The Clutter Coach


How to Keep a Smaller Place Clutter-Free

Cynthia EstesBy Cynthia Estes, Mountain Democrat columnist
Senior Tab - Mountain Democrat - October, 2010
Reprinted with permission of the Mountain Democrat, Placerville, CA

Ironically, I was leaving for an appointment with an older client who was having trouble adjusting to her smaller home, when the Mountain Democrat called and I asked me to contribute to the senior section. Since I had enjoyed giving presentations on clutter-free living to the senior community, I jumped at the chance.

As part of the 4th generation born and raised in Placerville, I spent much of my childhood with my grandmother’s generation and feel it has given me more of an understanding some of the issues that people face as they age (not to mention my own issues with aging!). These role models had a great appreciation for family “heirlooms”, as they grew up with few possessions.  My mother, Lillian Castonia, was born into the large Watkins clan  in the early 1900’s and raised with the belief that family was everything. Consequently when she had her own home, it was uncluttered but filled with meaningful family memorabilia. Mom started “downsizing” years before she passed away. Although she never physically moved to a smaller home, she only lived in a couple of rooms in her later years. She was determined that my brother and I would not have a lot of clutter to deal with upon her death, and above all that we would not fight over “possessions” (I’m still wondering why she left us every check stub from back to 1940…). In doing so, she de-cluttered her home of (almost) everything that was not important to her or to us anymore. The most important thing is she did it “her way”, and it probably took her over a year. She took control before her death to give herself peace of mind while she was alive.

I hope that in sharing some of the challenges my family, friends and clients have found in adjusting to a smaller home later in life may be helpful to you or someone you know.
Do any of the following sound familiar?

  • You still feel that that you never really “moved in”.
  • You have too much stuff, but you can’t bear to get rid of more.
  • You don’t want to leave things this way for your family to deal with later on.
  • Your family is pressuring you to get rid of treasured family possessions.
  • You have a painful sense of loss and depression about what you’ve already lost.

Getting older often means having to adjust your lifestyle to a smaller and easier to manage living situation. This may mean moving into a smaller home or apartment, a family member's home, a retirement community, or an assisted living  facility. And everything about that decision — from deciding where to go, to when, to how — can be difficult. It's not just loss of the objects that has impact; it's the connection with the past that the objects symbolize. If you’ve made it this far, others might think that you should just learn to adjust. But moving from a familiar home and letting go of things owned for years can feel like an additional loss. I have several friends who are still adjusting to this move over a year later.
It’s even worse even when you’ve downsized, but still can’t get a handle on the clutter. Here are some tips that may help you:

  • Give yourself time to adjust and grieve the loss of your former home.
  • When you’re ready, start throwing away, giving away or selling something every day.
  • Ask family members for help in an area that interests them. Someone with computer skills can often scan and preserve photos, letters, etc.
  • As you go through family memorabilia, share a story or two so that you can reminisce.
  • Keep the items that have the most positive meaning to you.  The objects you hang on to should be a reflection of you, rather than things you feel obligated to keep.
  • If you are storing memorabilia for family, consider giving it to your loved ones now, when you can convey the meaning it has for you. Or do as my mother did. She asked us each what we wanted and labeled the bottom of each item with that person’s name. When she passed, there was no fighting or stress over who received what items.
  • I had to realize that Aunt Dee Dee’s table that seated 12 would not fit my new home. And that I was not being disloyal to her by selling it. But, I still have her treasured scrapbook.
  • Fear of losing precious objects and their associated memories is why many people hang on to things, but it's important that you understand that holding onto these objects isn’t who you are. My mother kept (and drank out of), a chipped coffee mug that belonged to her mother. Neither my brother nor I felt the same connection with the mug and we disposed of it.
  • Get Rid of the guilt factor---Many feel they are the "keepers" of their family heirlooms and have a hard time getting rid of items for which they no longer have room. This is the number one reason seniors have a hard time downsizing. Look for other family members who would like to have some of these items now, especially if they are just being stored and not used. This way the person you want will for sure be the one to receive the item, and the joy that brings to the recipient can be enjoyed by the giver.  If family members do not want the items because of their own space limitations or for other reasons, consider donating the items to a charity. Or there are consignment shops in most large cities where items can be sold with a percentage of the cost going to the shop. Or items can be sold through eBay, Craig's List and other places on the internet.
Clutter eventually takes over and sucks the life out of you, as we get older, keep the things that you need, and that you REALLY love and give your life meaning, and what gives you fond memories. It’s safer and easier to maintain. If you let things go, you will find that your life is really richer!

Cynthia Estes is a Professional Organizer, owner of Uncluttered for Life, and a member of the National Association of Professional Organizers. Uncluttered for Life serves clients throughout Western El Dorado County. 

Call (530) 957-2975 for a free 20 minute phone consultation and estimate!