How to Persuade Aging Parents to Declutter
Turn it into a storytelling ritual, create family memories
Your parents are aging. It might be near time to downsize their home or perhaps think about assisted living or, alas, a nursing home. If that’s the case, it’s also time to deal with their accumulated belongings.
Unless your parents are rare minimalists, there’s a lot of stuff. One in three U.S. homes with a two-car garage can wedge in only one automobile; one in four can’t cram in a car at all. A 2014 study tallied 2,269 collective items in the average two bedrooms and living room — and that was just the visible contents outside drawers and closets.
It’s not easy to convince an aging parent to part with a gazillion books, kitchenware for a small army, your myriad childhood drawings and everything else extraneous. (This article is not for people dealing with clinical hoarders.)
So here’s a strategy for making the downsizing not only less painful, but perhaps a rich and rewarding exercise for everyone involved: Ask your parents to share personal stories about their possessions as part of the winnowing. Storytelling gives them more control of this process. The National Association of Senior Move Managers calls it a productivity tool; by prompting autobiographical narratives, family lore and reminiscences, you can help your parents realize that those dozens of extra coffee mugs don’t fulfill their purpose in life.
What follows are some helpful tools and guides to the process, some for the aging parent, some for the all too impatient adult child. Remember, be kind, and if you’re fortunate you’ll wind up with some fabulous family knowledge you’d otherwise have missed out on. Understand that it’s not just “stuff.”
Decluttering is tough because we see our possessions as representing our values, ambitions, wants, likes, individuality and achievements. It’s very personal. Advice varies widely. Choose one method, see if it works, then stick with it. Goodreads.com has a curated list of over 300 good books on decluttering. AARP has dozens of articles on everything from Swedish “death cleaning” — done so that heirs don’t face a burden — to spending two hours a week going through rooms and designating things as trash, keep, donate, gift, recycle, sell, repair and not sure (keep that last pile tiny).
BecomingMinimalist.com, from writer Joshua Becker, suggests that decluttering is useful, calming and pleasant. Whatever the method, steer parents away from self-storage — it’s financially unwise; you pay for your stuff to go unseen and unused, as my colleague Carla Fried writes: https://www.rate.com/research/news/self-storage-retirement-savings
Go big? People who have followed Marie Kondo swear by her process of evaluating each possession to see if it “sparks joy.” Critics say her bulldozer approach, especially for basements, attics and garages, can be draining and prompt people to give up, compared to the room-by-room strategy that Becker advocates.
Start tiny? Maybe with the fridge — a barometer of clutter in other rooms. UCLA’s Center on the Everyday Lives of Families found that the average refrigerator door is covered with 52 objects via magnets and tape, with the most-plastered displaying 166 objects.
Non-sentimental items first. Going through overflowing bed linens or unused tools primes the pump to tackle the emotionally freighted stuff. Becker’s BecomingMinimalist website lists 101 categories that are relatively easy to tackle (kitchen glassware, figurines, towels, etc.).
Let parts stand for the whole. Sentimental items are tough. So for a stable of photos, steer your parents to talk about those that best represent key moments and gently part with duplicates or iterations.
Have a vision. Australia-born organization guru Peter Walsh advises having a mental image of the ideal room. Build on that by asking your parents to talk about their vision, then find representative photos and use them as inspiration.
Know when to back off. A professional organizer can serve as an authoritative buffer against a recalcitrant “collector.” Find one at the American Society of Professional Organizers or the National Association of Productivity & Organizing Professionals. Hourly costs typically range from $55 to $100, according to Home Advisor. The AARP estimates it takes 20 to 30 hours just to organize a house, so a full-on purge can be perhaps weeks. Consider paying for this an investment as part of your continuing good relationship with Mom and Dad.