Senior Physical Health

Getting Ahead of the Pack: Decluttering Your Parents’ Home

Getting Ahead of the Pack: Decluttering Your Parents’ Home

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With all that’s happened in the last few years, you’ve realized a move might be in your parents’ future. Maybe they want to be closer to you kids. They’re tired of being alone and want an apartment near other seniors. Or they need a place that can help with their medical needs like an assisted living or memory care facility.

Whatever the reason for relocating, you know one thing’s for sure. They need to downsize. Meaning a whole lot of decluttering. Well, now’s the time to do it.

And that either freaks you out or excites you.

If the latter, yay! Get ready to party. The former? Hang on. You can do this. Especially if you start now so you don’t have to rush later.

But one caution: whether you’re chomping at the bit to jump in or dragging your heals, it’s one thing to declutter your own place—another, to do someone else’s.

So check out these suggestions on how to help Mom and Dad go through their stuff—without kicking any of you to the curb.

Frontida Senior Living Communities, including Fond du Lac assisted living facilities, provide you with posts like this one to help you live your best life.

1. Remember—Parents Have Feelings, Too

There’s a grief to moving, even if it’s a relocation your parents want themselves. They’re leaving people, places, rooms, windows. That time Johnny used his cape to slide down the banister… And Suzie painted the wall with Desitin…

They aren’t just packing things. They’re packing memories.

So tread lightly. Don’t be the bull in their china shop.

If your parents struggle with dementia, you may have to do most the work yourself. But they still have emotional needs. And those are still important.

  • As you’re going through their belongings, take time to laugh, cry, and tell stories about what you find.
  • Snap pictures of your parents holding memorable objects.
  • Maybe even record the stories. (If you use Storycorps, you can upload those anecdotes to the Library of Congress. For free.)

Your parents may need to downsize, but you can build them up, treating them with respect while they make hard choices.

But how do they choose? 

2. Good Vibrations: The Joy Technique

You’ve probably heard of the viral KonMari method: Marie Kondo suggests you ask if the object you’re holding “brings you joy.” If you hesitate at all, you give it away.

The thing is, you need to remember it’s about your parents’ joy, not yours. So as you’re working through piles, give them time to decide without trying to pressure those emotions.

The idea has apparently helped many become minimalists. And it might help your parents, too.

But it might also confuse them.

After all, if I dumped things that didn’t bring me joy, my vacuum would be gone in seconds. And don’t get me started on my bills.

Besides, it’s hard to decide what brings them joy when they’re already grieving the move. Not to mention, they might not have room in the new place for everything they love.

So suggest the concept, but be prepared to add another strategy—one that may take a little longer but doesn’t back them into a corner.

3. Sorting It All Out: The Pile System

Organizing with piles isn’t as catchy as a phrase about happiness, but it relieves movers’ remorse. And it helps them decide what to do with their giveaways.

First, set up five different areas. Label each with a sign so no one gets confused.

  • “I’m keeping this.”
  • “I know the perfect person for this.”
  • “I don’t have room for it, but it breaks my heart to let it go.”
  • “Not quite sure about this one.”
  • “It’s gone.”

As Mom and Dad go through items, place them in whichever pile they choose.

  • Write names on masking tape and attach it to those designated objects in the second pile. (“Shannon would love this teapot.”)
  • For what’s “gone,” throw it away, put it in the car for a trip to Goodwill, or sell it to an antique shop.
  • Gently keep moving but don’t force decisions.
  • If they’re stumped on something, move the item to the third or fourth piles—good for those decisions that need a little longer to choose. And most likely will be easier once they compare them to all the other items.

4. Should I Stay or Should I Go? Questions to Help Them Along

Beyond the “giving joy” question, there are several more that can help them sort.

  • Does it have a special memory? Do they need to keep it to keep the memory? (If they have dementia, the answer might be yes. Don’t be too quick to discard the familiar. But if the memory is solid, a picture might do the trick to share stories later.)
  • Is it worth the value it takes up in real estate? Either on the moving truck or in their new home? In other words, is it cheap enough that if they really need it again, you could repurchase it rather than carting and storing it.
  • Is it useful? Who could use it the most?
  • Do they have more than one? Do they need more than one?
  • Could someone else use it more often—meaning it’s being taken care of—rather than gathering dust in their house?
  • Can it fit in their new place? This is perhaps the hardest question, especially for something that’s well-loved. That grand piano may mean everything to them. But if it can’t fit through the door, there needs to be another solution.

If they still can’t decide—or they need more time to release it—again, let unknowns sit in those third and fourth pondering piles. Often it’s like that feeling you get when you keep harping on something you can’t remember. It just eludes you. Until you do something else, and, wham, you suddenly know.

Time is up and they’re still stuck? If it’s in the pile of “not sure,” then it probably isn’t as important as they think.

But the hard one is that “broken-hearted no room” pile. For those items, you need to get resourceful.

5. Paint Me a Rainbow: Creative Ways of Keeping What You Can’t

Unfortunately, there’s just no way to move an entire house into an apartment or an assisted living facility. But with a little ingenuity, you can keep your parents connected to special pieces.

  • Donate to someone nearby with the idea that Mom and Dad could borrow it if needed. Like tools. Sewing machines. Books. Maybe their church could use their piano—where it would be available to tinker on before or after services.
  • Give paintings and trinkets to friends or family where your parents will enjoy them on a visit. Or in the background of snapshots and selfies.
  • Still have stacks of kids’ artwork? Photographs? Scan them to jpgs and load them on a digital photo frame. Or transfer them to fabric and make a quilt. (My girls sewed one for me out of memory-filled fabric. You can see it on my earlier post about homemade gifts.)
  • Paperwork—scan important documents to a thumb drive or the cloud.

They can’t keep everything. But you can help them find a way to keep the memories.

6. Where Do I Begin: Finding the “Start”

Sometimes the hardest part is figuring out the first step. And there are two thoughts on where that should be.

1. Sort room by room, starting at the front door. Why? Because it’s the first place you walk in. And chances are the front door has fewer objects. (Unless there’s a Fibber McGee closet. If so, well, think of the success you’ll feel when you get through it.) Keep working on the thing to your right until you’ve circled the floor. If there’s a second floor, do that next. Then the basement.

Check off rooms as you go, always an energy-booster.

2. On the other hand, another idea from Marie Kondo may be more efficient: Instead of rooms, sort by items.

  • Collect all the books from the entire house and bring them to one room to sort.
  • When Mom and Dad have decided on most of those, gather all the clothes and do the same.
  • Then kitchen appliances. Tools. Bathroom gadgets.

Checking things off keeps you motivated? Make a list of each category to sort. And celebrate when you finish one. (Pizza, ice cream anyone?)

7. Cleaning House

If the house has been lived in for decades, chances are this isn’t going to be a sprint.

  • Make reasonable plans for what you can get done in a day. Do it for too long without a break, and everyone’s going to get grumpy, creating hard feelings, and making choices harder. Which doesn’t help anything.
  • If you have time, aim for one type of item each night. (One night books, another clothes.) For items with a lot of memories, allow longer.
  • Flying in for a week and need to rush? Come prepared with schedule in hand—but make sure it still includes space to think.

Because remember. It’s true we can’t live for possessions. But they are filled with memories.

And the process is emotional.

So as you choose what can be kept and what will be given away, let your parents—and yourself—grieve over the change.

It will help all of you move on much easier.

You’ve got the decluttering under control, but you need a safe place for your parents to move? Learn more about our Fond du Lac senior living facility, Adelaide Place, or one of Frontida Assisted Living Facilities‘ other 8 locations in Wisconsin.

This post hits both physical and emotional needs.

Check out these other helpful posts on keeping seniors physically healthy.

Read more information about other emotional issues like depression and grief.

Featured image copyrighted by Elizabeth Daghfal, used with permission

Elizabeth Daghfal
• 6 min read

Elizabeth Daghfal is a writer, teacher, speaker, and community volunteer. When she isn't teaching or writing-- Who are we kidding? Her husband and five kids say she's ALWAYS teaching and writing. She has a passion to help people who are struggling and is happy to say her shoulders are drip-dry. Born and raised in the South, she now lives in Wisconsin and loves it--except for the fifteen months of winter. Read more about her at