How Can You Help Seniors Through the Process?
We age. We accumulate stuff. We attach emotional value to everything from our dining room table to the solar system project little Billy completed in first grade.
On any given day one might ask ‘what do I do with it all?’ ‘How do I get out from under it?’ As painful as it might seem to part with treasures, the strain many seniors feel when it comes to de-cluttering, downsizing or moving to a different phase of life can be overwhelming. In the event this is hastened by a medical or other emergency, that strain is intensified and spreads to family and friends.
So how do you begin the process of de-cluttering? It’s best to begin by planting seeds. A comment like, “Hey mom, guess who moved?” can provide an opportunity to start a discussion. In fact, the isolation imposed by the coronavirus pandemic has made many people aware they don’t need as much as they thought.
“Take a gentle approach and start small,“ says Stacy Matticoli, a certified organization specialist, whose business, “Put it There” Organizing and Productivity Consultants, specializes in residential organizing and senior downsizing. “You don’t want to start by listing the house for sale. Just being gentle and making small decisions about small piles of paper – rather than going through a whole cabinet at once – is good.”
Acknowledge that the process of de-cluttering is hard. Seniors may have lived in a house for 50 years; it will take more than a day to empty it out. Think about it like losing weight; you don’t start one day and run a marathon the next.
Begin Whittling Down
People often have emotional attachment to items, which is OK. What is not OK is carrying guilt for keeping it and there are ways to help people remove that guilt.
Have them pick up an object and tell the story that surrounds it; that will help to better manage the emotions of parting with it. Take photos of these items so the person can remain close to the image, without the guilt of physically holding on to it. Placing those pictures in accessible places – electronically or in photo books – makes it easy to access those memories.
“Disorganization and clutter – it has been reported – can lead to anxiety, stress, and depression in seniors,” says Matticoli. “The presence of the items may also contribute to trips or falls. Overall, it is probably better to let something go rather than face these issues or deal with the expense of storage.”
That same idea behind evaluating objects can also be applied to managing years worth of photos and documents.
Pictures can be scanned for electronic display or placed in photo books for easy access. Seniors may find it easier to throw out duplicate photos or keep only the best shots from events – ones that best capture a story.
And consider sorting documents into smaller categories (medical, financial, legal, etc.) before a senior tackles them. That makes it much easier than having them sort through piles of mixed items.
Sorting and Discarding
Professional organizers will ask their clients to put items into five piles: “keep,”
“sell,” “trash,” “donate” and “unsure.” Put the “keep” and “unsure” piles about 10 feet apart while the “sell,” “donate” and “trash” piles can be next to each other. Noticing the distance between “keep” and “unsure” piles often makes it psychologically easier for people to decide, just get rid of it.”
Seniors often attach an emotional value to an item and want to pass the ‘heirloom’ down to children. A dining room table may represent years of family dinners or a significant financial investment. The same can be said of china, silverware or figurines. But two great dilemmas can arise from thinking of items as heirlooms:
1) Seniors find their children don’t want the stuff.
2) Items measured in blood, sweat and tears may not have appreciated monetarily.
If adult children don’t want these heirlooms, they need to reassure their parents that it doesn’t mean they “don’t love them.” A helpful reminder is that things not sold, donated, or given to others can cost more money to keep than they’re worth.
Consignment, selling online, auctions, and estate sales may work best. If a person is hesitant to part with things due to emotional attachment, donating items to organizations that share their interests may make them feel better (i.e. Veterans of Foreign Wars or Goodwill).
De-Cluttering Or Downsizing Due to Medical Necessity
In cases where a change in a person’s medical or cognitive status necessitates a quick move, it is best to concentrate on moving the person to their new situation first.
When a person is facing dementia, they may have been stashing items in different places around the house. Watching the process of de-cluttering may leave them upset, irritated and agitated. Once the person is settled into a new living situation, families can come back and retrieve some memories.
Many factors contribute to a smooth de-cluttering experience. One factor is that not everyone is up to the challenge. Some loved ones may not have the will or emotional stamina while others may live far away or have family/career obligations.
There are professionals and businesses devoted to helping, like “Put It There” all over the country. Finding an organizer is much like finding an accountant or doctor and these groups can help identify someone credentialed: National Association of Professional Organizers or the National Association of Senior and Specialty Move Managers.
AARP Webinar: Decluttering, Downsizing & Organizing Your Stuff
Senior Safety Advice: Decluttering Tips For Seniors (Make Your Home Safer and Organized)
Disclaimer: The material in this blog is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to replace, nor does it replace, consulting with a physician, lawyer, accountant, financial planner or other qualified professional.
Deb is available as a caregiver consultant. She will answer the question: “Where do I start?” and find the resources to alleviate your stress. If you would like to invest a half hour to learn how she can help you, please contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org