Your Aging Parents Live in Filth: What Can You Do?

Updated

Certified Care Manager, Aging Life Care Professional, and National Master Guardian Emeritus

If you have a parent living in filth, it can be heart-wrenching, shameful, and frustrating. Your parent could be a college-educated professor or a retired physician. They could be a plumber, a housewife, or a bank teller.

There is no profession or socioeconomic status that predicts who will be a hoarder and who won’t, or who will live in filth and who won’t. Identified risk factors have helped us to understand some of the causes of this behavior, but more research is still needed.

Jump ahead to these sections:

If only you could solve the problem of your parent living in filth by simply cleaning up. And in fact, sometimes a parent just needs a helping hand keeping up with daily chores. But in many cases, a person who’s living in filth doesn’t see it as a problem, and they may become angry and defiant if you try and help them. 

Self-neglect is closely related to living in filth, which complicates the situation and makes it even more dangerous for your parent. You can take some steps to improve this situation, but be aware that the process could be lengthy, with setbacks along the way. Try to maintain a calm and respectful attitude as you go through this challenging process.

Why Might an Older Adult Stop Cleaning Their House or Start Hoarding?

The root cause of hoarding is not entirely understood. Evidence suggests that hoarding is related to mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). 

Genetics may also play a role, and hoarding can get worse as someone gets older. Hoarding can be devastating for older adults and their families. Since living in filth and hoarding are related issues that often occur together, there are other factors to consider when evaluating and managing this situation. 

Hoarding is a psychological disorder that can be caused by life events, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), other mental health disorders, or deprivation early in life. People with hoarding disorder may also be socially isolated and lonely or have a hereditary predisposition and an indecisive personality. Sometimes the situation starts slowly but over time gets worse and worse. 

Cognitive impairment

If your parent has cognitive impairment or a firm diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, they may not be able to keep up with cleaning the house. You might notice some minor changes, such as your parent not doing the dishes or neglecting the dusting and vacuuming. You may notice house maintenance tasks get ignored. Laundry starts to pile up, and gradually papers, magazines, and mail start to accumulate. 

Perhaps your parent tended to hoard when they were younger, and now as their memory starts to fail, the situation worsens. If your parent has dementia, they may not be true hoarders but just not have the mental capacity to manage a household. 

Mobility problems

When an older adult has a fall or some other event that impairs their mobility, it becomes more challenging to take care of day-to-day tasks. Household duties start to pile up, and cleaning becomes more complicated. After a while, your parent might give up on trying to keep things organized and clean. It takes too much effort to manage, and they could be afraid of falling.

Mental health issues

Mental health issues like depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, OCD, substance abuse, and alcohol use disorder can contribute to living in filth and hoarding. When someone has a mental health issue, it can affect their desire and motivation to maintain a household. Your parent may have a history of mental health problems, or you might be noticing symptoms for the first time. 

Chronic medical conditions

Chronic medical conditions such as congestive heart failure, kidney failure, and arthritis can exacerbate a hoarding problem. When an older adult has chronic pain and fatigue, they may have no motivation to clean. Chronic pain, in particular, can make it difficult to move, even though that might be a way to help manage their condition. 

How Can You Get an Aging Parent to Clean Their House?

There are a few things you can try to remedy the situation if your parent is living in filth. Through this process, the most critical thing to remember is to take your time and be respectful. If you are a long-distance caregiver, helping your aging parent to clean their home presents unique challenges. Enlist the help of others if you live at a distance, or hire a geriatric care manager to assess the situation. 

As you think about what to do with a parent living in filth, you may want the house cleaned up now! But you will encounter significant resistance and anger if you don’t approach the situation carefully. Your progress may be slow. 

Start early

When you notice things starting to slide, act early before the situation gets out of hand. It is far easier to intervene early rather than late. Make sure you have planned ahead by going through the aging parent’s checklist to pre-plan for incapacity or the possible need for senior living options.

Be supportive and collaborative

The resistance you encounter could be intense. The more supportive you can be, the better. Try and decide together with your parent about how to start cleaning and decluttering the home.  Defer to your parent, and let them guide the discussion and make suggestions. If your parent feels some sense of control, they may be more likely to agree to start cleaning or accept your guidance.

Start small

Agree to start small by cleaning specific areas of the house or removing a few items at a time. Have a plan that is flexible but keeps you both on track. Ask for help from siblings if it won’t seem overwhelming to your parent to have several people involved. 

Recommend therapy

If your parent is lonely and struggling emotionally, having someone to talk to could help them feel more in control. Therapy can assist with symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.

A therapist can support your parent in expressing their feelings about the difficulty and shame they may feel in managing their household and suggest behavioral changes that will help them get back on track.

Try a medication to treat mental health disorders

If your parent is suffering from depression, anxiety, or OCD, talk with their doctor about the possibility of a medication to treat these disorders. These medications are not a cure-all but might give your parent some relief, which could energize them to tackle more cleaning and decluttering. 

What Can You Do If They Won’t Listen or Comply?

If you have tried everything and your parent won’t listen or comply, there are not many options. Hoarding disorder can cause significant problems in family and social relationships. Living in filth and hoarding can have serious health and safety consequences, from fire hazards to vermin and health code violations. If your parent also shows signs of self-neglect, their health could be compromised.  

If you don’t feel confident in assessing the seriousness of your parent's situation, hire a geriatric care manager to give you a professional opinion. Over time you may not see things clearly, and the problem could be worse than you think. 

Call adult protective services

If your parent’s home and self-care threaten their safety and wellbeing, you should call Adult Protective Services (APS). Although they may not be able to intervene, they will investigate and document the situation should you need it later.

Move your parent to assisted living

Although you can’t force someone to do something against their will, urging your parent to move to assisted living could be a good solution. Moving them allows you to clear everything out of the home and sell it if you need the funds to pay for assisted living.

Expect that deciding what to bring to assisted living could be an arduous and contentious process. You could ask for a respite room in assisted living (furnished) so that you can make decisions about what furniture and belongings to bring to the new apartment. Then once everything is set up, move your parent into their new apartment. 

Petition the court for guardianship

You can petition the court for guardianship if you believe that your parent lacks the capacity to make safe and reasonable decisions about their healthcare and housing. Since this is a legal process, it could create conflict between you and your parent, as well as the rest of your family, so prepare for that possibility.

But keep in mind that even with guardianship (which gives you authority over their life decisions), you’ll need to consider the consequences of forcing them to do something against their will.

Aging Parent Living in Filth

A parent living in filth is a heartbreaking situation. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this challenging problem, so view your parent’s circumstances with as much compassion as you can. Try to practice patience, and over time you may be able to make some progress. 


Sources:
  1. Kumar, Karthik. “What Causes Hoarding?” Medicinenet.com. 5 March 2021.  medicinenet.com
  2. “What is Hoarding Disorder?” American Psychological Disorder. 2021. www.psychiatry.org
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