Unpacking the Pain Points for Seniors Decluttering and Downsizing
Imagine spending a lifetime collecting things. Making memories. Building a material world made up of items that represent these experiences, and then suddenly being told to get rid of these things.
How would you feel?
“Your wedding dress, the Italian cookware your great, great, grandma passed down for three generations, your great grandpa’s Civil War sword, 20 photo albums of the 78 years you’ve lived… what would you choose to keep?” asked Rebecca Gilreath, Marketing Coordinator for Right At Home In-Home Care Assistance in Rock Hill.
Many seniors are faced with this dilemma, whether they are downsizing their belongings to make their homes safer and more accessible as they enter their twilight years, or if they have made the decision to move to assisted or senior living quarters.
As difficult as decluttering and/or moving can be for younger people, it can be incredibly traumatic for our older relatives, friends and neighbors.
Fort Mill’s favorite junk removal, moving help and Microstorage service Trash & Stash, of course, is here to help with the down-and-dirty physical stuff, but we’ve also had recent conversations with local professionals who work in the senior care industry to gain some insights on helping seniors declutter, getting them ready to move, how family members can help, the types of services available, along with some practical solutions.
Why is the prospect of decluttering particularly daunting for older Americans?
Why is it difficult for seniors to part with their possessions?
What kind of help is available for Carolina’s seniors navigating this process?
Let us consider the first question and explore some answers.
“I’m 45 years old, I have chronic shoulder pain, need full knee replacements and suffer from osteoarthritis. Manageable at my age, but these ailments will only get worse with time,” said Jody Will, owner of Lighten Your Life, which specializes in managing senior moves in Fort Mill, Tega Cay, Rock Hill, Indian Land and surrounding Charlotte areas.
“When was the last time you cleaned out your garage, attic or closet? The physical toll it takes to sort, gather, haul, clean is a lot. Over time, the cleanouts get less and less frequent simply because it’s a lot of work.” (Editor’s note: That’s when you should call Trash & Stash – this is what we do!)
The years roll by, and the stuff piles up…
“Holidays pass by, we buy new decor. We continue to add, but discarding gets harder and harder as the piles get bigger and bigger. When we have room to store the items we don’t use anymore, it’s easier to find a spot for the new than to discard the old,” explained Will. “I find in most homes I work in there are multiple bins of holiday decor.
Not together, separate. New boxes started every few years. Whatever system there was, is now jumbled. Bins not opened for years. Random photos are in multiple boxes, scattered. Papers we aren’t sure we should discard. I find more half-empty bins than full ones. With every move we’ve made in life, it’s easier to box and move the jumbled boxes than take the time to go through each one. It’s a never ending cycle. I’ve opened bins that were moved multiple times with not one item of worth in them.”
Now for the second question, modified slightly: what makes it particularly hard for older adults to let go of their possessions?
For starters, older generations didn’t grow up during what we describe today as a “disposable society.” Crack the screen on your flat panel TV? No problem, just go get another one for $100 at Best Buy, and throw the old one on the heap piling up at the dump.
“Each generation is unique in the challenges it has faced,” said Will. “Today, we take for granted the luxuries of running to Target to get whatever we need. We have an ample supply of food, water and clothing. Most of the items we have are wants, not needs.
Plain and simple, for older generations, it was a different time. You cared for and treasured your possessions because they were not easily replaceable. Most of the items you had were needs, not wants. Which in turn made the ‘wants’ much more valuable to you. It’s a mindset. You feel wasteful if you discard a useful item.”
If mental decline is part of the equation, extra care and compassion is needed, said Lori Vrcan, franchise owner of CarePatrol Charlotte, a no-cost senior placement agency that serves the Charlotte area, including the South Carolina communities of Lancaster, York and Chester counties.
“In the case of our clients and what we have experienced firsthand, many times our dear seniors have anxiety over parting with personal items,” she said. “And when dementia plays a part in their journey, they can be fixated on items that remind them of the past and that have sentimental value to them, while not understanding we need to get them into an environment where they can be safely cared for and to live. Our focus is their safety, their level of care needs and as we transition them into their next chapter, we collaborate with their family and services such as Trash & Stash to ensure we are doing our best to accommodate our senior client’s requests. First and foremost, we are always respectful of our seniors, being mindful of the fact this is a challenging time for them.”
Guilt also comes into play for many seniors when trying to part with possessions, especially if an item was a gift.
“I would be rich if I had a nickel for every person who justified holding on to an item because someone gave it to them. A mother, father, child, friend, grandchild, etc.,” said Will. “I encourage each person I work with to have a keepsake box – just one. This is where the emotionally valuable items go. The things in your life that make you smile, remember a loved one, or were passed down to you and are still emotionally important to keep.
This way we can distinguish between the items that really matter to us and the ones that don’t. You’ll find if you pay attention to your own emotions you will immediately know what belongs in that box and what doesn’t. The physical photo of a dear friend is much more valuable than the clock she gifted you 10 years ago.”
What kind of help is available for Carolina’s seniors navigating this process?
As we’ve discussed in previous blogs, the act of actually getting started with your decluttering project is the most important hurdle to cross – and sticking with the plan is the pathway to success. This rings true for seniors as well.
“Commit to it,” said Gilreath. “No waffling. It’s not the thing you are attached to but the memory the thing brings. Rather than keeping lots of things to remember, take pictures – they are much easier to store and it frees up valuable space you will need to navigate as you age in your home. Plus it allows others to build their own memories from the thing you may be holding on to. Share the joy/love.”
Vrcan and her team at CarePatrol have a hard decluttering/organizer rule for seniors that have made the decision to downsize and move to assisted living or retirement-type living quarters: “The best tip we share is this – If you’ve been planning on gifting special items as part of your legacy, consider giving them to your family members now,” she said. “This will not only help you get the items off your hands, but you’ll find joy in seeing your granddaughter using your china, or gifting your son that antique furniture piece he’s always had his eye on.”
Will, who says that decluttering, organizing and donating has allowed her to be the best mother, wife, and boss she could be, has these decluttering tips for seniors that are moving to new quarters:
- Be honest with yourself.
- Don’t procrastinate – the sooner you start the process, the more control you will have over your future.
- Pay attention to items that are used daily.
- Pay attention to the clothes you wear regularly, the utensils you use, as well as toiletries.
- You definitely have favorite items that you use regularly – everything else is clutter.
- Don’t let guilt make decisions for you.
“Be honest with yourself and embrace the change,” she said. “Will you be hosting parties or need a crockpot? Do you need seven light jackets? Or 10 coffee mugs? Or even more furniture than will comfortably fit in your new space?”
Will emphasized that the time for seniors to start the process is immediate, don’t put it off any longer.
“The time is now, not after a health event has happened, not when it’s an emergency and you need to move in two weeks,” she said. “It’s now. We tend to put this particular task off as long as possible because it’s hard to deal with. It took a long time to acquire all your belongings, the task of downsizing should take a while as well. Just because you have enough space in your home does not mean it should be full. I promise you, when you simplify even the biggest house, you will feel that weight lifted off you. Tackle the closet, tackle the garage… make the tough decisions now to avoid someone else making them for you later.”
As our experts have touched upon, combining the stressors of moving with the anxiety over letting go of prized possessions can be overwhelming for seniors. Having professional help with various aspects of these processes can transform the experience for everyone involved.
“Whenever we help one of our senior-clients, during a time in their and their family members’ lives that can be stressful and overwhelming, getting them to the finish line can be a humbling experience and one that is also very rewarding to us personally,” said Vrcan. “We take great pride in helping our clients, doing what’s right on their behalf and going out of our way to help them. We help to navigate their important need for care, which includes sharing with them valuable resources that assist in their journey.
Having a resource such as Trash & Stash nearby, helps our team to strengthen our level of service to our clients and we appreciate their covering this area of need.”
Obviously, not everyone makes the move to assisted or senior living developments, due to many factors, including the costs associated with such facilities – i.e., they’re not cheap. According to seniorliving.com, “Assisted living facilities average $148 per day, which translates to $4,500 per month, or $54,000 per year.”
So, what about seniors who decide they’re going to stay in their long-time home for the long haul? There is without a doubt some decluttering to be done – and also removing potentially unsafe obstacles in a senior’s home becomes paramount, something that professionals with years of experience can identify.
“The biggest role Right at Home plays is identifying hazards before they become a hazard and keeping walkways clear of these hazards. Area rugs are a huge culprit in falls. The corner of a kitchen cabinet can tear aging skin on your arm. The corner of a bedpost can be deadly if a fall occurs and you hit your temple the right way. What happens if you can’t stand up from a sitting position – and you’re on the toilet – do you have grab bars next to the toilet? We are trained to see these things for the risks they may present and offer options and ideas to keep them from becoming contributing factors in a trip to the ER or worse,” said Gilreath.
Seniors can also take solace in the fact that Trash & Stash makes every effort to donate and recycle the items that we haul away. That means your useful items won’t wind up in the dump – rather in the hands of someone who can use the said items.
Trash & Stash is part of the reSupply Network, a veteran-owned and operated tech service that facilitates pickup of goods donated to local charities. Also, Trash & Stash has its 2nd Life Program where 50 percent of profits from repurposed items that we resell on Facebook Marketplace are donated to Charlotte-based non-profit the Isabella Santos Foundation, which is dedicated to increasing survival rates for kids battling rare forms of cancer.
For Trash & Stash, donating items, doing philanthropy, and diverting items from the landfill are all part of our corporate mission, and underscore how we connect to the surrounding community in meaningful ways.
That sense of community resonates with our senior care/living subject matter experts.
“When I am helping someone make decisions about their actual needs going forward, I am very mindful of my community and the people that don’t have enough ‘needs’,” said Will. “I find it is easier to part with something useful when you know it will actually be used by a neighbor who needs it. It’s one of the main reasons I reached out to (Trash & Stash founder/owner) Cameron (Ungar) when I started my business. It was important to me to work with a local company who gives back to the community.”
Why is it important to the business community – and the Fort Mill-area community as a whole – that surplus items from a senior’s move to assisted living or a spring cleaning-style decluttering event be donated to a charitable organization if possible, and also kept out of landfills?
“I believe we have finite resources on this planet and the more we can recycle and repurpose the more of those resources we leave for future generations,” said Gilreath.
Another resource that’s available to seniors that are dealing with a quick move situation is Trash & Stash’s Micrstorage service, an on-demand solution to decluttering without having to immediately purge cherished belongings. To get started, we bring stackable crates to you, you fill them up, then we take them to our secure storage site until you need your stash.
When it comes to seniors decluttering and/or downsizing before moving to assisted living, Microstorage can be a great holding-tank style solution for family members.
“Most of my clients have items they wish to pass down to their family. While we are going through these items, I encourage them to pass them down now,” said Will. “Handing your grandchild a jewelry box you kept for her will mean so much more to her now. However, that is not always an option. Using a microstorage unit allows you to nicely package, wrap and protect these items to be gone through or disbursed at the right time, freeing up your new limited living space for the items you need daily.
More importantly it allows you to make decisions on what is really important to keep and what is not. I always encourage others to keep as little as possible.”
As the name implies, Trash & Stash’s Microstorage crates are 34 inches tall, 48 inches wide and 45 inches long – big enough to store the equivalent of what can fit in a pickup truck’s bed – yet much smaller than a 16-foot pod container or a traditional storage unit.
“If you rent a 10×10 (unit), you will fill it with unnecessary and likely unwanted items,” warned Will.
Whereas customers can rent as many Microstorage crates as they want, Gilreath sees it as a perfect
solution for families that need to buy some time while trying to sort things out – literally and figuratively – in the event that their matriarch or patriarch passes away while a resident of an assisted living community.
“Sadly, when a resident passes while living in these communities, there is a very short window to move their items out – less than two weeks usually,” she said.
“It is a lot for a family to process and keeping Mom and Dad’s things generally needs more time than loved ones are given. Trash & Stash can provide the service of moving these things into Microstorage to give loved ones a chance to thoughtfully repurpose their things.”
When it’s time for these items to find their new destination, we deliver them back to you – all you have to do is call.
But Gilreath cautions not to dwell on the past and instead suggests seniors create new memories in their new clutter-free spaces.
And keeping stuff from piling up again in their new space can be a family affair as well.
“It’s simple,” said Vrcan. “Family members should make regular visits, which are good for their senior loved one and to lay eyes on their living environment. If needed, they may wish to bring in a ‘companion’ from an in-home caregiving service and that indivdiual can help mom/dad to keep their home in order, allowing them to have a new ‘friend’, someone who can help them to keep the tendency of hoarding under control.”