Is it safe for my mother-in-law to live off road in the woods?

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My husband and I have a small 584 sq. ft. cabin in Wisconsin just big enough for 2 people or maybe squeeze in a couple of guests. We spent several years fixing this up and looking forward to spending more time there during retirement. It is on 95 acres on a private lake and we need to cross the property of another landowner (who is only there during hunting season) to access the property. Since my mother-in-law likes nature and fishing, my husband had a small 128 square ft. building (looks like a tiny log cabin) built for her to stay and other in-laws while they were visiting us. It is a quarter mile from our cabin and has no water or electricity....it was just supposed to be a place to sleep instead of a tent. This was built about 15 years ago. However, it evolved into my mother-in-law staying at her 128 sq. place every year from May to October as it is not accessible in the winter. She decided that was her home and of course needed our cabin for water, electricity, and the bathroom. She also showed it off to her brothers and other family like it was the greatest thing in the world. We always have a lot of fun when we are all together, but I don't think she should live there on her own like she does. During the rest of the year, she lives with my brother-in-law and his wife in a very comfortable home. Our Wisconsin property is a mile off road and is accessed via a dirt road. Every year or two, storms take down trees and block the road until someone can come with a chain saw. I was there last year when that happened and she seemed a bit panicked. There is a gate to the property on the main road, but the fire dept. probably could not get through or find her. She is mentally very sharp, but tires easily and can only walk a few feet before sitting down. She needs to make several bathroom trips at night and decided to put a porta potty next to her 128 sq. ft building (about 40 to 50 fit away but I think she uses a bedside commode too). On hot days, she will sit in her car with the air conditioning on. The next thing I knew, my in-laws were putting in a propane refrigerator for her and buy her food. My in-laws never told me, but I found out for a few years now they have been doing all her laundry and taking out all her garbage. They also clean for her. The outside of this little building is cluttered with tables, bug, spray, dirty dishes, etc. She has a shot gun for protection but she is 84 years old and in marginal health. My husband agrees that she should not be there alone. My sister-in-law said it was a good time for my mother-in-law to sell her house and live with them but my sister-in-law does not seem to want to talk about my mother-in-law being on the Wisconsin property. My mother-in-law dreams about being in Wisconsin and that's all she talks about. She even calls it her lake. (The property has actually been in my own family since 1961). I talked to a nurse one time about this and she said elderly people need to feel they can be on their own. I spoke to a close relative and they said that my mother-in-law just wants to be in Wisconsin and is prepared for the end if that happens. I told my sister-in-law that I don't think my mother-in-law should be there on her own any more. The closest relative is her niece who works full time and lives 50 miles away. My brother-in-law and sister-in-law live 200 miles away. She does have a cell phone and people check on her. What are your thoughts about all of this? Should I be more aggressive as a daughter-in-law and the owner of the property? Or am I being the bad guy?

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I get kind of annoyed with families who won't do or say anything in situations like this, their lack of courage leaves the OP holding the bag. And you can bet they'd be all over her with recriminations if something happened, not to mention the possible legal ramifications.
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I don't believe this is a smart arrangement.

Cons-
*Property is a quarter mile away from your property or any one else.
*The access depends on the other land owner granting passage rights.
*Your MIL is in poor health if she can only walk a few feet then has to sit down. No way for her to "fight off" anyone or anything. She couldn't "run" for the gun.
*She's far away from emergency services and could die waiting for help.
*Cell phone service not available.
*She can't tolerate the heat so she runs the cars' AC? Good way to overheat the motor or burn it up-then no running car. Also, if she can't take the heat, she may get heatstroke and die.
*Family has to do ADL's (activities of daily living) for her (take out garbage, bring in groceries, laundry, clean the building, etc.)
*She is living in an illegal shelter. I'll bet every state has building codes that state you have to have running water, sewer and electricity to keep code legal. She actually is breaking the law. She would be "evicted" if the housing authority found out, especially someone her age and physical condition.

Pros:
*MIL is happy being in nature.
*You avoid confronting her.
*She keeps her (false) sense of independence.
(What would happen if family didn't clean and groceries?)

If you go with the Cons, you could tell her the housing authority found out someone was illegally living in a shack that was meant for storage and she can no longer stay there.

We all have to face our limitations. We get old and can't do what we used to.
I'm not sure, by the time I retire in 3 years, 10 months (and counting!) if I'll be *able* to dive again. I have high hopes but I'll have to accept my physical limitations. Your MIL should too.
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Pick up the book “Being Mortal” by Gawande. It helps you understand that the importance of elders having the ability to live out their lives on their own terms is very important. Perhaps more important than safety. I know it is to me. After all, she will die just like I will and you will.
I would be conscious of the fact that her time to spend on the earth is probably less than 10 years. Her time to manage by herself might be down to two or three based on her mobility issues that you mention. This might even be her last year to live alone for any time frame.
It is a perfect opportunity to get things checked out.
I think it would be reasonable to have her mobility assessed by a physical therapist. To determine the distance she can safely walk etc.
Perhaps some therapy would be in order.
Whatever her health issues are, have a good physical to check her out. Not to limit her but to prepare her.
Then if no surprises with the health, consider other criteria you could help manage that would keep her able to enjoy “her lake” and for you to feel she is reasonably safe. You mention that inlaws are taking care of maintenance issues for her already. How often do they come to the cabin? Perhaps you could encourage them to have a weekly schedule or arrange for someone in the area to run a few traps for her. Does she have a dog? A visit by the fire department is a good idea to put her on their radar if a problem with weather should occur.
Maybe discuss a narrower time frame for her visits. Perhaps she goes out in May and stays through June. Leaves for July and August or whenever the warmest months are. Maybe stays with an alternate child from the winter months during those hot months. Then she could go back for September and October.
She has had quantity of life. Quality is the part that’s hard to come by as we age. Privacy is almost unheard of in the scenarios many have to resign themselves to.
She obviously loves the seclusion and doesn’t mind the small quarters.
Hopefully you can find a way to allow her a transition phase. A bit more work for the family perhaps but a happy MIL is a good thing.
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GA, my thoughts exactly on the easement for access. We have a case now where a property was sold and the new owner threatened violence if an adjacent owner tried to access his, otherwise, land locked property where he had traditionally accessed. The adjacent owner is trying to get an officially recorded, proper easement before he passes the property on to his children. The county, while they have right to right-of-way across 30 feet at section line do not want to spend attorney's fees to accomplish it. It may come down to a civil action between the two property owners which will be very expensive for both.

The adjacent property owner's family has owned his land since the 60's and always had a handshake agreement to cross the land of now a new owner that will not permit it.
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LF, I agree with CWillie; making a decision is challenging. I'm inclined to agree though, that she shouldn't be there on her own.

I assume there's no phone service in her little cabin? That would be a major concern, especially give the remoteness of the area.

Another would be access. If the homeowner whose property you have to cross ever sold or died, is there a recorded easement to allow you access to the property?

I would opt for the wilderness myself, as it's so much more peaceful and inspirational. But there's the issue of being alone and of safety.

I agree that going there only with family would be the optimum solution. Even with a cell phone, she could fall, pass out, and not be able to communicate to get help.

OTOH, there's the issue of it being her own life, and her choice to take chances, although not everyone would agree with allowing someone to make those kinds of decisions. I would have trouble with that myself.


CW's point about insurance or other issues might be the appropriate wedge between staying there alone vs. with family. If she does stay there year around, there are probably some building and use restrictions , such as to water, heat and electricity, that would require specific adaptations. (I'm assuming we're discussing living year round in her cabin, not yours?

Dirty dishes could attract bears, or rodents. And even though she has a shotgun, I'm not sure it could even be effective against a bear if it smelled food in the house and invited itself in for dinner. Bears can get into cars when they smell food. She'd be literally helpless against a hungry bear.

And honestly, I wouldn't be too comfortable with hunters who might wander onto the property either.
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Thanks for your response. I like your suggestions very much. My mother-in-law fell a couple of months ago in my sister-in-laws house and broke her wrist. I think the time has come for us to look at some options. My husband and I reside in Florida with Wisconsin being a vacation place. The perfect plan would be for her to travel to Wisconsin when we or the in-laws would be there but travel back with them and not stay there on their own. But, I think this would be very upsetting to her....
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Hm, that's really a tough one. On the one hand I agree that this tiny cabin is not equipped to be a full time residence, on the other hand she IS mentally competent to make the choice to stay there anyway. I wonder if there would be any insurance and/or liability issues with the cabin and if that could be the excuse to get her to visit rather than reside there? If you had a magic wand what would you have happen? If you can present a reasonable plan that gives her some good options then it might be easier to change the status quo.
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