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Clutter House

answered 01:21 PM EST, Sat October 22, 2011
My 64 year old uncle lives alone and his house is just totally out of control. There is stuff everywhere. Once you open the porch door you can walk straight ahead into the main living room, but if you look to the left you can’t see anything of the 15 feet of porch that used to be there, it’s now just a mountain of useless junk. Once you get in the house there are some rooms that you can no longer even enter. I don’t know how to put into words how crazy the situation is but it is a bad scene. The stuff is piled from the floor to pretty much the ceiling. It’s incredible but it is also sad and I think it’s got to be a major fire hazard.

I have tried on many occasions to get my uncle to throw out some of the stuff. He will generally go along with the idea but as soon as we start sorting through anything he always has a million reasons why he can’t get rid of whatever piece of garbage I happen to have in my hand. If you try to force the issue he gets upset and angry and it just seems to get counterproductive. He obviously has a problem but he will not admit that there is anything really wrong. What can I do to get him to clean out some of the stuff. I worry that in addition to it all being a fire hazard, the house just feels so stuffy and dusty and probably moldy, it cannot be good for his health at all. I feel like he needs some sort of intervention like you see on TV, but I don’t have any idea how or what to do to make him see the light.

David Johnson Says...

This is indeed a difficult situation. It's hard to get a sense about how bad it is from your description. There are messy houses and there are clutter houses. Clutter houses are a hazard because there is likely hidden food and possibly vermin. It's difficult to verify this because of all the stuff. Your uncle is indeed attached to all the stuff and is reluctant to let go of the memories or it's potential usefulness he imagines. 

Is he of sound mind? A check up with the doctor will verify that problem. Doctors offices will often take information from relatives even if your uncle hasn't given permission for them to release information to you.

If the house is truly a hazard, a call to the health department, the landlord, or the police will force some action. Short of that, all you have is your ability to persuade. And I'm sure if you call authorities, your relationship with your uncle will be damaged.

His angry reaction implies you've lost your persuasive effectiveness for the moment. Use that as a way to limit to your intervention. Don't push that hard or you will lose future effectiveness. Try offering incentives based on things he likes more than his stuff. Try the positive rewards first. If that effort fails, you are left with your honest and gently stated discomfort with visiting him with his house in this condition. Are you the only interested family member? Sometimes things become more important when a person is lonely and isolated. Perhaps other family members could be coordinated in their persuasive influence to give him the same message. Offer to meet him somewhere else so you can visit more comfortably. He will get the message all the same, in a more positive frame. The best outcome is for him to decided his house needs to be cleaned up. That should be your goal.

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Page last updated Oct 22, 2011

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