by Susan McCarthy
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Everyday practice: Know that sometimes your assistance will be welcome, and sometimes it won't be appreciated. Step up or step back
Maybe you bring up the topic of downsizing, or a parent or grandparent does. Perhaps one of your parents or grandparents has died or has received a dementia diagnosis, leaving their partner alone in a house that is much too big for them to care for.
While decluttering your belongings is a challenge, talking to a parent about decluttering is really a challenge. You and your parent are dealing not just with the thoughts and emotions clinging to items but you’re dealing with your personal relationship as well. (Oh, and your siblings and your parent’s friends and extended family.)
My parents hoarded items in their 800-square-foot ranch-style house and refused to declutter, even when my mother ended up in a wheelchair that was squeezing past boxes filled with items they didn’t use. Unfortunately, I couldn’t do anything in the house until my mother had died and my father went into assisted living. My hope is that you don’t end up in the same situation and can help your relatives improve the quality of their lives by creating a safer space, free of clutter.
Identify Your Specific Concerns
Although it can be tempting to start a downsizing conversation with, “do you really need all this stuff?” (or, worse, “you don’t need all this stuff) this can put another person on the defensive. (How would you feel if someone walked into your home and told you to get rid of 80 percent of your belongings in the coming months?)
When speaking with concerned family members or your parent, focus on safety concerns. Lugging laundry to the washing machine in the basement. Climbing stairs to the bedroom. Rooms that may be difficult to move around because of excess furniture, storage bins, or things stored on the floor. The challenge of dealing with lawn care or snow removal.
Consider who you could talk to before bringing up the idea of downsizing with your parent. I’m not suggesting that you and your siblings should gang up on mom and tell her that she has to sell her house and move in six months. However, talk to other members of your family to get their perspective on your parent’s or grandparent’s living situation.
Some individuals (including your parent or grandparent) may suggest that the current situation is fine. This isn’t a matter of ignoring concerns (or believing your concerns are invalid), but confusion or overwhelm about what the next step is or what the future changes will look like.
Aging in place might be another option – remaining in the house, which could include doing upgrades (putting in a walk-in shower instead of a tub, bringing the laundry room to the main floor, closing off upstairs rooms and bringing the bedroom onto the main floor) and arranging services for lawncare, laundry, driving to appointments, etc.
Start the Process of Helping Them Let Go
Whether your parents or grandparents choose to age in place, or they decide that they will start decluttering now to get ready for a future move, focus on eliminating tripping hazards and excessive items in the beginning.
If family members are interested in specific items, have them note the things they want as opposed to stripping the house that grandma will be living in for the next 6-to-12-months. Leave it to your parent or grandparent to decide when and to whom they will give some of their possessions.
Does your relative want help decluttering, or will they do what they can on their own? Would it be helpful to bring in a professional organizer who will have no emotional connection to the items or your relative?
Do not(!) start with photographs, knickknacks, or sentimental items. This is the last category of items to review. Set up a room or corner of a room where you can set memorabilia.
You don’t have to start this process knowing exactly where or when your relative will move. However, knowing this information will guide the decluttering and decision-making process. Peter Walsh’s book, Let It Go, is wonderful in that it addresses dealing with personalities of the multiple relatives who’ll have a say in any downsizing efforts – as well as how to deal with possessions.
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Susan, chief (and only) organized squirrel at A Less Cluttered Life, loves learning and sharing information about organizing, productivity, and habits. She also likes reading young adult novels, crocheting, and spending time with her cat and husband in their riverside home in Massachusetts.