When actress Alicia Witt shared the news of her parents’ untimely death in their unheated, ramshackle home, I took a voyeuristic interest in her story.
Her parents had resisted her pleas for help. Witt, known for her performances in “Orange Is the New Black” and “Nashville,” could only imagine their dire living conditions as she hadn’t entered her parents’ home in over 10 years.
Her tragedy sparked a flood of panic and pain, unearthing bitter memories from my past. Luck alone prevented a similar outcome in my family.
My elderly parents lived in inconceivably dire conditions. I knew my parents’ house was falling apart, though my frustration was heightened by the fact that I lived next door. The arrangement provided a front row seat to the evolving catastrophe.
The exterior of my parents’ house hinted at what was going on inside. They never allowed me in, knowing that I would challenge their pile of boxes and newspapers. When my children visited their grandparents, they shared sketchy accounts of what they saw, like spies over enemy lines.
As Witt’s career is based elsewhere, she depended on relatives and close friends to keep tabs on her aging parents. When police found her deceased parents at their home in late December, the house they had closed off to the world had become their grave.
After my mother died in 2003, the conditions inside the house became unlivable. When the furnace stopped working, Dad refused to fix it. Without heating, the water pipes froze and broke. I begged him but he didn’t accept my help. My heart broke imagining my father spending nights in his freezing house. Eventually, my sadness turned to anger and detachment. Dad’s challenge presented me with a problem to solve. I sought help from hoarding experts and elder advocates, but their textbook advice failed when applied to Dad, and our emotional distance grew with each attempt to intervene.
I’ve always wondered what neighbors and passers-by think of the ramshackle two-level ranch perched prominently on a hilly corner lot, and sometimes I found out. People often associated the place where I live with “the spooky house”, asking me “Who lives there?” and “What’s going on with these people?” When I revealed my secret – “these people” were my parents – the conversation ended, looking tinged with prickly unease. I shook off any embarrassment I might have felt and replaced it with helplessness.
In the spring of 2004, I received an anonymous note, rough writing pleading, Could you please do something for this house? When I shared the note with dad, it exploded. ” I do not care. No one comes into my house! He tore up the paper, threw it in the trash and stormed out of my house. I seethed at the idea that others thought I wasn’t trying, but there was not much I could do. Every time I broached the subject, my father’s anger would end the conversation.
When I revealed my secret – “these people” were my parents – the conversation ended, looking prickly unease.
I turned to the city for help, but the woman from the Board of Health asserted my father’s right to “live as he sees fit.” This is America.” She detected my frustration, adding, “There are plenty of people like him. You know the houses. The ones with the rotten cars in the yards and the overgrown lawns. They’re all over town. These people realize that.” My throat tightened. I wanted to shout, “Yes, but these people are not my 86-year-old father!
As she predicted, my father’s survival skills kicked in. He flushed his toilet with jugs of water he scavenged from taps in the nearby cemetery. He opportunely sought warmth and comfort. Every day he visited my aunt for coffee, drove to the American Legion to beat the cold, and had lunch eating samples at Whole Foods.
Above all, he avoided me. I felt both worry and relief when Dad fell on the ice on his driveway in the winter of 2009. At the age of 89, he finally gave up. He came to live in my house, next to his cold and dilapidated fortress.
Research on seniors’ concerns shows that 2-5% of the population suffers from some form of hoarding. Clutter provides an outward symptom of greater mental health issues. I guess the adult children who live in the shadow of at-risk elders oscillate between the lifestyles portrayed in the documentary “Grey Gardens,” which portrays the Beale family living in the remnants of opulence, and the Collyer brothers, the infamous denizens of a New York Brownstone filled with junk and traps.
We feel the judgment of society and crumble under the weight of self-judgment. Alicia Witt and I are kindred spirits. Like me, she probably wonders what could have been done differently. The truth is probably nothing, which is the saddest realization of all.
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