Care and Feeding

My Aging Parents Need Parenting

Each time I return home to see them, I am increasingly concerned by how shabby and dirty their space is.

A couch with a variety of junk piled on top of it.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by dorian2013/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I know this is usually a column for parents, but today I have a question about parents. I’m in my 30s and live about a three-hour drive from my 60-year-old parents—we once used to live in the same town. I’m close enough to see them some weekends now that we’re all vaccinated, but far enough that I am not in their space nearly as often as I once was. Each time I return home to see them, I am increasingly concerned by how shabby and dirty their space is—think wooden shutters falling apart and broken plumbing, with pet hair, dirt, and clutter EVERYWHERE.

I know the pandemic has been hard on everyone, and my mother is also dealing with the aftermath of losing her own mom early last year. However, I’m not comfortable bringing my partner to their home, or even being there myself. Money is not an issue; they can afford regular cleaners and house maintenance. My mom is just kind of a control nut and has a very hard time letting others change her space in any way, even for the better. (I once got read the riot act for neatly stacking some flowerpots that had fallen over.) Do you have any ideas about how I can sensitively broach this subject? As they continue to age, hot-button issues about their house/health/lifestyle/etc. are bound to come up, and while I don’t want to parent my parents, someone who loves them and is close to them needs to let them know their status quo is not OK.

—Parenting My Parents

Dear PMP,

Though it may be the “natural” order of things to have to do so, it isn’t easy or fun for most parents to tell their children that they need to get their living space in order, or that they’re worried about their well-being, so there’s no reason for you to expect this to be simple for you. What’s most important is that you are clear, respectful, and speaking in ways they can receive. You know your parents very well, so you likely know what sort of language makes them angry and defensive, what their sensitivities and triggers are. Take all of that into consideration and prepare for what will likely be one of the first of many very uncomfortable, yet deeply necessary conversations.

Do not position yourself as an authority, nor present your assessment of their home as a value judgment; these are still your parents, and they are unlikely to respond well to feeling insulted or judged. Instead, ask them how they feel about their living environment (“Are you OK with the shutters being in disrepair? Would you be more comfortable if the toilet worked consistently?”) and try to identify what might be some of the variables that have led them to this place. Talk to them about the ways you can help them to maintain a more pleasant household—perhaps you need to be the one to find and supervise a cleaning person—and make yourself available to do so. Let them know that you feel pretty confident in saying that you think they’d prefer a home that looked more like the one in which they raised you, and that you are committed to supporting that. If they don’t seem to get that there are some stakes here, explain that their home has gotten to a point in which it is difficult for you to invite people over, and that it doesn’t reflect the love and care they have shown you, nor the people that you know them to be.

I also suggest that you get some professional help: If you have a therapist, speak to them about how you may approach this and/or reach out to someone local who works with aging populations. The decline in the condition of your parents’ home may represent diminished capacity due to their ages as well as some sort of mental or physical health issues that may be undiagnosed, and you should not take it upon yourself to try and solve this on your own (nor merely armed with the assist of a hopefully decent bit of advice), especially considering the emotional stakes that exist here for you. Be sensitive with any reference to therapy or outside support, by the way—you don’t want to turn your parents off from the idea before they have an opportunity to see the value it may hold.

Let the love and care you have for your parents guide you at every step. Resist fussing and lecturing, as well as shrinking and acquiescing to what they prefer. You may have to advocate for your parents to your parents quite a bit, but it’s a fight worth having. The way they are living is not OK and you can’t turn a blind eye. Best of luck to you!