by Susan Caplan McCarthy
My parents lived in an 800-square-foot ranch. To reach the attic, you’d pull the folding ladder down from the ceiling of the hallway. Over 39 years, more and more stuff went up into the attic. When I finally climbed the steps to the attic to empty it there was a narrow band of walking space around the opening and along most of the length of the attic (I was afraid I’d fall through the opening as I squeezed my way past boxes).
I can’t tell you how many hours I spent emptying the attic. I can tell you that heat and cold does nasty things to trash bags and many were disintegrating. Most of the time, I’d toss soft stuff through the opening and use that stuff to cushion other items that I tossed down. Then I’d climb down the stairs and wade through the stuff on the floor, taking it to the dumpster or moving it into my car for a trip to the donation center.
There were brand-new towels from the discount store that my father bought before deciding we could keep using the old towels. There were old pots and pans, blankets, curtains, bedspreads, and shower curtains from relatives who moved and thought we could use their hand-me-downs. There were boxes with decades of old bills and checking statements (all the way back to when they got married in 1964). There were boxes of carefully labelled car magazines. There was a rack of the business outfits my mother wore in the 1950s and early 1960s.
In all of this, there were items that were probably family heirlooms – dishes, tea sets, knickknacks; but it had all been stored in the attic, piled under empty boxes and broken toasters and was completely meaningless. At the yard sale, one woman said, “That must have belonged to your great-grandmother when she was in the old country.”
Maybe. Probably. But, which great-grandmother? What country?
The vase my mother always told me was an antique that “would be worth something” (but not who owned the vase), was an antique … that I was offered ten dollars for.
There was so much stuff in this attic, that when I asked my brother if he and the young guy he had helping him could pull the few pieces of furniture left the attic, he called me to tell me that there was more shoved stuff into the eaves. How much could there be? Enough to fill the floor space of the house – every room – and make it look like I hadn’t already emptied its contents.
My takeaway from the experience? When my husband and I moved into a house I told him that under no circumstances would we put things up in the attic. One, we needed to drag a ladder into the house to get into the attic and two, we were middle-aged and hopping off a ladder and into an attic (while carrying boxes of stuff) just wasn’t going to happen. The Christmas decorations could live in a corner of the basement.
Decluttering Your Attic Storage Space when You’re over 50
How often do you go up into your attic to get things you use? Do you have a regular staircase into the attic? A pull-down ladder? A hole in the ceiling that requires manipulating a ladder into place? Chances are that carrying boxes up and down a ladder or staircase isn’t the easiest thing to do.
Plan on emptying your attic storage. You may have to hire someone to carry boxes down to you, then you can take some time to sort through the contents of those boxes before having your helper back to get more boxes for you.
Chances are that your attic is filled with a lot of just-in-case stuff. Do you really need those extra blankets and towels for guests? And, if you do, do you really want to rummage through the attic in July looking for them?
If you find things that you saved from your adult children’s childhood, snap some pictures of the items and ask if they want them. If they don’t, don’t second guess them and decide to hold onto things you’re certain they’ll want someday. They won’t.
If you are storing heirlooms in your attic, consider that this is not the way to honor sentimental items. You may feel that you are preserving these items, but when your children find these items hidden in a box, under other boxes in the attic, they won’t think these things were very important because you treated the items like clutter by shoving them into a dark corner.
It might take you a year to sort through everything in attic, a box a day, particularly if you’ve lived in the house for twenty or more years. Start now.
Decluttering Your Attic when You’re under 50
Use your attic to store seasonal clothing and decorations. Make sure the boxes get opened and sorted every year. Don’t use your attic as a place to stow things you don’t know what to do with. If you think you should hold onto an item just-in-case, designate a specific reason for holding onto it and keep the item in a more appropriate location.
If those blankets and sheets will be useful if you have guests, keep the items in the guest room. No guest room? Where will your guests be staying then?
Question everything you think should go in your attic storage space. Are you simply delaying deciding to give away unwanted items? And, when I’m telling you to avoid putting things in the attic, that isn’t permission to store it in a shed, garage, or basement instead.
Be honest with your reasons for wanting to store items that you won’t use. Are you frustrated with the money you spent on a little used item? Then try to sell it or donate it for a tax deduction.
Whether you are 30 or 60, emptying your attic can be one of the best things you can do for your family. If you move, you’ll have already gotten rid of a lot of items you weren’t using anyways; and, you won’t leave adult children with the task.
I help people focus on what's important to them by guiding them through clearing clutter and distractions from their lives. I teach decluttering and organizing skills through articles; books; courses; speaking engagements; as well as virtual coaching sessions.