How To Help Your Elderly Parents Declutter

If you told me there was a book that could turn my beliefs about decluttering upside down, I would never have believed you. Until I read it. They Left Us Everything, by Plum Johnson, is so powerful that it shifted my perspective on decluttering. It’s the true story of adult children faced with the arduous task of going through the contents of a large home after the death of their parents. It’s something we all must go through at some point, so it’s highly relatable.

If you’ve gone through this already, I don’t have to tell you that it is charged with emotion. The part in the book that was so powerful for me was how the adult children got to know who their parents really were by going through their things. What struck me most was how much history would have been lost if these items were tossed or donated by the parents while they were still alive and why it’s important to preserve family history.

I’m the first to say it’s best for us to declutter as we go along, making it a regular occurrence rather than wait until we are forced to do it…or even worse, until our children are. It’s much harder to go through our loved ones’ things just after they’ve past, because we are grieving. In fact, many grief counsellors suggest we ideally wait about a year before attempting this difficult process.

I find myself on the fence. Do I suggest waiting until we inherit our parents’ things before sorting through them, so we can understand who they truly were in part through their possessions, as in the book? Or do I propose encouraging our parents to declutter their homes now – and risk losing family heirlooms that we would value down the road?

I’ve given this a lot of thought, because it’s critical. And I feel I’ve discovered a happy medium. Rather than putting off the inevitable, I believe it’s best to assist our parents sort through their possessions now. However, and this is key, we need to encourage them to tell us the stories behind the treasured items and find a concrete way to preserve these stories.

There’s no doubt this project needs to be handled delicately, especially if there is no residence move prompting this. Communicate openly with your parents, helping them understand that it’s not about contemplating their deaths but about hearing the stories and memories wrapped up in a lifetime’s worth of treasures. You may come up against some resistance. Be patient and compassionate. You may need to discuss the topic more than once. Wait until they feel comfortable with the idea.

Once you have the buy-in from your parents (this may take a while), there is an approach I recommend that will simplify the process.

The Decluttering Process

Label 3 boxes:

  1. Keep Forever (sentimental value, family heirlooms)
  2. Keep for Now (unsentimental items that are useful for now)
  3. Sell or Donate (no longer useful or wanted)

These boxes should be sturdy and large enough to hold several items but not so large that they are heavy. You will be moving them from room to room but can empty them into other boxes once they are full. The size of a laundry basket or a medium-sized Rubbermaid works well.

For large items that don’t fit in the basket (furniture, paintings), label them with sticky notes using one of the three categories above.

Preserve the Story Behind the Stuff

As you go through each item and ask your parents to decide which box it belongs in, you will find (as I have, in my experience as a professional organizer) that there’s often a story behind the things they’ve acquired over a lifetime of collecting. Ask them to tell you about any piece that has a story to it. You may be surprised, as I was at first, that once a person has told the story behind the acquisition, they are sometimes ready to let it go. It is a time-consuming process, and you may be tempted to rush through it. But that would be a mistake because it would rob you of hearing stories that may become part of your family’s legacy. Take the time, even if you must do it a little at a time, over several months. It can often become a bonding experience that will be treasured by all involved – and well worth the time and effort.

If you find this too overwhelming to tackle on your own, one of our We Organize U professional organizers can work side by side with you and your parents to provide support and guidance and make the process less taxing.

Have you been through this experience before? What worked and what didn’t? What are your thoughts on helping parents declutter? Please share your comments in the section below.






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