Does Your Elderly Parent Have Too Much Stuff? Tips to Help Your Senior Loved One Get Organized

organize clutter

Many of us are prone to accumulating too much stuff. How often have you looked at a table, desk, or other surface in your home that was covered with a variety of odds and ends and wondered, how did I wind up with all this? How often have you walked into a loved one’s home and wondered how in the world they live surrounded by so much clutter?

According to a survey by Budget Dumpster, about 74% of Americans have worked on decluttering their homes in the past year. But over 58% of respondents were overwhelmed by the idea of getting rid of clutter, mostly because they had no idea where to begin[1].

The situation can be especially challenging if you are trying to help a loved one who is hoarding. As we mentioned in a previous blog, hoarding is a mental disorder – it’s much more than just accumulating things and not taking the time to clean things out when it gets to be too much. Hoarding can quickly become dangerous, leading to a greater fall risk, the increased possibility of fire, and potential problems with hygiene if the clutter blocks the way to the shower or other essential areas[2]. Though some types of assistance, like a medical alert pendant or a meal delivery service, can help with ensuring better safety for those who are hoarders, the only real solution is treatment for the disorder and providing assistance with cleaning out the home – but only when the hoarder is ready to do so.

Let’s take a look at the variety of things you can do to help a loved one tidy up their home. And later, we’ll look at how to handle the situation if you’re working helping a hoarder.

Take Stock of the Situation

Before you dive in, look at what you’re actually going to have to do. Are you planning on removing clutter from an entire room, or just one small space, such as around a desk? Breaking down the chore into smaller chunks will be much easier than tackling an entire home at once. Walk through the rooms and make a written list of the areas that need to be tidied up. Don’t be surprised if this step feels overwhelming at first – as Simple Everyday Home points out, “catching up is always harder than keeping up.”

Having a list means you can check off items as you complete them, and that can lead to a sense of accomplishment. That’s extremely helpful when you are embarking on a project of decluttering the whole house, which could realistically take about a week or more[3].

Start Out Small

Even professional cleaners could feel overwhelmed by a whole-house project. The key is to start small. Go to that list of what needs to get organized and find a task you can complete in an hour or so. Then get rid of all distractions – that means turning off the cell phone, the television, or whatever else is catching your attention – and get to it. This might be going through accumulated mail on the kitchen table, sorting through stacks of clothes in the bedroom, or cleaning out a single closet. The idea is that you will have one space in the house to focus on at a time, that is manageable to handle, and will be entirely clean and free of clutter.

Create a Sorting Plan

But what do you and your parent do with all that clutter? You sort through it methodically. Create a sorting system that takes into account three options: 1) Keeping items but putting them in their proper place, 2) tossing out or donating items, and 3) putting items in storage.

·         If you find an item that is useful and you want to keep it in your home, find the proper place for it. For example, that laundry piled up on the couch needs to go into the closets, hung up neatly on hangers or folded and placed into drawers. If it doesn’t fit and is in good condition, donate it to charity. If it’s in bad condition, throw it away. Remember, much like a medical alert system, order brings a sense of peace and calm.

·         If it’s something that’s not needed anymore, get rid of it. This might mean tossing things into the trash, such as you’ll be doing as you work through that stack of old mail on the desk. But it might also mean putting items in a box to donate to a local charity, such as Goodwill. Items that are in good condition are ideal for giving to someone else who can use them.

·         Some items should go into storage. These include seasonal items, like holiday decorations, or family heirlooms, such as your great-great-grandmother’s lovely china set that isn’t used but has been in the family for generations. Tuck these items carefully into boxes, seal them up, label the boxes, and put them in an appropriate storage area. If there isn’t room in the home to store these things, consider renting a small storage unit.

Psychological Tips to Make This All Easier

Still feeling overwhelmed? Not sure you even want to do this? Is your loved one feeling stressed about cleaning out the house, even though nobody has actually started yet? Changing your mindset can help you change the home. Here are some ways to ease your mind and that of your senior parent or loved one[4].

·         Don’t give in to the sunk cost mindset. Many people choose to hold onto an item because they spent so much money on it. They can’t imagine letting it go when it was so expensive! But that’s the sunk cost – it’s a cost that has already been incurred and can’t be changed. So the only option is to look at the value it adds to your life right now. Take away the financial aspect and ask yourself: Is this worth keeping? (Or as Marie Kondo would say, “Does this spark joy?”)

·         Remember the 80/20 rule. For most things in our homes, this rule holds true: 80% of the time, we only use 20% of what we own. This is especially the case with clothing, games, CDs or DVDs, books, and so much more. The idea is to keep the things we use 80% of the time and let go of everything else.

·         Ask yourself when you last used an item. If you haven’t used something in six months or more, it’s time to seriously consider getting rid of it. This doesn’t apply to some items, such as seasonal items that only get used at certain times of the year, or sentimental family heirlooms, but it does apply to most.

·         Take your time. Once you’ve put things in boxes to donate, take the time to sleep on it. Wait a week before donating these items. If there is something in there that your heart just can’t part with yet, you should know by then. Then you can make adjustments and put that item where it belongs. But if you are like most people, you’ll probably actually forget all the things placed in the donations boxes, which is a big sign that it’s time to let stuff go.

Forget about Life on Social Media

The homes we see online on social media are carefully curated and presented to give a certain “look.” Remember that it’s likely that just off camera, there’s a pile of laundry or a stack of books haphazardly placed against the wall so that the shot can look perfect. Do not expect your home to look like the perfect photos you see on Instagram! Even your dearest friends who post wonderful pictures of their homes on Facebook may have homes that were clean for ten minutes – that’s when they took those pictures. Be realistic and know that cleaning up clutter is something everyone must do from time to time.

How to Handle Hoarding Cleanup

Hoarding disorder is an entirely different beast from accumulated home clutter. Though clutter in a home might seem overwhelming, there is often no rhyme or reason to the items collected in a hoarder’s home, and getting organized can seem like an insurmountable goal. But it is possible to clean it all out – it will take serious time and attention, as well as the assistance and permission of your loved one. How do you get that permission? Only through making sure they get the treatment they need first, so they are open to the idea of letting things go.

When your loved one is ready to begin, start slowly. Remember that there are trip hazards everywhere, so it’s important for your loved one to wear a medical alert device with fall detection for optimal protection. You might also want to wear a mask to help prevent breathing in too many dust particles, fumes, or other hazards while you clean out the house. Here are some other tips:

·         Be methodical. Make a list with your loved one of the rooms that you will tackle, and rank them according to safety concerns. For instance, the kitchen and bathroom should be the first to get clean, as those rooms directly contribute to nutrition and hygiene.

·         Not everything gets tossed. Though your loved one is keeping far too much, some of it probably really does have sentimental value and should be kept. When you find these items, put them in a special place.

·         Deal with hazardous items first. If the hoarding has turned into a situation with rotten food, mold and mildew, or pest infestations, it might be a good idea to hire a professional service to help you with the cleanup.

·         Rent a dumpster or other means of removal. For a situation like this, a box of trash bags will simply not be enough. Be prepared to remove large quantities of items, as well as large furniture, if necessary. That might call for renting a dumpster.

·         Expect to take a great deal of time. Remember that this isn’t a typical cleaning situation. Your loved one has an emotional attachment to these things. Even if the items seem like nothing worth keeping – like decades of old newspapers and magazines – your loved one has a disorder that means these items really do matter to them. Expect to see some setbacks as you begin to clean out the house, and go slowly so as to not overwhelm your loved one (or yourself).

What To Do When the House is Clean

First of all, congratulations! You’ve reached a moment in time when the house is clean and clutter is corralled. But keep in mind that this won’t last forever. Many of us tend to put things in the wrong place, hold onto things too long, or otherwise accumulate more stuff. So now that the heavy lifting is done, how do you keep it from looking this way again?

Make decluttering your elderly parent’s home a consistent activity. Twenty minutes each day can be enough to put things in their proper place and toss items that aren’t needed. This can be made much easier by making sure every room has a small trash can to catch those things that need to go.

The one-in, one-out rule can also help. This means that when you bring one new thing into the home, one old thing must be donated or scrapped. This is especially helpful when it comes to clothes, shoes, games, and the other things in our lives that follow the 80/20 rule, as we mentioned above.

Finally, remember the reason why you want to keep your senior loved one’s home (or your own) so clean. One of the easiest fall prevention tips is to simply keep walkways clean of hazards. You can do that by consistently clearing out the clutter. Though you still want your loved one to wear their emergency button alarm in the event of emergency, you’ll rest assured that their odds of tripping and falling are diminished as long as the home remains clutter free.

Alert1 wishes you health and safety!