The Elderly and Clutter

Sometimes I help empty out houses of deceased parents. The children left behind are often astonished at the amount of clutter left behind. This accumulation does not really fit with the mother or father they knew growing up. They wonder what happened.

Possible reasons for clutter in the elderly:

  • They are weaker physically
As parents age, they often develop physical difficulties that they might not share with their children. It is harder for them to move around. Putting things away may be difficult so they leave the items out on the table or counter “just for now”. They may think they are going to get better and they have visions of giving parties and entertaining again, so they continue to buy and keep cooking paraphernalia that they never will use. They may have difficulty doing laundry and when the laundry becomes overwhelming, they may just order new clothing. During the holiday seasons it is easier to just buy a few new decorations rather than pull down and use what they already have.
  • They don’t see the clutter
The buildup of clutter may come slowly over time. They adjust to what is in their home and stop seeing it as clutter. The same may be true of odors that have developed because cleaning is now more difficult. If they were shown a picture of their living area, they would probably be surprised.
  • They have mental issues
They may forget that they have items and so continue to buy more of what they already have in abundance. As dementia sets in they also forget to put things away, eat properly, and take care of other living skills. Things accumulate around them. Anxiety and depression are also common in the elderly. They may shop just for the social contact. They may worry about not being able to get what they need later so they overbuy now.
  • Fear of want
Because they are on a fixed income and no longer have a regular paycheck, they worry that their money will run out. When they see a good deal on canned food, light bulbs, soaps, paper products, they buy in bulk. There is not usually a good place to store all these products, so they are placed here and there, often on the floor. If an item becomes broken, they hold on to it with the idea that it can be fixed someday.
  • Gifts
Perhaps the parent was once a great cook and loved to throw parties so still now they are gifted with cookbooks and cooking paraphernalia they do not need. They may get gifts of throws for the couch, scented soaps, or because they loved dogs, figurines, pictures, and books about dogs. The parent does not want to give away or throw away someone’s gifts, so they just accumulate. 
There are many reasons why the clutter accumulates but the crucial point is that children should be in contact with their parents and go to their homes to visit. Having parents come to their home or going on a cruise with them will not tell the whole story. 

Jonda S. Beattie

Professional Organizer

Helping an Elderly Parent Declutter

Your mom or dad is now living alone in their own home. Each time you visit you see more and more clutter build up and less and less cleaning going on. You want to help but don’t want to embarrass or upset your parent. This has been the situation with a couple of my clients.

The plan:

  • If possible, invite someone to the home with you who can get a fresh look at the situation. Because this clutter has grown over an extended period of time, you are probably missing some key components. 
  • Analyze why certain areas are cluttered. As parents get older it takes more effort to pick things up from the floor. If something gets dropped or spilled it just may stay there. They may do most activities from one or two places as it is more difficult to move around. They may not see the clutter.
  • When you start to attack the clutter, keep the parent involved. Get permission before moving things around or getting rid of anything. Talk it out before doing any work. 
  • Work in small bites. Don’t overwhelm the parent by doing a lot at one time.
This past week I was invited by my client’s dad to come into his home. I came as a friend who had helped his daughter with some organizing. Her dad had noticed some of the work his daughter and I had done together when he was at her home on a recent visit. My client had shared with me that her dad was now having back pain and some headaches. He had fallen this past winter. She was very concerned about his environment but did not want to disrespect him or overwhelm him.
He is an artist and likes to look through magazines for ideas. When he works from his chair in the den, pieces of paper drop to the floor. Magazines are stacked up waiting for his attention. Some food wrappers are dropped. His studio shows signs of things having been stacked but are now toppled. We chatted together about getting a sorting system set up for his cut-out pictures and a trash can by his chair. He liked the idea and his daughter will get those items for him.
After the visit, my client and I brainstormed other tasks that could be tackled over time. With permission she could remove a couch that is now blocking the bookcase and is never used. She might find a basked to hold the waiting to be worked on magazines. A huge fire extinguisher (still in the box) could be replace by a smaller kitchen sized fire extinguisher. Another day she could hang the pictures that have been leaning along a wall for years (surprisingly neither daughter nor dad really noticed the pictures or had thought of hanging them). Then later still, remove the exercise bike that has never been used. The idea is to let her dad get used to each change before adding another. When the clearing of the den is complete, a day could be spent cleaning. Then they could move on to another area.
While each case is unique, I feel the most important premise is to respect the parent and make them a part of the decluttering experience. 

Jonda S. Beattie

Professional Organizer