep just made her angry. Her dementia does not allow her to make the decisions that need to be made to get rid of things, and if we tried to sort through things that were no longer useful to her present lifestyle, she just became overwhelmed. Coaxing her to give things away hasn't worked. Packing things into boxes, labeling them and placing them in the basement has worked. Spacebags for clothing, linens, etc has worked well too. I involved her in the process of packing things up as much as she could participate and now when she asks where something is all I say is, "It's downstairs in a box or it's in the closet in a spacebag". She's satisfied with the answer, and it never goes beyond that.

We all want to maintain control at some level. I figure letting her hang on to her possessions may be the only control she has left. She is 87y.o. and has lost her spouse, parents, siblings, friends, co- workers, acquaintances. She has lost her physical mobility, her independence, her ability to eat normally, travel etc. She suffers side effects from a number of the medications she has to take to manage her multiple medical conditions that make her uncomfortable.

When I put myself in her shoes, I was able to give up the fight.

I had a friend who had such a problem with her mother that it was only when they would not let her father come home from the hospital because he would not be able to move about in a wheelchair that her mother would let her do something about the clutter. And there were already with 2 "Pods" storage units in the driveway!

From time to time, when my mother doesn't want to hear what I have to say that is in her best interest, I remind her that I am on her side, and the thing(s) that I am proposing are to keep her at home. I remind her that if she falls and breaks a hip, I may not be able to keep her at home. It does make her stop and think and she ends up agreeing to whatever I have proposed. It worked very well for my 83 y.o. aunt as well.

This situation requires a lot of patience, and I think may even be harder for you given your distance. Good luck!

A fellow caregiver answered...

All these discussions sound just like the problem I had with my mother and other relatives. Mom passed away just 7 months ago. All of our family members tried to help her avoid clutter. She did the same things reported by all the others mentioned herein, and it really hampered her relationships. Finally, her medical conditions increased her stress enough we placed her in a skilled nursing facility. We had plenty of reasons to put her in full-time care, but the major reason was so she couldn't clutter up her nursing home room with stuff. She still tried to hoard food, often complaining that we threw out something she didn't finish at her most recent meal. Antidepressants improved her neurosis, but never completely improved her condition permanently. I recommend you find professional help for your relative and go to counseling so that you can make intelligent choices to help her in her final years. This problem is not just a tendency to clutter, it is a disease. All the answers given were excellent. I agree with all the others. My prayers are with you all.

Pcanup answered...

I have this same problem with my mom, who has always collected "junk" and refuses to ever throw anything away. My sisters and I didn't know how bad it was until we moved my parents 15 years ago and discovered three large kitchen cabinets stuffed full of plastic grocery bags and medications that were over 20 years old. We hauled off truck loads of old magazines and trash. She just started over in her new home, which looked so nice when they first got there, but soon looked like a junkyard. I tried what one commenter said, packing it up and putting it in an attic, but my dad, who hates the clutter, got mad about it being in the attic and hauled it off. My mother was furious and depressed for days. Now she is super paranoid about me moving anything. It makes it hard to clean, because there is clutter everywhere. I hate it, because I am the exact opposite, happy to throw things away.

A fellow caregiver answered...

I had heard "hoarding" or pack rat is a symptom that something is missing from that person's life. They try to cling to "what was" or someone or something that was in their lives. There is now a void in their lives. My mom now 90 Remembering her years growing up during the depression. She would say it is too difficult to get things.

We have become a "throw away society". Yes, you must tread lightly. However, a focus on organizing, buy an inexpensive bookcase, putting all magazines together. If there is a way to cancel the subscription, without them knowing? Nick-naks together, or just bite the tongue. Time will come soon enough and you then will have all the time you need to clean up... Blessings

A fellow caregiver answered...

Why do you all assume the mother is the one with the problem. Perhaps AnneR needs to reconsider this situation from her mother's point of view. Why do you want to throw out her past and memories. A lot of people form attachments to their possessions and do not mind a full house. It sounds to me like they are living an independent life and are happy. So let them be and invite them to your home, send them plane tickets but don't try and mother your mother or you may destroy your relationship. My honest advice is to find her support in a subtle manner like a local aged care group and show her you cherish the past by discussing the stories behind the things she cherishes.

A fellow caregiver answered...

Just call me Mich. I too had the similar problem. Mom passed away in June. My brother continues to live in mom's house. Mom allowed him to live with her for over 30 years, free/ clear. He had difficulty holding a job. Mom started accumulated "stuff" after her sisters passed away. Dad died and she remarried. The husband brought all of his "stuff" into the home.
Mom had appointed me Personal Rep of the Estate. The house needs to be sold, however, my brother is contesting the Will. I have filed for Eviction. It has been 7 months since mom died. With the assistance of an Estate Sale Rep, I was able to clean out a lot of mom's stuff. However, there is a lot that remains. My brother has "hoarded" things, which will he will have to move out.
When mom was alive I tried to organize, she became angry.
However, I knew where things were. Mom's dementia progressed and my brother's daughter "took over" as caregiver. They would not allow me to see mom, legal battles emerged. This daughter packed items away. During those years, I gathered a list of charities, resale stores, etc. When I was finally "legally" allowed back in the house, it was in such disaway. It was awful. My siblings have been no help. One chooses to remain uncommunicative, the other is contesting the Will. There is a book called the "Boomer Burden" by Julie Hall. Found on for a reasonable price. I knew that cleaning out mom's home would be my responsibility and this book helped me prepare myself for this day. I had questions and emailed the author. I was impressed that she responded to my inquiries. She was very helpful.
In my mom's case, her hoarding became an illness for a missing link in her life. She was very close to her sisters and lost both my Dad and 2nd husband all within 10 years. Those years I saw mom start to "cling" to things. Mom lived to be 90. Her generation lived through the depression, Items were difficult to get. When they did get something, they hung on to it. Mom would say because it's too hard to get something to replace it. Our generation has become a "throw away" society. Although, being involved in the Estate Sale, there is a slow come-back to appreciate older furniture, dishes, etc. Items are slowly being recycled and refinished. And, although, I understand your frustration with the "hoarding" of family members, just know they find peace and comfort with their surroundings. If there is no safety hazard, let them be. However, if there are some safety concerns, slowly, and every so slowly, bring in see-thru packing boxes, and label them. But don't be surprised upon your next visit, the stuff that you had packed safely, is once again unpacked. And although to bring in either the Police or Fire support, as a welfare visit, this could also stir an emotion of resentment. Is there a family friend, clergy member, or doctor that could offer support? Enjoy the time you have with them, you will have plenty of time to declutter when they are gone. What may help, is to make sure their affairs are in order. Talk to them about Wills, Trusts, Power of Attorney, Patient Advocate positions. Sorry for long note. I am in the "thick of things" legally, fighting with siblings and find myself wondering, why they have such resentment. They have no respect for mom's last wishes. It sickens me.