Cutting Through the Clutter: Helping Aging Parents Downsize in Thoughtful Ways

March 19, 2019

By Jennifer Durrant


Thanks to the whirlwind of a woman named Marie Kondo and her popular Netflix series “Tidying Up,” households across the country are being purged of piles of clutter. Her Japanese KonMari method has converted even the most stubborn of spring cleaners into new-found organizational wizards, myself happily included.


And while hundreds of thousands of people truck boxes and bags of newly deemed “junk” to second-hand stores, there is a segment of people eagerly awaiting those deliveries. Some are genuinely in need of that dresser, stash of barely worn children’s clothes or pile of YA novels. But, there are also people, like my parents, who are simply giddy with the possibilities of what they might find on the daily perusal of their favorite thrift store, adding to their ever-increasing collection of stuff, or as my mom prefers … treasures.


As my parents get older and continue to battle the effects of aging — ever-worsening arthritis, cataracts and even the ravages of cancer — it has become very apparent that the thrift store shopping habits and overflowing collections of household items I once admired will one day be thrust upon me and my siblings to either divvy up or dispose of. After witnessing my husband go through his late father’s home, garage, several outbuildings, and barn, I have decided to seek advice on ways to gently, tactfully and respectfully convince them it’s time to de-junk.


By following some of this advice, hopefully, my parents, and others out there in the same situation will not only realize it’s time to downsize, but they might even embrace the idea, initiating purging projects on their own.


Let Others Break the News

After a recent health scare where my dad had to rely on a walker to move from room to room, it was a home health aide who counseled my mother to streamline pathways and eliminate any obstacles. Despite us kids complaining for years that their home was filled with too much furniture, it was an objective, third-party recommendation that set my mom into action moving out dressers, nightstands, cupboards and unnecessary rugs and carpet runners.  


Sure, we all love our creature comforts conveniently accessible on desks, dressers and coffee tables, but those often-unnecessary pieces of furniture can be hazards. When one out of every three adults age 65 or older trip and fall every year, advice from occupational therapists, home health aides and even counselors might be just the ticket to prompting your parents to reduce excessive furniture.


KonMari Method

When encouraging parents to declutter, go ahead and introduce a little peer pressure, mention current buzz and help transform a daunting task into something healthy, cathartic and trendy. The KonMari method of decluttering has set the entire nation into a tidying up frenzy as women, men and even children are discovering what truly “sparks joy” and then thoughtfully saying thank you to items that are happily purged.


Sitting down with my mom a month ago to watch an episode of “Tidying Up” triggered a great discussion on how I’ve embraced Kondo’s techniques, followed by my gentle suggestion that she do the same. I emphasize the word gentle here because, as The Atlantic mentioned, “the organizational guru’s new Netflix series isn’t about judgment, decor, or the spectacle of mess. It’s about cultivating empathy for the things that surround us.”

Too often, we as children of these treasure-loving parents, jump into immediate attack mode ready to toss all their belongings into the bin without thought or care. By gently communicating our concern for their safety, we can help prompt their own decluttering efforts.

Death Cleaning

While the KonMari method might be considered thoughtful organization, Swedish Death Cleaning is a bit more direct, decisive dejunking. This method of purging is centered around the idea of alleviating the burden of your loved ones when you do pass on. Now, while you are healthy, is the time to reduce the excess stuff in your home. Sure, it sounds morbid to think about, but practical, too.


Consider, for instance, my husband’s family in the months after losing their father. Thirteen years a widower and reared in a post-Depression era where even the smallest of items was cherished, this gentle, soft-spoken man had not only accumulated his own vast collection of tools, fishing gear, furniture, trailers and even vehicles, he had also inherited the tools and outdated auto parts from his father’s auto repair shop. Tucked into garages, sheds, basements and a large barn, once the most treasured items were claimed by the five children, the daunting chore of clearing out all those buildings and prepping the home for sale was left to my husband, taking months and months to complete.


Margareta Magnusson, author of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family From a Lifetime of Clutter,” suggests those approaching age 65 begin their own death cleaning. But rather than putting a negative connotation on the work, consider the possible additional income that could be made by selling some of those possessions. When discussing this concept with parents, remind them the extra money could fund long-dreamed-of vacations or memory-making adventures with their grandchildren.


Bequeathing Treasures

If the thought of filling truckloads of stuff to haul to Goodwill seems too heartbreaking, have your parents consider bequeathing their beloved treasures to their progeny now. Why wait until the reading of a will to designate new homes for that antique breakfront, precious China collection or perfectly patinated horse saddle? The only stipulation in accepting the generous gift, however, is that it must be rehomed pronto.

Related link: Inspiring gratitude

While many people might stake their claim on a favorite dining set or piece of precious jewelry for “some day,” consider making that day happen sooner than later if the furniture, trinket or bracelet isn’t essential to everyday living. Instead of spending money on Christmas and birthday gifts, Mom and Dad can wrap up those treasured items instead. The sentimental meaning and embedded memories will far outlast any electronic gadget in the long run.


Several years ago, a beautiful, antique claw-foot side table displayed my wedding cake. When it moves into my home, I can’t wait to decorate around it and show my mom how proud I am of that piece of family history—something I know she will greatly appreciate seeing now, rather than long after she’s passed away.


The struggle over stuff is real, especially as baby boomer parents continue to grow older. Before the fighting gets hurtful, take some time to sit your parents down and discuss thoughtful, creative and even cathartic ways to not only dejunk but pass down the most valuable treasures to new generations.


Jennifer Durrant is a 25-year journalism veteran and ever-improving publicist. She loves writing about home decor, trends, the local music scene, theater, fine arts, food and general human interest stories. She thrives on traveling with her husband, Pinterest, Diet Coke and chai tea lattes.


Photo by Sharina Mae Agellon on Unsplash


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