by Susan McCarthy
If one of your parents has died, you may be trying to encourage your living parent to declutter and perhaps downsize the family home. If they are reluctant, or downright belligerent, can you encourage (or force) them to clear stuff out of the house?
My parents were the type of people who held onto EVERYTHING because it might get used someday. I often offered to declutter for them, thinking that maybe they were too tired from day-to-day activities to deal with sorting through old mail and magazines, and all the other things that were building up in corners of the rooms or the basement.
However, they were always adamant that these things were useful. Instead, I ended up organizing things, which really meant putting things into bins and boxes so the random stuff was gathered. Unfortunately, this often allowed for more stuff to get saved and stored.
I remember for one of my parents’ anniversaries that I offered to clean the basement. My mother insisted that I show her everything before throwing it out. So, okay. I found a damaged badminton set – the net had holes it int and some of the netting was knotted together. And the badminton rackets were held together with tape.
In my mind, this was trash. But when I carried it past my mother, she stopped me and insisted that I return the items to the basement. Thinking that she didn’t see the damage, I pointed out that the set wasn’t something that could get donated.
My mother got upset and told me to put the badminton set back. I couldn’t understand and asked why. Her response? The grandchildren could play with the set someday. Now, she didn’t have grandchildren and it was unlikely to happen.
Still, I was a bit indignant and said, “You want your grandchildren to play with crappy, broken toys?”
If you haven’t already figured it out, the badminton set went back into the basement. Oh, and I stopped trying to clean out the basement for them.
Can You Insist that Your Parents Declutter?
You can do whatever you want, but let me tell you, it won’t work. Yes, you can offer to help but you have to make clear how you’ll help, say giving them final say before items go out the door, or sitting with them while they go through the items that they want to sort through.
I belong to several Facebook groups focused on decluttering and I often see posts from parents complaining about their adult kids decluttering stuff for them…as well as posts from adults expressing anger at their parents’ insistence to hold onto stuff that they obviously don’t need.
Been there, argued about that.
As an adult child of an aging parent or two, you may be thinking ahead to the day you will have to go through everything in the house. From your point of view, you’d like to tackle some of the task now. And I’ve seen parents post complaints about their adult children visiting with a box of trash bags in hand and simply clearing out whatever they deemed unnecessary.
This is not good for your relationship with your parents. Removing things without their approval is treating them like a child and they aren’t going to appreciate that.
It’s frustrating, but it’s their stuff.
I remember my mother returning home from a stay in a rehabilitation center, all of us knowing that this time she’d be in a wheelchair. Now, as I mentioned, my parents had a lot of stuff in the house. In the hallway that lead from the living room down to the bedrooms was a couple of small bookshelves and a low cabinet stacked with boxes of stuff.
My father insisted that everything stay in place, although it would have been a squeeze (if even possible) to roll a wheelchair to the bedroom. So, when my father was out, picking my mother up from the rehab center, my brother and his friend hauled stuff out to the curb.
Now, granted, my father had a collection of old Consumer Report magazines that weren’t going to help him make decisions about any type of purchase (although he insisted that if he bought something secondhand that they would be useful guides) as well as old phonebooks, but, still, they were his stuff.
My father’s response? He went to the curb and hauled everything into the garage, where it stayed.
As tempting as it is to take matters into your own hands, stop and think how you would feel about someone coming into your home and throwing away things that they didn’t think you needed.
Even though some people’s first reaction may be, great!, then I won’t have to do the work, chances are that you’d quickly decide that someone else, even a family member, wouldn’t really understand what you found important and why.
Hi, I'm Susan
Emptying my parents' overpacked 800-square-foot house left me popping handfuls of peanut M&Ms and doing a WHOLE lot of comfort-crocheting. The experience of sorting through mom and dad's stuff also encouraged me to become a professional organizer...so now I can offer techniques that work much better than chocolate.