Helping Your Parents Declutter

Being tasked with dealing with your parents’ belongings is a huge job and responsibility. Before beginning the process of getting rid of their things, it is important to understand why they may have kept items over the years and different techniques you can use to persuade them to get rid of useless items.

Why do Seniors Hang on to Their Stuff?

Vickie Dellaquila, author of “Don’t Toss My Memories in the Trash”, gives 10 reasons why seniors have a difficult time parting with material items.

The Sentimental Attachment

The best way to keep sentimental items and decrease clutter is to make these items smaller. Instead of saving boxes of printed pictures, convert the photos to DVDs. If they have pieces of clothing that bring back special memories, cut out small pieces from the fabric and either display them in a shadow box or combine them into a memory quilt.

The sense of loyalty

Aging people are less likely to want to give away something they received as a gift, versus something they bought themselves. Encourage your loved one to give unused gifts to someone else.

The need to conserve

Many seniors are green people and have the desire to conserve the environment and help others. If your loved one has things they don’t necessarily want to keep but don’t want just sitting in a landfill, try encouraging them to give back to the community and donating things they do not need, instead of just throwing them away. If they feel like they are helping something or someone, they are more likely to part with their things they no longer use.

The Fatigue

Bills and junk mail can pile up quickly in your loved one’s home and create even more of a mess and frustration. Try switching what you can to online billing, and unsubscribe from as many junk mail lists as possible. Investing in a shredder for all this unwanted mail is also smart. Not only will this get rid of a lot of unnecessary clutter, but protect them from identity theft if the mail contains personal information.

The change in health

If your loved one suffers from dementia, has had a recent stroke or other type of brain trauma, or is wheelchair bound, they may have a difficult time keeping up with day to day household duties. This can cause clutter to increase, so encourage your loved one to seek out professional help (organizer, maid, etc.) to help diminish clutter and keep the house safe.

The fear

Like many people, seniors often fear what will happen if they give up their things. Slowly talking them through parting with items will help them understand the logic behind why they probably won’t need those things anymore.

The dream of the future

Many elderly people hold on to things because they feel that someday in the future they will have a use for it (clothing, kitchen appliances, books, etc.) Have your loved one fill a box with these sorts of items. If they have not had to take the item out of the box in six months for some type of use, agree that the item will be donated.

The love of shopping

Clutter can become even worse if your loved one loves to shop. It can even get to a point where they may buy something and then forget where they put it and never use it. Encourage them to say “no” to free items and to cut back on buying items they do not need just because it was a good deal or on sale.

The history and memories

Many seniors often have a variety of different keepsakes that represent memories and their history. Encourage them to show younger generations these items and then if they are valuable, donate to a museum, library, church, or theater. They will feel good knowing these items are not just being thrown in the trash, but will continue to be used.

The loneliness

Many elderly people may compensate for loneliness by having lots of things. Loneliness can also lead to depression, which only makes it harder to seniors to become organized. If you feel this is the case, bringing in a professional organizer is the way to go. Seniors will see this person as an authority figure and may be more likely to get rid of things when they ask compared to when you ask.

How to Help Your Parents Declutter

Many seniors will eventually need to downsize, if they have not already, to either a smaller home or into an apartment in an assisted living facility. The task of packing, organizing, and getting ready for the move often falls on their children. If you decide to take on the task of organizing your elderly parent’s home or helping them move, here are some tips to help you through it.

Acknowledge the true magnitude of the task

The best thing you can do throughout this process is have patience. Moving from a place where you’ve formed so many life memories can be an extremely emotional process for anyone. Not only are your loved ones being forced to downsize the physical memories of their life (getting rid of certain items or keepsakes they have had forever), but they may also be moving somewhere they are not particularly excited about.

Throughout the packing, organizing, and moving process, it can become very difficult to stay motivated. What you consider to be clutter can be different from your parents’ standards, causing tension when you try and remove things they see as valuable. To deal with this, always involve your parents in the decisions that surround throwing items away or setting them aside to donate. If they see you actually care about their possessions, they may become more relaxed and the process will go a lot smoother.


Schedule work sessions in small increments

Organizing and decluttering is a time consuming process. Rather than trying to get everything done in one week, space out cleaning sessions over the span of a month or two. This helps both you and your parents maintain energy and motivation to get this daunting task complete. Recommendations suggest that these cleaning sessions be no longer than four hours and no more than two or three times a week.


Understand your parents lifestyle

Understanding how your parents live now will help you determine what they may or may not need in their new home. Sitting down and having a conversation with your parents about what they expect from their new life will help all of you reach common goals when it comes to deciding what to keep and what to get rid of. Below are some questions to help get these conversations started:

  • What kind of clothing will you need? Are you moving to a warmer or colder location?
  • What is your current size range of clothing? Can we consider donating any items that fall outside of this range?
  • How much will you be using your kitchen? Do you plan on cooking and baking the majority of your meals?
  • Will you ever have the desire to entertain or host a party? If so, how many guests would this consist of?
  • Will you want to decorate your new home during different seasons? How much seasonal decoration should we keep based on the smaller size of your new home?
  • Which books do you still enjoy reading? What music do you enjoy listening to? What movies do you enjoy watching?


Start with the least sentimental items

Starting the decluttering process with the least sentimental items (towels, sheets, appliances, etc.) can help the process move more quickly in the beginning and get your loved one used to letting things go. Of course, this pace will slow down once you hit more sentimental items such as clothing, pictures, or decorations.


Declutter by category rather than room

It is often easier to make decisions when items are grouped. Categorizing the clutter can also be helpful in keeping both you and your parents motivated throughout the process. It can also give your parents a feeling of accomplishment if they are able to get through a whole category without any major issues. This method is most effective if you can separate items into the smallest categories possible. For example, do not categorize all clothing as “clothes”. Instead, separate by tops, bottoms, jackets, undergarments, etc.


Keep sentimental items only if you plan on displaying them

Many people have a hard time getting rid of items they view as sentimental, but in reality many of these items have been sitting in boxes buried in the basement for years. When downsizing, encourage your loved ones to only keep sentimental items they can display either on shelves or in shadowboxes. Remind your loved ones that throwing away the item does not mean they are throwing away they memory, they will always carry that with them.


Take charge of your childhood items

If your parents are still holding on to a lot of your childhood memorabilia, take this as an opportunity to sort through it and get rid of items that no longer have much sentimental value to them. If the item does not mean much to you, it probably will not mean much to your parents.


Remove unwanted items from the property

Once you have piles of unwanted items, whether they are meant for the trash or are to be sent to a charity, you need to get these items out of the house. When you are near the end of the decluttering process, order a dumpster to put all the trash in and contact the charity you wish to donate items to and they will send someone to pick them up. It is important to constantly have unwanted items moving out of the house, the more time they spend in the house the more likely you parents may change their minds and hinder the progress you have made.


Enjoy the time with your parents

There is no doubt that decluttering, packing, and moving your parents’ house is hard work and tensions will arise. Instead of viewing this process as a chore, change your perspective and view it as a chance to spend time with your parents and learn more about their past or your childhood.