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Learn key tips you can use as a care-giver to help your senior family members declutter

05/10/23 | Dana LaRieal Morales | Janet M. Taylor

Did you know helping seniors declutter is a great way to help them downsize, reduce stress, and stay organized? Decluttering can help them to stay organized and make it easier for them to find the items they need. It can also help them reduce stress and make their living space more pleasant. Not to mention, it can help them downsize as they may no longer need items they used to use regularly. In this episode, Ms. Janet M. Taylor, host of the Got Clutter? Get Organized! Podcast has returned to discuss tips on how to help your senior loved ones declutter.  

During my discussion with Janet, we covered a number of things we need to think about as caregivers of our elderly community.Whether the person is a family member or someone that is important to you, we need to consider these things in relation to helping our seniors declutter and get organized:

Safety is the most important thing

We want to make sure that things are accessible to them yet organized, so they're not confused.Janet shared a time when she went into her mother's closet and stuff was just falling on her head. She felt like she needed a hard hat. So this led her to ask her mom if she could at least organize the things in the closet for her to eliminate the safety risk. With our seniors, the key is to find out where they are comfortable with you starting. Many times this will lead to other areas. You want to honor their independence while addressing the safety issues of them tripping over things or items falling on top of them. 

Often the main concern that our senior population has is the fear of what you are coming to do. Remember independence and privacy is very important and should be honored whenever possible. You have to resist going in like a bulldozer and just moving and “fixing” their things just because we know it's not safe or it makes us nervous. We need to put ourselves in their shoes and think about how what you are doing or saying could be perceived. This may help you determine the best way to persuade them to make the necessary changes in their lives.

Janet shared a story about one of her clients who was 99 years old. While working with her they focused on organizing her paperwork, because she was the executor of her sister's estate. So she not only had her sister’s paperwork, but her paperwork as well. Whomever had been with this client previously had put all of her documents on a shelf in the closet. So anytime, this client needed to retrieve her paperwork, she’d go to climb up on a stool in her little slippers to retrieve it. When Janet saw this she knew she had to quickly address this problem for the safety of her client.

She had the discussion with her client and suggested that the box be on the floor in the closet so she (the client) didn’t have to get up on the stool. This is the right thing to do because we recommend evaluating what your Senior loved one is accessing on a regular basis and work to get it to a lower level so it’s easily accessible and they don’t put themselves at risk. Remember, their bodies aren’t as nimble as they used to be so they may not be able to jump out of the way if a box is falling. Not only that, but a falling item can knock them over causing them to hit their head or break a bone or two. If they live alone that causes an entirely secondary cause of concern that we won’t go into in this article.

Don’t Dismiss The Feelings of Your Seniors

My grandmother is 94 years old and one thing I’m adamant about is talking to her in a way that doesn't make her feel attacked or belittled. Remember, it’s their life and space and you are technically invading it, whether invited or not. Just think about an adult talking with a 9 year old who is discovering independence. You know that they aren’t independent and that they can’t handle it, but they want it anyway. Working with an elderly person is similar. Now, lets put this into perspective. I’m not referring to the part of the population that is still able to handle all of their own things, don’t go getting in trouble on my account. I’m referring to our matriarchs or those who have limited capacity to do certain things.

You may know something isn’t good for them or that they shouldn’t do something a specific way, but you have to find a diplomatic way of relaying that information. You need to make sure you respect and honor who they are and how long they have been on this earth. There’s nothing worse than someone telling you what you can and can’t do when you feel you are more than capable, whether that is true or not.  Focus on learning and understanding their desires and thought processes and work within the boundaries they set whenever possible. We all know sometimes it just isn’t possible to give them what they want, but be mindful when there is wiggle room that you are choosing to ignore because it’s not what you want or because it's easier for you.

You also have to remember that your timetable isn’t necessarily their timetable. Work with them to determine the right speed for change. Don’t push your systems and processes on them because they are the ones who have to use and live with it. Evaluate what they are currently doing and work with them to find a safer and better option. In many cases, if you listen they will share their pain points and you can offer solutions that are safer for them. As they say, patience is a virtue and you may need a lot of it.

When Possible, Make Suggestions Not Demands

Janet and I both like the approach of making suggestions for change rather than mandating them when working with our clients. That being said, there may be a time when you need to talk to your loved one about their finances and their medications because these are areas where a mistake could be catastrophic. However, this is another area where working with them is better than just taking it over, unless they have asked you to just handle it. Now, just handle it is subjective so you want to make sure you know exactly what they mean. It could mean to do everything, or it could mean just do what you are saying I should have done.

In the later case, handle it but still keep them in the loop of what is happening with their money. In other words, like Janet did with her mom, become their assistant. So when everything comes in, she sat by her mom and went over everything. She wrote out the checks and her mom signed them. This will also help if you are the executor of their estate, because you will know what all they have to pay and why.

In my situation, although my parents are seniors, they are able bodied and can handle their own affairs. As their executor, they discuss things with me that I need to know but they handle everything on their own. The family (including those who married in) recommend they not over do it with lifting heavy items and if we are available we or their grand-children do it for them. If we see something that looks dangerous we discuss our concerns with them, but it’s ultimately their decision.

Don’t Discard Things Without Input

The other thing to remember is there may be sentimental or valuable items that you know nothing about. Janet shared a story about a wedding invitation she found at her mother’s. The last name wasn't the family name so she didn’t think it was anyone related to her and was going to throw it out. Needless to say Janet was about to get in BIG Trouble. Her mom explained that she had been in the wedding before Janet was born. She showed her pictures of the beautiful yellow dress and gloves she wore, which Janet still has to this day. It was sentimental to her mom and she wasn’t ready to let it go. Janet was able to gain understanding of the importance of the items by talking with her mom.

The key thing we must understand is that for a lot of our seniors, they hold on to their memories. It's not necessarily about something being functional for them anymore. For them, looking at something reminds them of that moment in time. There will be things that they will want to keep but there will also be some things that they are ready to part with. You have to work with them and be willing to feel them out. Know when you have reached their limit for the day too. When you are tired you don’t want to make decisions and Seniors often tire quickly.

Now there will be some things you come across that don’t need to be saved. It’s not a sentimental item it’s just habit. For example, bills from twenty years earlier. Those are things you can discuss with them and persuade them to let go. If they refuse, you can box them up and label them as such so you know exactly what they are and place them in a location for items not often needed. You may also come across things that they like a lot. In this instance, just create a space where they can store it. An example Janet provided was a handkerchief that her mom had. She found some beautiful metal tins her mom had and she started using them for her moms keepsakes. 

Remember, your job is to make it easy for them to make decisions by being the guide, the researcher and the work horse. 

Giving Sentimental Gift Donations

There are times that you will find your senior is holding onto something to give to someone in their will. It is important, but it is only being held for that purpose. One of the recommendations we made to my grandmother is that she start gifting items she wanted people to have for special occassions. Since she is on a fixed income, this allowed her to give special gifts to people while she was living instead of waiting until she passed away. This not only allowed her to save money, but she was also able to give the person an understanding of why she wanted them to have the item in the first place.

There were some items that weren’t that sentimental to her, but she wanted to see if someone else in the family wanted or could use them. She was downsizing so most of it was of no use to her. If someone wanted the items, they were packed up and given to them. If no one wanted the item(s) they were donated to her preferred charity.

Janet actually did the same then when she realized she had a ton of vinyl records but no record player. She learned that her godson loved vinyl, so she gave them to him. He then showed her a picture of what he did with her gift. That showed her that the items had more value to him than they had to her. So this is a lesson for all family members, no matter what your age, have these types of conversations. Don't be afraid to talk about death or what you want to happen with your belongings. 

Special Items that Aren’t Wanted

Sometimes, no matter the intention, your Senior's special items aren’t really wanted. The act of going through my Grandmother’s belongings triggered a conversation between me and my mom regarding the stuff she was saving for me and my siblings. At one point, she said, “When I die, you're gonna have to fight over this buffet.” Now, the buffet in question was like another member of the family, because my parents got it after they were married. It was pretty, but I had a buffet already. It also wasn't my style of furniture.

I let my mom know in that moment that there wouldn’t be a fight because I didn't need it or have the space for it. After subsequently checking with my siblings, she realized that she was holding onto this huge piece of furniture that nobody wanted. She ended up letting it go and having a built-in put in its place that she is able to enjoy for many years to come and that also increased her property value. This also started an important dialogue within my family regarding other things she was saving for us. She now asks us if we want something instead of just holding onto it because she learned it isn’t always something we want or need.

Get the History Now While You Can

Another important thing to realize is that there is a lot of history and knowledge in your senior family member’s head. Getting their knowledge about items in their home is invaluable because it allows you to get that family history. It also makes the process of distributing their possessions easier later down the line. I know one of the projects my dad is planning to work on is the organizing and labelling of all the old family photos.

Think about how many photos and polaroids your parents have that may not be labeled. That generation took lots of pictures that told the story of your family. If you picked up the photos after they were gone, you may have no idea who the person or scenario is unless you have that conversation now with your elders. 

Realize that the time you spend asking who people are and going over the photos is important to them. You are allowing them to remember their history and spending time with them as well. You can also begin to record the information for prosperity later before it’s gone. Even though sorting through a large collection of photos can sometimes be daunting, taking the time to go through them and listening to the stories behind them can bring them to life and make the process more manageable.

One example of this is when my husband and I got married, I created photobooks with details of what was happening in the photos.I did this mainly for my husband’s family who lived in Mexico. My daughter will literally take our copy of the book off the shelf and just flip through it randomly once every couple of months. She knows everybody in the book, because we sat and had those historical conversations about who each person was and what they were doing in the photo. She wasn't there, but whenever someone new comes over she will sit and go through the book telling the stories accurately as though she were.

This highlights for me the value of recording your family history and preserving it for generations to come. Capturing that history while your elderly family member is still here and able to share them is something you can’t get back later. So, even if you can’t create a photobook now, at least find a way to record the information for use later. You can even use handwritten labels and stick them on the back of the photos.

How can we help declutter the non-sentimental items for our Elders?

The main gift you have is the gift of your elder's age. In many cases, they don’t care too much about the non-sentimental stuff. For some, it has blended into the background and they don’t really think about it because it’s always been there. For others, it drives them nuts but they don’t have the energy to address it. So approach the situation as someone who is there to provide them with the gift of energy. You have the energy to do whatever it is they want you to do but maybe can't.

Remember, have the discussion first and ask them if they mind if you help organize their [fill in the blank]. Ask them what bothers them about it or if they use it at all. In most cases, they will answer your question and the minute you start pulling items out they will have a bunch of work for you to do. I have even asked do you use all of these because I bet [organization xyz] could use [name the item]. The response I usually get is, oh they can have them cause I’m not using them. If you get push back, just organize them and put them back.

Janet shared that when she is working with seniors, downsizing is often a common occurrence because they are usually transitioning to smaller living spaces. This can make it easier to persuade them to let go of some of their belongings, depending on the items. In such cases, she may suggest exploring the value of the items by visiting estate sales or antique shops. She also has used the suggestion of donating them to an organization that could use them. 

Janet suggests that sometimes, sentimental items can be repurposed creatively, such as using a glass dish as a key holder by the door or a traveling trunk as a coffee table with storage for Christmas items. Overall, she advises her clients to sell, donate, or repurpose items, which will reduce their stress and anxiety by having less clutter in their new space.

Finally, don’t forget that our elders oftentimes have things that they may assume has no value, but to the right person it could be extremely valuable. Much like Janet’s story about her old records, vinyl is making a comeback and is valuable to some. Fashion is the same way, so you never know the value an item may have to a reseller or a collector. If there is even a small thought that something is valuable take the time to do the research. Your Elder could be sitting on a gold mine.

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The Organized Holistically podcast strives to teach side-hustling solopreneurs how to manage a successful business and life using holistic systems. I help you develop, implement and streamline unique and organic processes and organizing systems.  I do this by helping you identify the right systems and processes so you aren't spending money or time on unnecessary things and instead can spend that time and money focusing on the things that are most important to you, your family.