How Do I Get Dad Out of His Cluttered, Unsafe Home?

People want to stay in their own homes. You hear it and read about it all the time. And there's some merit to that. Most of us can relate to the fact that relocating is emotionally charged. Add the fact that our parents get sick and tired of suffering the indignities of aging and often feel bossed around by everyone from the government to their kids, and you can understand why they often get stubborn. Where they live may be, in their minds, their "last stand."

Many elders do well in their homes. They graciously accept the help they need, have cleaning people come in, and are even able to throw away the old newspapers that are piling up in the corner. They are content with adding some safety measures and feel cozy with a bit of clutter.

Then there's the other side. Many seniors are living in the same home they raised their children in. These homes are modest, but worked well for raising their family and even for the early empty nest years. Often, however, they are two-story cottages, with the bedrooms and the only bathroom up a long flight of stairs. They have small closets and full basements, generally stuffed to the rafters with things they've forgotten but feel they can't live without. .

After four or five decades in this small home, the place is packed with memories as well as junk. Then, one spouse - let's say Mom - dies. Dad is now alone in this house. He gets even more "thrifty," and doesn't want anyone coming to mow the yard. He's a bit paranoid, and doesn't want to pay a housekeeper, so the place is filthy. Electrical outlets are old and overloaded. Plumbing barely works and doesn't get fixed. You try to help and he just gets more stubborn. He thinks you are trying to take over and guards his territory like a homesteader on the plains.

Newspapers and magazines pile up (generally unread). Food spoils in the fridge. But the worst of it is he is soiling his pants because he can't get up the stairs to the bathroom on time.

You and your siblings have a conference and decide to intervene. You research assisted living centers, and offer to take him around for a tour. You tell him you are afraid he will fall going up and down the steps in a hurry. You nag him to move for his safety. You dangle pretty brochures about assisted living in his face. He just gets more stubborn. What do you do? I've known some people who have had to call Social Services, have them do a welfare check, and let them take over the task of getting an elder out of a cluttered, filthy, unsafe home.

Alternatives to Assisted Living

Before going that far, I'd suggest that you try a couple of gentler things. First, get Dad to his doctor. You may have to go under the guise of a blood pressure check or something of the kind, but let the doctor know ahead that you are wondering about depression. Depression is often part of the problem, especially if a spouse has died. Depression also can cause people not to care about their surroundings and make it impossible for them to take action.

Then there is the fact that he can't throw anything away. People of this generation grew up in the Great Depression. They have a hard time throwing things away because they are afraid they many "need it sometime." Therefore, the house piles up with unusable and forgotten objects stuffed into every corner. Again, though an anti-depressant won't cure this ingrained thinking, it may help Dad become more flexible. Once depression is ruled out or treated, appeal to his frugal side.

Tell him, "I understand why you want to stay in this house, Dad. It's full of memories and represents your past. But it isn't safe the way it is, because the bathroom is upstairs and so is your bedroom. I know you sleep on the couch a lot so you don't have to climb the steps. But you still have to go to the bathroom. So, I've called a home remodeling company and we have an appointment with him to talk about adding a bedroom and bath onto your main floor. It can spread out onto the back lawn."

Then, do it! Get really excited. Call someone to come over and give an estimate. Chances are that once Dad sees that he can make a decision to stay in his home, but that it will cost a ton of money to do it, he'll likely say, "I've decided I don't want to remodel. Let's look at those assisted living brochures." And you are on your way.

If he still won't budge? Go ahead and plan. Maybe a remodeled house will work for him. If all else fails, get that welfare check from Social Services. They may have to force the issue. But your chances are good that he'll find a better option. He'll likely be more willing to check out those assisted living places you mentioned once he's seen alternatives. It's just that he needs to feel he is making the decision, not someone else. You can't blame him, can you?

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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