How To Report Unsafe Living Conditions Of Elderly
Anyone can report unsafe living conditions of the elderly to their local health department or adult protective services. Older adults living in squalor may have mental health issues that can be addressed. Unsafe living conditions can also lead to other serious health and safety risks for the elderly.
Examples of Unsanitary Living Conditions
Legal definitions of unsafe or unsanitary living conditions vary from state to state. Counties and cities may also have their own definitions. But there are some broad definitions of unsanitary conditions to be aware of.
- Buildup of animal or human waste
- Excessive dirt and filth inside the home
- Poor maintenance of the home
- Improper construction
- Nonfunctioning utilities
- Not enough food, water or heat
- Vermin or insect infestation
- Broken stove, furnace or other appliances
- Smells of feces, urine or other bad odors
- Excessive hoarding
Unsanitary living conditions can result in several serious health consequences — such as asthma, injuries, poisoning, respiratory infections and mental health conditions, according to a study in the American Journal of Public Health.
Someone can end up in unsafe living conditions regardless of how much effort they put into their retirement planning. It is important to move people out of unsanitary living conditions for their well-being.
How to Report Unsafe Living Conditions
If you think someone is living in unsafe or unsanitary conditions, you should report it immediately.
If there is a landlord, you should report the conditions to them first. Many locales require that the landlord be notified first and given a specific time to remedy the situation.
You can file a complaint with your local health department, but you’ll need to document your communications with the landlord.
- Your name and address
- Name of the affected person
- Address of the affected person’s residence
- Description of the unsafe or unsanitary conditions
- Length of time the problem has been going on and any documentation or proof
- Copies of all communications with the landlord (if applicable)
Contacting Adult Protective Services
Contacting adult protective services (APS) may allow the elderly person to be moved immediately from an unsafe or unsanitary home. But APS can only move someone who chooses to leave voluntarily. The person must be willing to accept help.
Adult protective services can only intervene in moving someone against their will once all other avenues have been exhausted, and a court finds the person incompetent. This may require the court to appoint a guardian for the individual.
Talking with an attorney who specializes in elder law may help you understand the options available for an older adult housed in unsafe conditions.
Why Do Senior Homes Become Unsanitary?
While some older people may physically no longer be able to keep their home clean, many unsanitary homes may be a sign of serious mental health issues — including senile squalor syndrome, depression and hoarding behaviors.
Senile Squalor Syndrome
Diogenes syndrome — also called senile squalor syndrome or senior squalor syndrome — is a behavioral disorder featuring distinct hoarding traits and severe self-neglect that affects some older adults.
- Living in extreme squalor/unhygienic conditions
- Hoarding or a tendency to accumulate unusual items
- Neglecting your physical state
- Refusing outside help
- Self-imposed isolating
At least 50% of people with senile squalor syndrome exhibit psychiatric disorders, according to a 2012 study in the Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience journal.
Compulsive hoarding is characterized by excessive collecting and saving behavior that leads to clutter in the home and causes distress or other problems for the person with the behavior, according to a 2010 study in the Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience.
Between 2% and 6% of people in the United States are affected by a hoarding disorder according to the Cleveland Clinic.
- Anxiety about needing things in the future
- Uncertainty about where to store things
- Distrusting people to touch their things
- Extreme stress over throwing away items
- Inability to get rid of possessions
- Unusable living space due to clutter
- Withdrawing from family and friends
Hoarding can range from mild to extreme behavior. In severe cases, it can make it difficult for people to function normally on a day-to-day basis.
A hoarding disorder differs from Diogenes syndrome in that compulsive hoarding doesn’t usually include lack of self-care, neglect or extreme levels of self-isolation.
Hoarding is also different from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). This is due to the compulsive collection and retention of items prevalent in hoarding often resulting in feelings of comfort rather than the unpleasurable feelings people typically have with OCD.
Clinical depression can make it difficult or challenging to do simple chores, such as laundry or cleaning house. This can build up over time, leading to unsanitary living conditions.
Between 5% and 10% of Americans age 65 and older are believed to have depression, according to a 2019 study in BMC Geriatrics.
- Changes in appetite leading to weight loss or gain
- Changes in sleeping patterns — sleeping too much or too little
- Difficulty concentrating, thinking or making decisions
- Fatigue or loss of energy
- Feelings of sadness
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
- Increased purposeless activities, such as hand-wringing, pacing, inability to sit still
- Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
- Slowed movements or speech noticeable by others
- Thoughts of death or suicide
Depression can also be an early warning sign of other mental or physical health issues.
Steps for Helping an Older Adult Living in Squalor
It can be difficult to break an older adult relative or friend out of the mental health conditions that lead to unsanitary living conditions. They may not want to cooperate.
Taking on this task will often require a long-term commitment on your part, and it should involve all family members as well as professionals — health care providers, social workers and others — to fix the situation.
- Seek a professional medical and mental health evaluation of the older adult.
- Clean the home, starting with the most dangerous areas.
- Sanitize the home and furniture.
- Provide the older adult with a sense of control over keeping the home clean in the future.
Cleaning squalor can be a difficult task because of the hazardous waste or infestations that may have built up. You may want to consider a professional cleaner that specializes in sanitation services to make the home as hygienic as possible.
10 Cited Research Articles
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2022, April 27). How do I report elder abuse or abuse of an older person or senior? Retrieved from https://www.hhs.gov/answers/programs-for-families-and-children/how-do-i-report-elder-abuse/index.html
- Gleason, A., et al. (2021, June 1). Managing hoarding and squalor. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8236875/
- Torres, F. (2020, October). What Is Depression? Retrieved from https://psychiatry.org/patients-families/depression/what-is-depression
- Cheruvu, V.K., & Chiyaka, E.T. (2019, July 18). Prevalence of depressive symptoms among older adults who reported medical cost as a barrier to seeking health care: findings from a nationally representative sample. Retrieved from https://bmcgeriatr.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12877-019-1203-2
- Hall, J., et al. (2016). Elder Abuse Surveillance: Uniform Definitions and Recommended Core Data Elements. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/ea_book_revised_2016.pdf
- White, W. (2014). Elder Self-Neglect and Adult Protective Services: Ohio Needs to Do More. Retrieved from https://engagedscholarship.csuohio.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1429&context=jlh
- Cipriani, G., et al. (2012, December 14). Diogenes syndrome in patients suffering from dementia. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3553571/
- Grisham, J.R. (2010, June 12). Compulsive hoarding: current controversies and new directions. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181962/
- Krieger, J., & Higgins, D.L. (2002, May). Housing and Health: Time Again for Public Health Action. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1447157/
- Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. (n.d.). Self Neglect. Retrieved from https://www.dshs.wa.gov/altsa/home-and-community-services/self-neglect