Caring for Aging Parents: Helping Your Loved Ones Declutter with Intention

February 28, 2022 by Julia Weaver

Throughout our lifetime, we accumulate belongings that we may no longer use in our everyday lives and not realize our home is in disarray before it’s too late. Let’s face it, it’s easy to hold on to items we think we might need one day in the future. It may be tempting to look the other way and ignore the clutter, but doing so can negatively impact your mental state.

Caring for aging parents and helping them declutter is not an easy task. So whether your loved one is downsizing after retirement or just wants to age in place, decluttering their space can reduce stress, minimize safety hazards, and improve mood. We asked experts, from Tucson, AZ to Minneapolis, MN, to share their best advice on how to help your parents downsize their belongings. Check out what they had to say.

Categorize before decluttering

People begin to collect belongings and have a hard time letting go for various reasons. Perhaps they believe that they’ll use the object at a later date. Maybe they fear not having the items when they need them most. Or maybe they acquire too many collections which hold memories of happier times. Regardless, caring for aging parents and helping them declutter is a big project. To get started, we suggest:

  • Start small. Choose one important area to begin with ie a drawer, tabletop, or counters
  • Have supplies ready, ie trash bags, boxes, and masking tape/labels
  • Pick one category to start with, ie books/magazines, clothes, and kitchen items
  • Set time limits to start in easy, doable chunks
  • Enlist the support of others
  • Plan for where the unwanted items will go, ie: Donate, trash, garage sale
  • One in, One out Rule: If you bring something new into the home, donate/discard of something similar
  • Clean and declutter first then organize
  • Seek professional help if needed (professional organizers, psychological help, American Psychiatric Association, International OCD Foundation)

– Serving Seniors, providing residents of San Diego, CA health-promoting services to help aging adults in poverty.

It’s all about perspective

It’s not easy to let go of things that have been a part of our everyday routines. One way to care for aging parents is to help them purge belongings when it becomes too much. Start by dividing items into two categories: needs and nice-to-haves. Once all your “needs” items have been accounted for, determine how much space you have left for the “nice-to-haves.” If an item doesn’t make the cut, focus on reframing their thoughts from “I can’t believe I have to get rid of this,” to “I can’t wait to give this item a new life in someone else’s hands.”

– Christine Cavanaugh, Sales Director at Vineyard Senior Living, a senior living community in Johns Creek, GA

Adopt the three-step declutter plan

A lifetime of accumulation combined with a daily influx of junk mail, bills, and magazines can quickly overwhelm older adults who may already be struggling physically, mentally, or emotionally. We suggest a three-step declutter plan where the family caregiver brings three bins – one for the stuff the senior wants to keep, one for donations, and the other for trash. Sometimes seniors just need a little assistance from their loved ones to keep their homes safe and organized. Care professionals also can help by offering support with daily activities and household tasks.

– Home Instead, in-home care in Omaha, NE; and Honor, quality care in San Francisco, CA

There is no “right” way to approach the task

In my family and our assisted living home, we declutter based on the item – one way for keepsakes and a different way for practical items. For sentimental keepsakes like clothes, dinnerware, or plants, we like to take pictures before we donate them to people or places we know. For bulky practical items like furniture, tools, and electronics, we raffle away or throw out things we have not used in two years.

– Shady Oaks Assisted Living, assisted living community in Bristol, CT

Be sure to document belongings, too

I recommend taking photos and videos of the family home “as-is” and documenting stories for future reference and future generations. Often people have photos of events or gatherings in our homes, but we don’t have photos of the “stuff” and the stories behind it. Take photos and write stories about treasured possessions (and the not-so-treasured). A fun project might be creating a scrapbook or photobook. For videos, it’s easy to have mom or dad narrate stories and have other family members jump in. Once you have documented all the possessions, it’s much easier to sell, give, or throw them away because the memories will be documented for years to come.

– Steve Gurney, Founder/Publisher at Positive Aging Sourcebook, a resource for those looking for housing and aging in place solutions in print and digital formats

Focus on the benefits of decluttering

During your conversation with your loved one about decluttering, focus on the following benefits:

  • You have more time to go from room to room. The sooner you begin, the more time you have, allowing you to take it slow and prevent the task from becoming overwhelming and stressful.
  • It’s easier for you to determine what you want to keep in the future. You’re able to make a better note of what you truly need. For example, take a few days and write down what items you use most – these are items you need to keep. As time goes on, donate or give unnecessary belongings to someone who will need, use and appreciate them.
  • You don’t have to decide at the drop of a hat what happens with good family heirlooms. When you downsize and declutter early it gives you more time to really consider what items mean the most to those you love most.
  • It gives you more time to look into the lifestyle you deserve. You’re able to enjoy the freedom of having everything accomplished. It leaves you with free time to enjoy each day, look into your retirement options, and ponder the lifestyle you’d love to live.

– Estates at Carpenters, providing care and services to Lakeland, FL seniors

Always be respectful of your loved one’s belongings

When caring for an aging parent and helping them downsize, it’s important for adult children to be respectful of the items in the home. As professional downsizers, we often hear “Mom, just get rid of this stuff” or “Dad, this is all junk.” It’s not “junk” to the older adults; it’s a lifetime of memories. Focus on one room at a time and be gentle, patient, and respectful.

– All the Right Moves, Senior Move Managers serving Boston, MA and the South Shore

Cleaning and decluttering can be a stress-reliever

Studies have shown that clutter causes anxiety, depression, stress, and the feeling of being overwhelmed. Cleaning and decluttering can help relieve that stress. There are also tax benefits to decluttering. If you donate your unwanted items to a charitable organization, you may be eligible for a tax write-off. You can also get very creative in donating or re-selling vintage items to schools looking for theater production costumes.

Remember to keep what’s important. Don’t suggest throwing out priceless mementos, as most people find out they don’t miss things that they get rid of after a cleanout. Items that don’t serve a purpose or cannot be shared with other family members should find new homes.

– Senior Living Guide, helping seniors and their loved ones find senior housing and services quickly and easily throughout the United States

Keep the best, and let go of the rest

To care for an aging parent who needs to declutter, begin by assuring them that your goal is not to make them get rid of their favorite items. The goal is to keep the best, and let go of the rest. While letting go of things can be hard, be sure to remind your loved ones that donating their excess items can not only free up space in their home, but bless someone else in their community. Keeping things in your home that you don’t need, use, or love weighs you down. Releasing excess items can help you feel lighter and more relaxed in your living space (while giving others the opportunity to put some of those items to good use).

– Jeannine Bryant, Rightsizing Expert at Easy Rightsizing

Approach the project with empathy

Decluttering can be a daunting task and can understandably evoke strong emotions. Memories are attached to each object in our home, and letting go of them is hard. It’s important to approach the project with empathy. Losses add up as we age. Downsizing can feel like facing one more loss in a long list. One way to ease the pain of parting with precious possessions is to talk about the joy that they will bring their new owners. You can reinforce how the objects that brought your parent joy will continue to be a source of joy for others.

– Theresa Wilbanks, Certified Caregiving Consultant, owner of Sustainable Caregiving, created to help

Make navigating the home easier

Clutter in an elderly person’s home increases the risk of them falling.  According to the CDC, 1 in 3 seniors will fall in their own home each year.  Fall prevention specialists at Medical Care Alert suggest these steps to eliminate clutter and reduce the risk of falling:

  • Remove hazards like scatter rugs, extension cords, and stacks of “stuff” that must be navigated to get around in the home
  • Be sensitive to a senior’s sentimental attachment.  Suggest “let’s bless someone else” to make it easier for them to let go of an item.
  • Try the 2-year rule: if you haven’t used or needed the item in the past 2 years, then it needs to go.
  • Depression-era seniors have a particularly hard time letting items go.  Assure them you’re not sending things to the landfill, but getting them to someone less fortunate who can make use of the items now.

More tips for senior safety and fall prevention available in this free guide “50+ Ways To Prevent Falls.”

– Bryan Stapp, President at Medical Care Alert, giving seniors the ability to get assistance at the push of a button

The process takes time

Set aside 20 minutes to an hour for your decluttering exercise. Begin by choosing a room, a bureau, or even a drawer. Begin to sort your loved one’s belongings by labeling cardboard boxes or bags as keep (where), recycle, give away, don’t know. Ask your loved one “Is this a treasure?”, “Do you use it?”, “Will someone else benefit from it?” Do a quick sort through the “don’t know” box,  and if you can’t make a decision together, it goes into a box labeled “can’t decide.” This may take many sessions, but seeing progress from day to day or week to week will motivate you to continue.

– SeniorCare, providing and coordinating services for those who need assistance to help them to live independently or in a setting of their choice while remaining part of their community in Boston, MA

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