Decluttering and letting stuff go is not easy, particularly if you have a “lots of life stuff”.  Helping a loved one, a parent, grandparent, aunt/uncle, may not be the easy straightforward task you expect. 
I often see comments like “my mother-in-law’s home is such a mess, but she won’t let me help her declutter” or “I worry about how messy my mother’s home is but when I try to help we end up arguing”.
We currently live in a world where there is an abundance of stuff but our parents or grandparents grew up in a time of “lesser stuff”.  We are not all the same and our life principals are formed in our teens to early 20’s and so are heavily influenced by life at that time.  So you will need to understand that their connection to their possessions will probably be different than yours. They may not be so inspired by having rooms that look like they are out of a Better Homes & Gardens magazine or being a minimalist.
The greatest skills you will need will be understanding, empathy, patience and a big dose of being “non-judgmental”.
Firstly, be clear about the WHY – why you what to help your mother or grandmother declutter?

  • Is it to make their home safer, easier to clean and thus easier and healthier to live in?
  • Or is it to take “wow” before and after photos to impress others?
  • Make sure you are not imposing how you would like their home to look on them?
  • Unless you are preparing a property for sale, it is not about the latest cushions and home accessories. It is about making their home easier for them to live in, while ensuring it still feels like their home! They may not want new linen or gorgeous designer cushions.  If they are happy with the way their home is decorated, let it be.

Okay, so now that we are clear about the WHY (helping them to achieve a balanced home that reflects what they love and how they want to live) –

  • Your first step is to get them to accept your help, or some help from you. So look for ways to do this without being bossy or taking control.  You want their input and them to make choices at each step because it is their home and their stuff.  You are a “facilitator” not a judge or Miss Bossy Boots!
  • Setting aside a whole day to help them may suit your timetable but may be too much for them. When I work with clients in their late 70’s onwards, normally it is for 3 or 4 hours at the most (with lots of tea breaks) as they can get exhausted quickly, both mentally and physically.
  • Start with the easy – which may not be the area you are dying to get your hands on!  It maybe the bathroom or laundry and dealing with any obvious trip hazards in the home.  What you want to do is build up a way of working together and a level of trust.  Once that has happened, you can tackle more difficult areas, e.g. wardrobes.
  • Try to agree on a rule that anything “compromised” can go. “Compromised” is anything broken, out of date, smelly.   This can apply to old pillows, linen, cushions, cosmetics, old technology.
  • Out-of-code food is a growing problem in homes for people in their third age and can contribute to health issues. Organising the pantry, identifying out-of-code food and then gently discussing the health implications of old food.  There is a misconception that anything in a can is OK for decades!  I can tell you, it isn’t as I have investigated some old cans!  Old canned beetroot is scarey!
  • It could be as simple as helping them to take rubbish out to the bins. I have had several clients where rubbish just built up because they were no longer physically able to carry the bags out.  Try “on my way out, how about I take the recycling to the bin?  Anything for the normal bin while I am doing this?”
  • Are there lots of photos and family history around the home – maybe someone younger in your family can take over responsibility for this and start identifying it and sorting through it with them.
  • Are there old video tapes, slides, etc, that could be converted to USB?
  • Is paperwork out of control? Is there another member of the family who could be allocated to help with some tasks, e.g. converting videos, taking over family history, sorting through paperwork?
  • Take it step-by-step, do it at their pace, celebrate small gains, but remember it is not your home and your loved one needs to be making any decisions they can.
  • Above all, the relationship is most important – how we make each other feel. Arguing and stressing each other is damaging.  If you are worried about your loved one from a safety perspective and they won’t accept your help, then discuss using a professional declutterer who works regularly with seniors.  If you can maybe pay for the service, if your loved one has a home care package that may fund it.  If your loved one is not open to this assistance, then keep a gentle conversation going about it and slowly they may accept help.

Recently, I helped Molly, absolutely lovely at 80+, move from one apartment to another in the same independent living complex. 
Her daughter, whom she loved dearly, was so “over the top” in her bossiness towards her mother that I was left speechless.  It just didn’t stop – “you are not keeping that”, “you are not putting that there”, “I refuse to let you have those books” and so it went on.  The mother had already warned me about her daughter and so had the complex managers.  The daughter had the best of intentions, but she failed to see how she was draining her mother and everyone’s energy was being used to maintain harmony.  There may have been some family history there influencing the daughter’s behavior and I also think her need for “perfection” was a major influence.
What “the daughter” failed to understand:

  • Her mother was not as physically or mentally able as she once was
  • Given that her apartment was pretty tidy, Molly was doing really well, but it was never going to be perfect
  • Molly had a 2 bedroom unit, she was never going to be a minimalist, but she didn’t have too much. Yes she could have let some clothes and scarves go, but they fitted in her wardrobes and she was happy. 
  • It was hard for Molly to get items that were up too high, so life was easier for her if some items were left out on benchtops, chairs …
  • Moving from her home to an apartment was a big move, so doing what she could bear was the priority – some items could be left for once she had settled in
  • There were no trip hazards in her apartment so her safety was good
  • She had lots of ornaments and she and I worked together, me unpacking, Molly joyfully looking at each item and then finding a place to put it
  • Once we had everything out, if it seemed too much, then we gently talked about which were her favourites and what could go
  • “Why are you keeping that mum”, “that’s cheap and ugly, why would you want that mum?” is not the way to do it.  Her possessions represented her memories and gave her comfort and joy every time she looked at them.
  • Her daughter would go home to her husband and family, while her mother would be left in the apartment alone with her photos, memories and ornaments for company.

Remember that love is motivating your desire to help your loved one, so focus on the LOVE more than the stuff
Mary J Harnan

Mary J Harnan BBus, 3a home sorting specialist | Aging Specialist, ICD  |  CD Specialist, ICD  |  Hoarding Specialist, ICD  | Expert Member AAPO 
Based in Balwyn North, Vic, I have sorted 100’s of homes & helped 100’s of senior adults & their families.   I regularly speak about 3a decluttering and smart downsizing.

If you have an inquiry about decluttering assistance, please call me or contact me via my contact page (as I will respond quicker than via a blog comment)