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Decluttering Tips For Seniors (Make Your Home Safer and Organized)

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declutter tips for seniors The first step to making a home safer for aging adults is probably going to be the most difficult because that first step is to declutter your living space.  So let’s talk about some ways to get through this difficult process of clearing out all that stuff.

My tips on decluttering for seniors.  Begin by taking one section of one room (a corner, a drawer, etc.).  Decide on what you will do with the excess items (donate, give it away, throw it away, etc.) and follow through.  For sentimental collections pare it down to one item.  Having someone who can keep you grounded and focused throughout the process can help tremendously. 

The process of decluttering is very much like traveling.  When you go away anywhere the act of getting there is most always a big hassle.  But once you are there – it’s wonderful.  Getting rid of items that you’ve become attached to can be difficult but the end result will give you more freedom and happiness and less stress.

Whether you are downsizing to a smaller home or just trying to make your current living spaces as safe as possible as you age in place, getting your stuff organized and clearing out the clutter will make your home a clean and safe space to live in.

How Can I Help My Elderly Parents Declutter?

For children of aging parents, convincing them to get rid of their stuff is no easy task.  It’s not easy for anyone but it’s much worse for older adults.  Professional organizer Vickie Dellaquila has years of experience with this, so much so that she wrote a book on the topic.  Check it out – Don’t Toss My Memories In The Trash.

She has outlined 10 reasons why the elderly population has such a difficult time parting with so many things in their homes.

  1. The Sentimental Attachment
    We all have sentimental attachment to things, that’s natural and very human.  Dellaquila recommends that the best way to deal with this issue is to minimize the space these items take up.So, instead of boxes of photos, convert them to DVD’s.  Instead of closets of clothing that hasn’t been worn in years, create a quilt or set of shadow boxes with pieces of cloth from those clothes.  Instead of keeping an entire set of china (that is never used) just keep one plate and discard the rest.
  2. The Sense Of Loyalty
    There’s a reluctance to give away an item that was a gift.The solution here is to encourage re-gifting to pass it forward.  My mother had a crockpot that was given to her a few Christmases ago.  She hadn’t used it in at least 3 years.  I told her that her granddaughter could use that big crockpot and it would be a great thing for her to have.  Knowing that she was helping someone else made it much easier for my mother to get rid of something that was given to her.
  3. The Need To Conserve
    If your parents lived through hard times at any point in their lives they will most likely be very conservative.  Things like re-using a tea bag more than once, keeping an old pot with a broken handle (cause it still kinda works), holding on to that 50 pound vacuum cleaner even though they can’t push it around any more, etc.  It’s difficult for them to give away something that still works.The solution here is to donate these items to a specific local charity (home for battered women, homeless shelter, etc.)  If your parent(s) feel that they are helping someone else, they are more likely to part with these things.
  4. The Fatigue
    It’s overwhelming when there is so much clutter around.  It’s hard to know where to start.  One factor that contributes greatly to this is mail.  Older adults tend to receive alot of junk mail, solicitations, catalogs and much more.You can work on keeping this clutter down by switching to online statements and unsubscribing them from catalog and junk mail lists.  Also, a shredder is a wonderful thing to have these days.  It will help protect against identity theft which is so very common amongst the elder population.
  5. The Change In Health
    It’s natural for most seniors to experience some decline in health as they grow older.  It can be anything, a shoulder injury, a stroke, dementia, etc.  This change of course makes it much more difficult to keep up with daily household chores.The solution here is to hire help or seek help from family members.  There are professional organizations such as Care.com where you can search for help in your area but you can also talk to friends, church members, etc. about anyone that may be available to help.
  6. The Fear
    Change is frightening for most people, but especially for seniors.  Giving up what they have and what they are familiar with can provoke anxiety.  The solution here is to be as pragmatic as possible and to remove items slowly.My late husband had a very difficult time giving up “his stuff”.  What helped us was to work together to remove a few items at a time.  But instead of giving them away, I simply stored them away.  In a closet, store room, etc.  My husband agreed that if he did not need that item within the next 6 months or a year (whatever he was comfortable with) then that item would be donated to someone who could use it.  It’s a gentler way of decluttering.  It worked very well for us and will hopefully work with your parents too.
  7. The Dream Of The Future
    Many individuals who hold on to things will usually say something like “But we may need that in the future.”  (My late husband used to say that all the time!).  The solution here is as I mentioned earlier, to remove those items and store them away for a period of time you both agree on.  If that item has not been used in that time, then it will be donated.
  8. The Love Of Shopping
    I have a friend whose mother has a bit of a shopping addiction.  In today’s environment, you don’t even have to leave your home to shop.  With QVC, Google and Amazon – it’s so extremely easy to buy just about anything you want from the comfort of your sofa!The only solution here is to have a candid one-on-one with your parent about this problem, especially if the shopping is simply adding to the clutter.  The more extreme action would be to take away their credit cards but that is something that the family will have to decide on.  I would recommend to seek help from addiction support groups, credit counseling and therapy.
  9. The History and Memories
    Items that represent specific memories and/or have a history such as family heirlooms should be kept but they don’t necessarily have to be kept in your parents’ home.  Encourage them to give these items to other family members or if they have historical significance to donate them to a museum.
  10. The Loneliness
    I can tell you from personal experience that loneliness can easily lead to depression and anxiety.  It’s certainly not uncommon for anyone who is lonely to compensate by surrounding themselves with lots of things, new and old.  The solution here is to help your parent by encouraging them or enrolling them in outside activities or have frequent visits by family and friends arranged – to alleviate the loneliness.

These 10 reasons can help you understand what is happening with your parent(s) and why – and I understand that some of the solutions are much easier to impose than others, but they are worth an attempt.  You can seek the help of a professional organizer to work with you and your parent(s) which may make the process easier.  You can search for one in your area on the NAPO (National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals) database.

How Seniors Can Help Their Loved Ones

I have experienced the “clean up process” after my father-in-law passed away, after my husband passed away and again after my mother passed away.  As a result of all three of those experiences, I tell all my friends and family that the kindest thing they could do for their loved ones is to clean out their spaces BEFORE they become ill or too old and tired to do it.

I should have learned my lesson from the very difficult decluttering process after my father-in-law passed away but I didn’t.  When my husband died and I was left with a huge home filled with “stuff” – well, let’s just say I learned my lesson!

I have been a decluttering queen ever since and my life is so much better for it!  There’s an incredible sense of control over my life that I didn’t have before.

There is a process known as Swedish Death Cleaning which, according to Margareta Magnusson author of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter says…

“So, what is death cleaning?  For me, it means going through all my belongings and deciding how to get rid of the things I do not want anymore…Death cleaning is not about dusting or mopping up; it is about a permanent form of organization that makes your everyday life run more smoothly.”

I suppose for those individuals who are embracing the Tiny House movement – they have already begun this process and are living it!

But even if you don’t live in a small space – I can tell you from personal experience that getting rid of the excess stuff in your home is truly liberating and frees you up to enjoy what’s really important in your life!

Companies That Help Seniors To Downsize And Declutter

There are companies that you can hire to help (or completely work on) the decluttering process to help your elderly parents be safer in their homes or if they are downsizing to a smaller home.

For caregivers, this is especially helpful if you live in another state or a good distance from your parents(s) and can’t help them directly yourself.

For seniors who don’t have anyone to help them – this is also an incredible source of help as well.

Some of the these companies are…

Each of these companies (and many others like them) all offer a variety of services.  Some help to declutter, others can set up estate sales and auctions and others will help with the relocation process as well.

Search for “companies that help seniors downsize and declutter” in Google to find local organizations that provide these services in your area.

How To Deal With Sentimental Clutter

You will notice in the list above of reasons as to why most seniors keep their stuff that a prevailing theme has to do with sentiment and memories.  So how do you deal with this issue or help your parents deal with sentimental clutter?

One thing to acknowledge and assure your parents of is that you are not getting rid of things completely.  In other words – it’s not ALL going away.

An entire set of tools that haven’t been used in years can be whittled down to 5 items or so.  As I said earlier, an entire set of dishes that haven’t been used in a long time can be brought down to 1 plate or 1 setting.  The memories and the sentimental value will still remain, it just doesn’t have to include everything in the set.

In an article in the TimesUnion about companies that help seniors downsize, journalist Wendy Liberatore interviewed professional organizers, caregivers and seniors about the process of dealing with removing years of accumulated “stuff” from their homes.

She interviewed Manuela Broderick and I thought she had some great questions that when they are answered can help to deal with the sentimental aspect of decluttering.

“Their things are their life, their history, so it becomes very emotional…I have a conversation with the parents about do you love it? When was the last time you used it? If it is that important to you, why is it in a box? I rationalize it and dissect it. The things they no longer want or need, I donate back to the community.” – Manuela Broderick – Owner of Professional Organizer Planner and Stager

The truth is that with less items – your parent will probably actually see and enjoy them more.

So, instead of the set of dishes hiding in the closet or hutch, that one plate can be displayed and seen every day.  Instead of those tools stuffed in drawers or piled on top of each other on a table in the garage – your parent will be able to easily see and use the tools that he/she still needs.

Nobody Wants Your Parents Stuff

Another factor in dealing with sentimental clutter is the emotional guilt that you feel when your parent(s) have full expectations that you are going to want their Lenox china or dining room set or collection of Hummel figurines.

A few weeks before my mother passed away she took me by the hand and walked me through the entire house telling me about every piece of Baccarat crystal and Lenox knick-knack that she had.  All I really wanted were a few of her Lladro items but she was so very proud of her collection I never told her what my true feelings were.  I didn’t feel that it was necessary to reveal that to her.

That decision is a personal one that you need to make.

We have to remember that in the post World War II era, as young couples married and moved to the suburbs – things like china, silverware and crystal were wedding gifts that were intended to be held onto for life and to be passed on to the children.  But these items do not hold the same value and sentiment today.  The time when these kinds of possessions showcased a level of success has passed.

Today, it’s more about tiny houses, downsizing, minimalism and enjoying life with friends and family vs. collecting things.  The things that are bought today are considered disposable and easily replaceable.

If you decide you should have the conversation with your parent, the best way to handle this situation is to have an honest conversation with him/her about what you can and cannot take.  If you end up having to take that set of Lenox china then you can negotiate and “spread the love” by sharing it with other members of the family (or your own children).

Some children take the objects just to keep Mom and Dad quiet,” said Roger Schrenk, Mr. Fultz’s business partner at Nova Liquidations. “They’ll take them and store them until Mom’s dead, and then they can’t wait to get rid of them. – NYTimes.com

How To Declutter Years Of Stuff

After my husband passed away suddenly – I was left with a 4600 square foot home filled to the brim with STUFF!  (My friends and family will attest to this truth!)  My sweet husband had a difficult time letting go of things and after 25 years of marriage – we had accumulated alot of things!

It was overwhelming to say the least.

What I ended up doing really helped me through that process.  So let me share it with you.

  • I first asked friends and family if they wanted anything and many of them took something that they could remember my husband by (which was very sweet).
  • I then made the decision to donate items vs. having a yard sale (I just wasn’t emotionally up to doing a yard sale).
  • The next step was to create a list of all the areas in my home.  19 rooms plus 2 screened in porches and 2 outdoor decks.  11 closets plus 2 pantries.
  • I then made a schedule.  Three days a week I would tackle one section of a room or a closet.  It could be just a drawer or a shelf or an entire closet.  Whatever I could manage to do on that day.  No matter what – no matter how I felt – I stuck to the schedule!  That was very important.
  • I would put the items I cleared out of the area in my car and every week I took these items to Goodwill or a pet shelter.
  • It took over a year to get rid of the majority of the stuff in our home so that I could downsize and move – but I did it.

It took years to accumulate all those tools, multiple sets of dishes, so many clothes I just stopped counting!  I had to come to the realization that it was going to take some time to declutter.  Once I accepted that, it was just a matter of sticking to the schedule.

Just take it a bit at a time but stick to it.  Having friends and family to help is always a bonus so don’t be afraid to ask.  You can do it!

Another book that I can recommend is Downsizing The Family Home – check it out – it just may help you.

4 Reasons Why Seniors Should Declutter

The major cause of deaths due to injury in adults 65 and older are falls.  And as you may be able to imagine – having alot of unnecessary items throughout a room can easily lead to a fall.  This is the number one reason to declutter your living spaces.

As an Occupational Therapist, I went on many home assessments to ensure that my patient was going to be safe at home.  I hate to say that there were too many times I could not release a patient to go home simply because their rooms were not safe for them to use a walker or there were too many possible accidents that could occur in the kitchen just because the counter was SO packed with stuff!

It was frustrating for me (and my patient of course) as well as their family or caregiver.  But, it was worth the fight to keep them as safe as possible.  I liked my patients but I didn’t want to see them back in the hospital again!

So, let me help you through this process.

First, let’s just talk about why you should go through this difficult process of clearing out your home.  After all, as I mentioned already, it’s not an easy thing to do, for anyone.

  1. Safety – the number one reason to clear out space is to make the living environment as safe as possible.  This is especially true if someone in the home uses a walker or a cane or any other mobility device.  It’s just too easy to get those kinds of ambulatory devices caught up on the leg of a chair, a coffee table, etc.  If you have to maneuver through parts of your home sideways in order to get from one place to the other – then you really need to clean out the space to make it safer.
  2. Easier to clean – it’s difficult enough for most seniors to clean their homes as well as they used to.  Strength, mobility issues, problems with flexibility, etc. all contribute to this problem.  If it’s compounded because of all the stuff that’s in the way – well – that just makes the job so much harder.
  3. Organization – the old saying by Benjamin Franklin is true – “A place for everything, everything in its place.”  Having a sense of organization in the home not only helps with memory problems but it makes life a little less stressful.
  4. Psychological Benefits – there are many psychological benefits that can come from a decluttered and organized space.  Psychology Today reports it’s energizing, reduces anxiety, reduces stress and tensions and more.

Decluttering can stimulate cognition and reduce anxiety, including anxiety that stems from family tensions. As we work through our belongings, we often come across items that might bring back happy memories. And as we reorganize what we keep, we get a sense of calm from restoring order to our home. Various studies by psychology experts have proven these and other benefits of decluttering. Many Alexandrians, both those who have decided to age in place and those who have moved to a senior living community, concur. – AlexTimes.com

When I first began writing this article, someone asked me “Why are you writing an article about decluttering for a website about senior safety?”  It was obvious to me that the person asking me that question either had not gone through this process with a loved one or was someone who cherished her “stuff”.

To me, removing the excess items throughout the home of older adults (and anyone) is much more than just making the house safer and easier – it also provides a great psychological benefit by creating a clean, organized environment that will have much less stress than a cluttered one.

As I mentioned in this article – there are multiple reasons to clear out your living environment and I do hope that you can begin the process as soon as possible.  And don’t forget to ask for help when you need it!

Related Questions

Does organization reduce stress? In a nutshell, yes.  Reduced clutter brings about an organized environment.  This in turn optimizes your time, gives you control over your schedule, promotes more mental energy (i.e. you’re not worried about forgetting something or being late, etc.) and you end up leading a more balanced and fruitful life.  You can read more on this on Psychology Today.

When does clutter become hoarding? In general, when the clutter in your environment begins to affect your daily life – it can be considered hoarding.  Some examples would be, if you’re unable to use the bathroom because of the clutter.  If you can’t walk down the hallway without stepping on things or you have to walk sideways.  If you have to sleep on a small corner of your bed or a chair because the bed is too full of clutter.  These are just a few instances where the clutter in the home has turned into hoarding.


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