Clearing the Clutter in Your Life
To ask how little, not how much, can I get along with.
To say – is it necessary? – when I am tempted
to add one more accumulation to my life.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh
I have to admit that I was amazed and perplexed by the amount of clutter and “stuff” I too often found when I worked with clients who were preparing for a move. This area was the greatest eye opener for me with my Living Transitions business, a service that provides “hands on” help with making a later life, downsizing move. Before I started doing this work, I had no idea that people could live with SO MUCH stuff and clutter around them! I am naturally a very organized and clutter-free kind of person and I grew up this way. I don’t remember my parents’ or grandparents’ homes ever being cluttered like I’ve seen with many of my clients so this was a huge learning experience for me.
Sorting through years of accumulated belongings is by far the most daunting part of making a later life living transition but there are some things I have learned that may be of benefit to you. These tips and insights should help whether you are the older adult ready to face this task, or if you’re the adult child who has offered to help your parents with the downsizing process. The key to keep in mind is HOW GOOD it will feel when this job is done and when there is new, clutter-free space in your home and in your life!
It’s never too early to begin.
Even if you don’t think you’ll be ready to move for several years or more, it is never too early to begin the sorting and clearing process. Most clients I worked with could have easily started on this years in advance of their moves without affecting their day-to-day activities in the least. In one client situation I completed clearing a house in preparation for an upcoming move and the sale of the home. As a result of my work, at least 50 garbage bags and large boxes of clothes and belongings were donated to charity, at least 25 boxes of belongings were picked up by the auction house to sell, and at least 50 bags of garbage and recycling were set out on the curb for pick-up.
On the surface, the house looked virtually the same as when I first saw it because this client wanted to keep the overall house intact until it was sold. All that I cleared came from the closets, cupboards, drawers, and other storage areas in the house. And in spite of the volume of items that were passed on or disposed of, this client’s daily activities and habits were not impacted in the least by my work. Why? Because the majority of the stuff that was cleared had not been used in 5, 10, 15, or even 20 years!
If you’re a pack rat, get ready for a tough job!
Just as I tell people that this transition will be tougher if they haven’t moved in 40 or 50 years, it will be harder for anyone who is a pack rat to get through the sorting and clearing process. I know the Depression affected many older adults in ways that I can’t even imagine but I still am not convinced in the least that hoarding does anyone any good. I’ve seen houses FULL of every imaginable thing but most of this stuff just ends up in the trash when all is said and done, and what value does that add? If I had a dime for every cotton ball, plastic bag, magazine, jar or plastic container I have seen and handled in the course of my work, I would be a rich woman by now! I have also seen far too many situations where basic items like toilet paper and paper towels were stockpiled for years and years to the point that they were too old to have any use at all and had to be thrown away. Saving things that are not being used, or that should be thrown away, recycled or donated doesn’t help you and only adds to the clutter in your life. Let go of some of your fear about not having enough. If you have survived into your 70s, 80s, or 90s, most of the things you may have feared most in your life did not ever happen, or are FAR behind you by now.
Clearing your house now is a wonderful gift to yourself.
Even if you believe you will never move from your current home, the reality is that your house will need to be cleared out at some point – either now or in the future after your death. The gift you give yourself by clearing your house now of everything you don’t need or want is feeling energized and revitalized by the clear space and clean air around you. Take it from me and my client experiences, most houses I’ve seen are FULL OF YEARS OF ACCUMULATED DUST AND DIRT. Even if you have been a good housekeeper, dust and dirt accumulate naturally over time – especially when furniture and belongings and clutter have not been moved. I often found myself feeling overwhelmed and even depressed when I was surrounded by clutter inside my clients’ homes. I even felt physically sick at times from breathing such stagnant, dust and dirt filled air. If you have lived this way for a long period of time, I can promise that you will feel better just from the physical act of opening up space around you and clearing the air in your home of even some of the dust and dirt. Try it, you’ll like it!
Clearing your house now is a wonderful gift to your family.
The gift you give your family by doing this now is freeing them from having to make all the decisions for you about your belongings. This will also save them from having to face this task while also dealing with your diminished health, or while grieving your loss. My dad always threatened to leave the job of clearing their house until after they were gone. Luckily for my siblings and me, my parents decided to downsize from their large home of 34 years in 1996, and my dad did not carry through on his threat. We all helped them with this process and move but we weren’t responsible for making decisions for them about their belongings. What a gift this was! There’s a cartoon I use in my talks that sums this up nicely: Just because you can’t take it with you is no excuse for leaving it in such a mess!
Giving away gifts doesn’t mean that you are betraying the gift giver.
Once a gift is given to you, you are free to do with it what you choose. You can keep it, give it away, pass it on to someone else, or even throw it away. I can think of one client in particular who had a real problem with letting go of anything that had been given to him. The problem was that this client was 86 years old and these gifts added up to a substantial amount of belongings in his home. I’m not saying that someone might not be offended if you give away a gift they gave you, but once a gift is given it is yours to do with as you like. And the reality is that you can’t keep everything. As you move into your later years, what is important is simplifying your life and having around you the things you really need and want going forward.
Last but not least, remember that when all is said and done, you are not taking any of this stuff with you when you leave this world.
I either get laughter or stares of disbelief when I say this in my talks on later life transitions but when is the last time you ever saw a U-haul behind the hearse? It may be a little offensive but it hits home, doesn’t it? We come into this world with nothing and we leave this world with nothing. My belief is that letting go of our accumulated belongings is a natural process of completing and releasing – like the leaves falling from the trees in autumn – in preparation for the end of our life. You can either have the honor of being part of the natural rhythm of life, or you can resist and deny it and miss the opportunity to be involved in this process.
Sue Ronnenkamp is a nationally recognized expert in the area of later life living transitions. After 10 years of refining the “how to” of right-sizing/downsizing, Sue has shifted her focus to WHY continuing to move forward in all areas of our lives is key to vital and successful aging. Her new business is called Age-Full Living with its primary focus on embracing changing with our aging, living later life to the fullest, and reaping the gifts and blessings of growing older. For more information, visit Sue’s website at www.AgeFullLiving.com.