Some of our elderly parents have lived in their homes for a very long time. My in-laws lived in their house for more than 60 years! As we all know – it’s amazing how much stuff you can collect in that amount of time. But at some point, all that stuff has to be cleaned out.
If your parents are going to age in place in their own home then it’s a good idea that they make it as safe as possible and that it can accommodate their needs as they age.
If they need to downsize to a smaller home or an ALF or nursing home then there will be a lot of items that they will need to get rid of. And if they have passed away and the job is now up to their family – then decisions have to be made as to what to do with all this stuff.
In this article we’re going to address the issue of cleaning out your elderly parent’s house in two scenarios.
- Your parents are going to age in place in their home.
- Your parents have passed away.
The process through each of these scenarios may seem the same but there are some differences that you should be aware of.
How Do I Clean Out and Declutter My Parent’s House?
If your aging parents are planning to stay in their home for the rest of their lives, it will be important to make sure that the home is safe for them and can accommodate them as they age.
So what is the best way to go about decluttering and cleaning out your elderly parent’s home?
1. Respect Your Parent’s Stuff
A good place to start cleaning the home is to consider and respect the emotional connection that your parents may have to the items in their house.
You may not think that the collection of figurines your parents have been collecting is something that has any monetary value but if these are sentimental items for your parents then you need to respect that.
That does NOT mean that they need to keep all 315 Hummel figurines! Unless of course a special cabinet can be built for them so that they are out of the way and can be cherished.
2. Understand Where They Came From
My own parents grew up in Sicily during World War II – as a result they saw their homes, belongings, friends and family destroyed to nothing. They had to start their lives all over again.
Other older adults grew up during the Great Depression (like my mom-in-law) and as a result came to value and learn to use every item that came into their possession.
Now, after such traumatic events, some individuals will cling to their personal items no matter what and it can be very difficult for them to let go. Knowing how your parents grew up and what their past experiences were can help you to understand any attachments that they may have to the stuff in their home.
3. Give Them Time To Accept Letting Go
It may take some time for your parents to accept the fact that they may have to let go of some of the items that they have – it’s an emotional decision that may requires some time to get adjusted to.
One trick you can do is to place post-its on items that are being considered for removal. You can take one room at a time or maybe just a cabinet at a time and put different color post-its on items that may be designated as…
- thrown away
- given to a family member
Giving them the time to accept these changes can go a long way towards making the process much smoother for everyone.
4. De-cluttering Can Be Fatiguing
The combination of the physical labor and the emotional upheaval that can occur during de-cluttering can be overwhelming and fatiguing for many seniors so be patient. Take the project one small step at a time and know that it will probably not get done as quickly as you might like.
My late husband had a very hard time letting go of things so when he suddenly passed away I was left with the task of cleaning out a very large home that was filled with “stuff”.
I can tell you that it was extremely exhausting and many times I simply found it almost impossible to spend any time of cleaning out. So, I gave myself a year to do the task. I wrote down a detailed list of every corner of the house and assigned a date to each item on the list.
I had 365 days filled. It could be as small as cleaning out one drawer on one day and a corner of a bedroom another day.
This gave me time to process through the emotions – gave me to time to decide what to do with all this stuff and it made the entire horrible process much easier for me.
5. Change Is Not Easy For Elderly Adults
Generally speaking, change is very difficult for older adults. Heck, I know younger people who find change difficult!
Although there may certainly be some physical reasons as to why change is so difficult for seniors – there are also psychological ones as well. The main one being fear.
- Fear of the unknown which can lead to insecurity.
- Fear of their own mortality and loss of independence.
- Fear of loss of friends and family.
It’s much easier, for anyone, if everything just stayed the same. But as we all know, the one thing in life that is absolutely for certain, is that things will change.
The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the newSocrates
6. Create A De-cluttering Plan
Having a plan, even if it’s not adhered to 100% it’s better than just winging it – this is true for any project that you take on. Including de-cluttering an elderly person’s home.
Writing down that plan along with your elderly loved ones is the first step to cleaning out the home. It may take you a day or a week to write down the entire plan but it needs to get done in order to move forward smoothly.
Be as detailed as possible. It might look something like this…
June 1 – Gather all legal documents
June 2 – Sort through all legal documents and put them in categories (legal, bank, insurance, etc.)
June 3 – Go through each category and discard old documents
June 4 – File remaining documents in folders in a filing cabinet
June 5 – Clean out junk drawer in the kitchen
June 6 – Clean out orphan glassware in the kitchen
By assigning a project to a date and maybe how much time you will spend on the task you will not only have a project for that date but you can also look ahead to see if you need to order something like a filing cabinet or drawer organizers, etc.
7. How To Decide What To Let Go Of
Instead of just relying on an emotional decision about the sentimental value of what items to toss or donate and what to keep, why not be more systematic about it? This method may help to alleviate some of the emotional factors.
So, here’s what I mean…
- In the closet – turn all the hangers backwards. If a piece of clothing is used within a certain amount of time (a month, a year) then that hanger gets turned around. At the end of your time period that you designated, all the clothing with the backward hangers should be taken out of the closet. Put them in a box and in your car or storage if you are still not sure you want to donate them just yet.
- In the kitchen – wrap some colored tape around pot and pan handles and use the tape on other items like small appliances, etc. Again, set up a time frame. If you use that item within that time frame, remove the colored tape. At the end of your time anything that still has the colored tape on it – put it in a box and donate it or again, store it if you just aren’t sure.
- In the bathroom – you can use the same colored tape for items in the bathroom as well. I would also encourage you to write down the expiration date of medications on that colored tape so that you can see clearly when something has expired.
- If it’s dusty – unless you are a horrible housekeeper, the general rule of decluttering is that if it’s dusty, it’s time to let it go. It’s obviously not being used and the owner seems to not care about caring for this item so why keep it?
8. Giving To Family and Friends
If you have friends and family who can use or want any of the items that you have, then give it to them if you are not using it. Think of it as sharing what you have with others. Especially if the others can get more use out of it.
My mother loved china and glassware. She had quite a collection and they were all beautiful. She wanted all of her children to take all of these items but the truth is, none of us wanted them. They just did not have as much meaning to us as they did for her.
So, what we did was to take one or two items each in memory of our mother. We then sold the rest, or at least as much as we could. To be honest, it’s two years since my mother passed away and we’re still trying to sell these items.
The truth is, many adult children do not want their parents’ stuff. But of course, that’s very difficult for the parents to understand.
I can recommend a book by Appraiser Elizabeth Stewart that may help. It’s titled No Thanks Mom: The Top Ten Objects Your Kids Do NOT Want (And What to Do With Them). Check it out!
I think it’s important for many friends and relatives to have the opportunity to have an item from their loved one, but only if they want it.
9. Getting Past The “Just In Case”
It’s difficult to fight the “Just in case” statements that people who tend to hold on to things always say. My late husband was one of them.
After he passed away I was cleaning out the garage and saw that he had multiple saws, hammers, screwdrivers, blowers, etc. I remember him saying that he wanted more than one “just in case” one broke down. I didn’t agree with that philosophy but it’s what made him comfortable.
So, how do you get your elderly parents to let go of those “just in case” items?
You have to focus on the goal – which is to clear out the home. Whether it’s being cleared out after your elderly parents have passed away or if you are clearing it out so they can have a safer home to grow older in.
One tactic you can try to use is to keep reminding your parents that these items will be going to a good home where they will be used more and are needed more than they currently are.
10. Where To Donate?
If you already have a local charity thrift store I would recommend to make your donations to that organization. Or perhaps your church can help you with your donations.
Wherever you decide you want to make donations to – have that set up so that you’re not scrambling at the last minute trying to figure out where to send these items to which can only help you to procrastinate and eventually end up never donating them.
One trick that I personally have always done is to take any item that I think I will be donating and put it in a box in my car. It could be anything, an old radio, a vacuum cleaner, a dog’s toy, etc. After 2-3 months, if I haven’t gone into the box to retrieve that item to use it – then I bring the box to my local charity.
You can even go a step further if you like and tag the item with the date you put it in the box. That way you know which items are the oldest just in case you want to keep any of the newer items for a bit longer.
It’s a “safe way” to get rid of items because although they are out of your home, they are not out of your possession. So, it gives your senior parent time to think about it and decide if they want to keep it.
For very large items like furniture that won’t fit in your car – consider renting a storage unit to put your items in and give yourself a deadline. If the items aren’t needed within that time frame, then it’s time to let them go. This also keeps you from spending money on a storage unit for much longer than you need to.
11. Types Of Charities To Donate To
Many of us probably automatically think of donating to Goodwill or Salvation Army. And those are wonderful organizations but there are so many other local charities that you can donate to as well that you may not be aware of.
- Pet shelters – many pet shelters need extra blankets, bowls, litter boxes, etc. And also, many pet shelters have thrift stores where they sell all kinds of items.
- Women’s shelters – there are many shelters throughout the world to help women who are leaving abusive relationships. They can always use furniture, bedding, clothing, children’s toys, etc.
- Habitat for Humanity – they have thrift stores throughout the USA and are a great place to donate household items and furniture.
- AMVETS – an organization for U.S. veterans has job training programs for veterans and much more. Their thrift stores are located in multiple states throughout the USA.
- The Arc – an organization that helps individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. With more than 700 chapters throughout the USA – I’m sure you can find one in your local area.
- Dress for Success – is a great organization that provides business type clothing for women and helps them with jobs and career development.
- Big Brother Big Sister – they accept donations of clothing for the many at-risk children that they try to help each and every day.
- Indigo Rescue – accepts jewelry of all kinds. They use their profits to help animal shelters.
You can use the Charity Navigator to find even more charities, especially local ones in your area that you can donate to.
Also know that some of these organizations will come and pick items up from your home. This is especially helpful if you are donating furniture and other large items.
12. Have A Yard Sale
A yard sale is hard work. It takes a lot of time, organization and manual labor. But if you decide that a yard sale is how you want to get rid of your items, then here are some tips that may help you.
- Have clear signs pointing TO your yard sale. Make it super, super easy for anyone to follow the signs to your sale. And lots and lots of signs too!
- Put a price on as many items as possible. Yard sale buyers are more likely to purchase something if they don’t have to ask how much it’s selling for. You can use some pre-printed stickers like these or blank ones like these and put in your own numbers.
- If you are selling a lot of things in one category like books or children’s toys or sweaters. You may want to put them all in one box or on one table and just label the box with the price. That way you don’t have to put a price tag on each of those items.
- Have soothing and/or fun music playing in the background but not too loud.
- Have a FREE box or table at the front of the yard sale. That usually attracts people to stop and come on in and browse.
- If it’s possible – it’s better to put items out on tables vs. boxes simply because people then don’t have to dig through the box for items.
- If you are doing a yard sale for your elderly parents I would recommend that they not attend. It may be very emotional and difficult for them.
13. Consider An Estate Sale
If there are just too many items to get rid of, you may want to consider hiring any of the estate sale companies in your area. They use an estate appraiser to perform an estate sale which basically means that they will come in and have a “yard sale” in your home. These estate cleanout services do collect a commission fee but they take care of everything for you.
You can put the items that you want to keep in one room and lock that door during the estate sale.
14. Consignment Stores
Another option is to bring your items to consignment stores. Now, most of these types of stores take clothing and jewelry, there are not many that take furniture but I would urge you to go online and check out the consignment stores in your area.
15. Get Organized
It’s easy for things to pile up, especially things like mail. So, the key to keeping the house de-cluttered is to keep it organized.
A place for everything and everything in it’s place.The Oxford Book of Quotations
So here are some tips on how to accomplish this task.
- Keep a trashcan and/or a shredder by the home’s front entrance or by the table where the mail is often checked. As soon a piece of mail is identified as junk mail, toss it or better yet, shred it.
- After installing drawer organizers, if you find that you have too many items to fit in the drawer, then it’s time to start getting rid of what you don’t use.
- Purchase storage bins and organizers for your refrigerator, your pantry, your bathroom, your closets, your garage, and other areas of your home. Whatever does not fit in those organizers – time to consider getting rid of them.
Cleaning Out Your Elderly Parent’s House After Their Death
This process can be very emotional and difficult – but hopefully – you and your parents have made some preparations ahead of time to help make it much easier.
Many of the tips mentioned above are relevant in this scenario but let’s go ahead and make a complete list here for you.
1. Make A Plan
Making a plan on how you’re going to tackle this project may seem like a waste of time at the beginning but honestly, I do urge you to take the time to do it. Even if it ends up taking you an entire day to make the plan.
Breaking up the project into smaller pieces will help you to tackle it, especially since it will most likely be a very difficult and emotional project.
2. Gather All The Important Documents
Hopefully, your parents have already put all their personal papers and important documents together in one location but if they haven’t you will need to hunt down these documents. The ones we recommend you have are…
- The will (hopefully they have one)
- Credit card statements
- Recent bank statements
- Tax forms
- Utility bills
- Insurance policies
- Social security card
- Mortgage payments or House Deed
- Car registrations
- Paperwork for any expensive jewelry and/or artwork
- Usernames and passwords for online accounts
3. Contacting Creditors and Services
Put together a list of credit card companies, services your parent used such as pest control, the guy who cut the lawn, etc. Then go through this list to contact them to either cancel them or make other arrangements.
And don’t forget about the mail. If you live far away from your parent’s home you may want to forward the mail to your own home.
4. Contact Your Elder Law Attorney
In addition to gathering these documents, you should contact your elderly law attorney – usually the one who put together the will for your parents.
If there is no will – then you should also contact an elder law attorney to help you through the process of how the estate and properties will need to be handled in your area.
5. Family Meeting To Decide What To Do With The Property
If you have siblings then you’ll want to put together a family meeting to decide what the best option is on what to do with the contents of the house, the house itself, any vehicles, etc. Hopefully, you all can agree on what needs to be done and then proceed to do them.
Whether you distribute items to each other, or sell them at a yard sale or use an estate sales company – the decisions have to be made.
If you suspect that there may be valuable items in your parents’ home you may want to consider hiring an appraiser. This will help you to decide if and how to sell those particular items.
6. Contact A Real Estate Agent
If the plan is to sell your parent’s house then you may want to hire a real estate agent to manage the job for you. Especially if you live far away.
7. Ask For Help
Finally, the one thing I recommend that you do NOT do is to do it all alone. This can be a very difficult and emotional project so use your close friends and family to help.
I know that I would have not gotten the jump start I needed to clean out my home after my husband passed away without the help of family and friends.
Believe me, it will be a very strange feeling standing in that empty house when the cleaning out process is completed. But hopefully, it will bring you closure and relief.