There are obvious reasons to declutter. Safety: Clutter can trip us up. Efficiency: With declining eyesight, it gets hard to find things we use everyday. Focus: Messy environments can make it hard to process information.
Clutter is a growing problem today among all populations, and especially the elderly. To help your loved one downsize, create more room in their home and/or just make it safer to age in place, it is important to note the difference between hoarders and clutterers. Hoarders are obsessive and will often need a trained professional specializing in obsessive compulsive disorder to let go. Clutterers, the more common type, are more apt to let go with a little encouragement and support. This article deals with the latter.
Why Is It So Hard to Do?
Whether you want to pare down the stuff in your home, garage, or a storage unit, one problem is knowing where to start. The more we have, the more overwhelming it is. And for some of us the idea can be extremely anxiety-producing. A recent Yale study found that for some people, a part of our brain reacts the same way to the anticipated loss of valued possessions as it does to the idea of quitting an addiction. And there is the additional factor for the elderly of not wanting to lose a connection with the past, whether that be old school papers or a favorite jar opener you’ve had in the family since 1969 (most of us have at least one of these things still hanging around the house!)
Some Tips for Success
- Get “buy in” from your loved one.Discuss the benefits for paring down, including potentially making some money from reselling your “stuff.” That can be through a yard sale, consignment shop, Craig’s List, or eBay. According to the New York Times, a well-planned garage sale typically nets between $500 and $1,000.
- Share the process.Come up with ways to make it an enjoyable activity you share, such as reviewing old photos or school papers together, or doing a “fashion show” to see what clothes to keep. Create incentives—such as an outing or meal after doing a certain amount of “work.”
- Don’t try to tackle too much at once.Help your loved one develop a strategy that addresses a room at a time, and then a single task at a time, so they are not overwhelmed. A good rule of thumb is to do no more than three hours of sorting a day, which is about how long we can sustain focus without a break.
- Get organized.Consider preparing three bags or boxes and labeling them Keep, Toss, and Sell/Donate. You might add a fourth box for things that need repairing, mending or dry cleaning, but don’t add more options than that. Put away what’s in your Keep pile at the end of each day and throw out or recycle what’s in your Toss pile.
- Be decisive.When it doubt, throw it out. Organizers often use the rule of thumb that if you haven’t used it/worn it/looked at it in a year, it’s time for it to go. When it comes to ornamental items or keepsakes, the other common standard is to only keep those things you really love and that give you pleasure. If that knick-knack your Aunt Marge gave you makes you cringe, it has no place in your home, regardless of the sentiment attached to it.
- Get professional help.If the job is just too big or you need direction, consider hiring a professional organizer. They can give you an overall strategy, or guide you through the process. Do a local search for “Certified Professional Organizers,” if you don’t have a referral for a professional.
Going through our possessions and ridding ourselves of things that no longer fit our lives is a process we can all benefit from. You may find that going through this process with your loved one will be a positive and rewarding experience for both of you. And you may just find you are motivated to do it for yourself as well!
—By Caren Parnes
Contributor for The Senior’s Choice