Why seniors should declutter -- and how to easily do so

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By Marilyn Lewis

There often comes a time when you have to part with some of your stuff. OK, a whole lot of it. Seniors, especially, have four compelling reasons to pare back possessions.

1. You Intend to Grow Old in Your Home

Most people ages 50 and older want to age in place, AARP pollsters recently found. Adults ages 65 and older are even more likely (87 percent) to say they want to age in their current home or community than those ages 50 to 64 (71 percent).

AARP's Home Fit guide tells how to prepare a home for aging in place. Decluttering and organizing your belongings while you are young enough to tackle the job allows you to:
  • Access what you want easily.
  • Enjoy memories stored in mementos, photos, letters, videos and other treasures you've been saving.
  • Reorganize possessions for safe reach.
  • Maneuver more easily through the home in case you become disabled.
2. You May Be Headed for Trouble

Decluttering can help head off these problems that often force elders from their homes:
  • Devastating falls. Serious falls can permanently reduce a senior's mobility and freedom. Reducing clutter opens up space and could reduce the possibility of tripping and hurting yourself.
  • Hoarding. Hoarding entails "difficulty in discarding current possessions, urges to save items, and excessive clutter in the home," according to Psychiatric Times. Hoarding can be an especially difficult problem for older people living alone.
3. You Want to Leave Heirs a Lighter Load

Estate planning, making a will and a trust and keeping them updated, is a kindness to your heirs. Likewise, decluttering now protects your loved ones from inheriting the burden of a home full of stuff.

4. You're Downsizing

You may find, especially after children are grown, that you're weary of the cost and maintenance of the family home, and you'd rather move in with adult children or downsize to a smaller place. The problem: you can't cram everything you own into your new home.

Get Started

Paring back a lifetime's worth of possessions can feel overwhelming. Some alternative ways of thinking about the problem can help. There is, after all, no one way to declutter. Unless there's a deadline (you've sold your home, for instance), think of decluttering as a new habit rather than a mountainous job.

For some great suggestions on how to proceed, see "7 Ways to Declutter You Probably Haven't Tried." If you need to reduce mounds of paperwork to a manageable amount, read "Clean Up Your Finances in 7 Easy Steps"
  • Make it a regular practice. Keep paring down; a drawer this month, a section of the garage next month, slipping projects into your routine.
  • Set aside one day a week. Reserve the time and plan nothing else that day.
  • Take it an hour at a time. Tackle just one a task, promising yourself that you can quit or keep going when the hour is up.
  • Take it 10 minutes at a time. See if smaller chunks of time work better for you.
  • Take it drawer by drawer. You'll get a nice sense of accomplishment from removing just one drawer to a quiet place where you can work on it.
Get Help

If you get stalled in your decluttering effort, maybe it's time to bring in a professional. Find an organizer who specializes in helping seniors downsize in the National Association of Professional Organizers' member directory. Interview several, in person or on the phone, to find someone you feel comfortable working with. The association has more hiring tips.)

Locate a certified relocation and transition specialist, including 1,000 real estate agents and brokers, movers and move coordinators, organizers, estate sale specialists and caregivers who have been tested and certified by the National Certification Board for Alzheimer Care.

Some organizers and senior move managers charge an hourly fee; others work on a project basis. When interviewing candidates, ask their rates and get a description of what they do and how they'd work with you. Before engaging someone on an hourly basis, get an estimate of the time involved. The price of services can vary from $40 to $200 an hour, according to The New York Times.

Now, Declutter

"It takes 20 to 30 hours to organize a house," New York-based organizer Barbara Reich told AARP. The essence of the job involves putting things into one of three piles:
  • To keep.
  • To toss.
  • To sell or give away.
Some advise a fourth pile, for "undecideds." By all means, do that if you'd like. But you'll have to decide the fate of those things eventually, so why not do it now?

Another suggestion: Decide what you absolutely must keep. Don't roam around looking at your things. Just sit down with a pencil and paper and list the stuff you'd take to a desert island. Of course you'll keep more, but set those crucial possessions aside so you can look really critically at everything else.
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