Psychiatry & Psychology--General/Problem with M-I-L


Hello Sir, and thank you for volunteering for this service.

My Mother in Law is 76 years old.  Over the past several years she has exhibited symptoms of hoarding.  Her husband just more or less lives with it.  She does not store garbage, but just will not throw useless items away.  Their house is full of piles of who knows what that she will not part with. She also has difficulty making any decisions at all.

They have now been moved to Assisted Living and have conceded that it is time to sell the house as they will not be able to live there on their own any longer.  (It is a challenge to keep her from cluttering up their room at the AL facility!)  Now we face the daunting task of cleaning out the house.  She wants to "go through things", but the reality is she will just move the piles around and won't want to discard anything.

My question is how to approach her.  It is obvious she is mentally unstable, but has never been anyalized or counseled.  I don't want to just forcefully run over her wishes, but left to her own devices, we will literally NEVER get the house ready to sell.  Do you have any suggestions for us?  Is there a way to reason with her?  Are there things to avoid saying?

I know you can't do much over the internet, and every case is somewhat unique, but I feel there are likely some general standards we could follow to get the job done while not doing any damage to her mental state.   Thanks again for your time.
- Mike

Unfortunately, it sounds like time of of the essence.  If you have a year, then she should enter regular counseling, which will include medications for OCD.

If you have a month, then you get your father's permission (in marriage, what is him is hers and vice versa) and just clean out the place -- you are on good legal grounds if your dad agrees, otherwise, you step away from it and let them do it on their own (that is, fall on the faces and have them come crawling back to you for help). Sorry -- if time is of the essence, can't be delicate and you canNOT reason your mother, who is ill -- ("Is there a way to reason with her?"  -- nope, can't be done).

My usual suggestion in these cases is for YOU to just walk away, and if they ask for help say,"These are my terms" without negotiation.

It is only a matter of time, by the way, that the next of kin (is that you?) is asked to remove them from the Assisted Living facility, which is not going to tolerate this.  

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Daniel S. Harrop, M.D.


Dr. Daniel S. Harrop received his B.A. and his M.D., both from Brown, and his M.B.A. from the Edinburgh Business School, Scotland. Board-certified in adult and geriatric psychiatry, he is a past president of the R.I. Psychiatric Society and a member of the Committee on Medical Quality of the American Psychiatric Association and the Committee on Continuing Medical Education of the R.I Medical Society. He serves as a consultant to four of the top five major medical management companies, including OptumHealth/United Healthcare, Magellan Behavioral Health Services, ValueOptions and APS Healthcare, and maintains a private practice in Providence, R.I. He also serves as chief psychiatric consultant on the Medical Advisory Board at the R.I. Workers Compensation Court. He was formerly on the faculty at the medical schools at both Brown University and Harvard University.

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