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Helping a Senior Declutter - Tips for Caregivers

Uncategorized Jan 11, 2019

What may seem like a simple ‘New Years’ Clean up project to help declutter a senior’s home, be aware of some common issues that may arise. 

Many of us use the month of January as a time for reflection and renewal.  With that, often come the decision to declutter, clean, simplify, purge and organize. Caregivers may decide it good time to ‘help’ a senior do the same.  Understand that this may emotionally challenging and handled with sensitivity. Timing is often essential  it may not be appropriate if the senior is coping well and is comfortable with their current living situation.  However, there may be signs that the need some help, and this issue should be handled with compassion and sensitivity.  You do not want the senior to feel that they are being bossed around, ganged up on, or losing autonomy. 

In the following, we will discuss common issues when tackling the task of decluttering. 

It is Too Early or the Wrong Time

For many of  us, there is a simple need to declutter, clean up, simplify and organize.  This may be time consuming and tedious, but often a necessary ‘evil’ of our busy lives.  Clutter has been increasingly shown to cause mental distress; decluttering may become the new normal with series from Kondo on Netflix, and articles in the popular press (for example, in the New York Times The Unbearable Heaviness of Clutter). For the some senior, possessions may provide them with a sense of accomplishment, comfort, and security.  For some, it may be overwhelming to think about letting go of possessions that they have gathered over the years.  Many of theses will have important memories and significance.  If they are coping well, perhaps it is not the right time.  You will want to avoid hurt feelings or have them get their back up because they feel they are being criticized, judged, or ganged up on. 

This may be time to start the conversation about decluttering. 

The Senior Isn’t Given Enough Control

Home clean-up can be a challenging endeavour.  Families may want to help a senior deal with possessions that have been collected over a lifetime and prepare for eventual downsizing.  This may create family tension since many seniors are resistant to the concept of moving out of their home.  However, it needs to be clear – it is the senior who owns the possessions, and if they have capacity, they get to make their own decisions, even if family members disagree.  Family members need to be sensitive to the fact that transitions may be difficult – often it is not denial, it is difficulty dealing with the change in their self-identity.  Ultimately, for the adult with capacity, the decision will generally remain with them as to how and with what they would like to live.  It might be a good time to discuss the future wishes of the senior, and to have the senior explore options so that they are able to understand their own options and make their own independent choices. 

Start the conversation early, and with sensitivity.  Ensure that the emphasis is on enabling the senior to maintain the lifestyle that they chose. 


The Clutter May be Out of Control 

If the clutter is becoming  out of control, it become a risk.  Possessions may start to impair their ability or the ability of others to live and function safely in their homes, especially if they have problems with mobility and vision.  Approach the topic with sensitivity,  emphasizing safety and wellness.  Support and empower the senior.

Assisting the senior to organize and declutter may also give family an ability to see how well they are coping with day to day functions, especially those related to finances.  More and more families recognize that there may be some tendency to acquire more and more goods as we age, sometimes based on rational concerns, on fears, a compulsion or for some, a need to fill a void.  One caregiver recently told me, “ I realized my mother was ‘stockpiling’ items.  She was buying 10 pairs of the same black pants at once – just in case she would not be able to get out to stores in the future. Cleaning up her house when she needed to downsize became a nightmare.  We discovered piles and piles of duplicated items.  Most still had the tags. Most were but from shopping channels or online. ” For some people, there may be hoarding behaviour.

Propose a plan that is not overwhelming to the senior, such as cleaning out one particular area, or reducing one type of object (e.g. stacks of magazines).  Try to let them decide where to start.  Be respectful.

Attempt to consolidate to another area out of sight of the senior, such as a garage or storage space.  For some it will be easier to deal with items if they do not personally sort or touch the items.  Touching the items may reinforce the connection and make dealing with discarding them more difficult. 

Hoarding can be a very sensitive topic. The senior may be defensive, dismissive or deeply shamed if you ask to talk about it.  Developing trust if key to finding a solution.  Empowering hoarders to developing coping skills is important.  Dealing with the situation may prevent homelessness or a sudden loss of a familiar setting.  However, in some situations, an alternate living situation may be necessary.  It may be necessary to bring in the help of a third party. 

For more information about hoarding, please watch our video. 


A Safety Issue is Raised

Sometimes during this process issues are raised about safety, cognitive issues, physical safety, and hoarding.  These are often valid concerns which may require assistance from outside parties.  , what is the objective, and is this part of a bigger picture, are there any other issues to consider, such as hoarding or cognitive issues.  Make notes of any visible concerns, e.g. accumulation of paper or other objects, or fire and other health risks.  Listen when others tell you the situation is dire, e.g. neighbours.  Broach the conversation to see if the senior will let you help, emphasizing safety and wellness.  Support and empower the senior.

A third party may need to do a formal assessment in order to ensure that the senior is safe in their surroundings.  


Possessions and Important Documents are Missing

Just recently there was a highly publicized news story about a woman who had family jewelry hidden in old bags of clothing in the attic.  The clothing was unfortunately donated to charity – and seemingly lost forever.  It is not uncommon for charities to find all sorts of valuables – art, jewelry, cash – in donated lots.  This highlights for caregivers just one of the challenges being faced if helping a senior organize, declutter, or downsize their home.  

Many of us hide valuables, sometimes for the short term (for example we are going on holiday), but also with long-term in mind.  It is so easy for any of us to forget what and where we have hidden items of both monetary and financial value.  This is increasingly difficult for family to deal with if the senior has an issues with previous loss, for example if they have lived through a period of civil unrest, a tendency toward paranoia thoughts, or the development of cognitive issues.  I can recall personally, an elderly relative who hid all sorts of valuables in flowerpots, books, old shoes – anywhere!. 

This provided a huge challenge to the family at the time that they moved to a different setting.  Everything had to be carefully examined to ensure that nothing was missed or inadvertently lost.  In another setting, a literal ton of paper was shredded.  These were personal documents that all had to be examined, sorted and eventually shredded.


The Senior is Giving Possessions Away

For some families, the senior may suddenly seem to decide to downsize and items are gone. Many younger generations may be surprised to find that they have had no say, and heirlooms have been given away that they thought would be handed down.  One family was shocked to hear that the family portraits of great grandparents had been sold to a thrift shop! 

Again, having discussions about family treasures may be something that needs to be done early, and it must be approached with sensitivity. 

Families should also be aware of seniors who are being taken advantage of, by those who prey on loneliness and vulnerabilities.  The sad fact is that some people will make it their life’s work to take advantage of seniors and others who are vulnerable in society.  As a caregiver, it is important to be aware and alert to scams, which are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and to raise the issue directly with the senior to assess whether they have been, or could be, at risk of being scammed.


The senior may feel defensive, feeling that it is their right to deal with their own possessions as they see fit.  Alternatively, they may embarrassed or foolish if they have fallen prey once it is recognized.  It is important to not be judgmental and to create protections so that their assets and self-esteem are intact. Scammers tend to return to seniors whom they have successfully scammed, so immediate steps should be taken to prevent that.  Keeping good notes of any interactions with the people who are attempting the scam, including collecting evidence (such as printing any emails, recording any telephone conversations, making notes about time and content of conversations) may also help in the reporting of the scam.


The Senior has Trouble Letting Go of Possessions

Children and family members need to remain sensitive to the fact that many of the possessions hold special memories or significance to the senior.  This may give them an important level of comfort and pride.  Collections, which may not hold the value for younger generations, were often expensive and demonstrated a sense of wealth and attainment.  It can be heartbreaking to many seniors to find out that their possessions are deemed to be worthless and that they may need to pay someone to take them away.  It may be perceived as callous or even mean-spirited when it is suggested that they no long have value, either monetary or emotionally.  Some seniors may feel that family, for their own comfort, is prematurely preparing them to move or is making it easier for the family when they eventually pass away. 

On the other hand, there may be some seniors who are having trouble letting go.  It may be easier to declutter with some goals in mind.  If downsizing is a real possibility, it may be time to start to sort possessions into categories:  keep, give to family/friends, donate, sell, and throw away.  Knowing there is a ‘good home’ for items often makes the chore easier.

Plan ahead and ensure that it is not overwhelming to the senior, such as cleaning out one particular area, or reducing one type of object (e.g. stacks of magazines).  Try to let them decide where to start.  Be respectful. When sorting items, ask seniors whether the item is necessary, wanted, duplicated, used regularly, has sentimental value, is financially significant, will fit in a new space, or can be gifted to someone who will appreciate it. 

Attempt to consolidate items an area out of sight of the senior, such as a garage or storage space. 


Downsizing is Required 

If there is a need to declutter, or an anticipated move to a new and often smaller housing situation, it may be difficult to get started.  Family will often step in  to help but there are also companies that can be hired, or charities that can help.  Having a plan and a long-term vision is often helpful because it will allow both family and the senior to get a perspective on what needs to be done and why.  For many seniors having control over their future plans and an idea of future space and needs will be helpful.  Options may include: renting or buying a small home or condominium, staying with family or friends, assisted living, retirement communities, or long-term care. 

Once a decision has been made, start to plan the process.  Lists will be helpful to keep everyone on the same page.  Streamline the processes where possible, so that it does not become overwhelming to everyone. 

For seniors with cognitive issues, it may be important to bring recognizable items displayed in familiar patterns to help them feel more comfortable in the new surrounding. 


Family Tensions

There are innumerable reasons for family tensions to arise.  Recognize that family dynamics can be challenging, even in families that have traditionally gotten along. The focus should be on the aging parent, relative or friend. 

Sometimes individuals feel that they are bearing the burden disproportionately, other times one member may take it upon themselves to ‘clean up’ on behalf of siblings or extended family, especially if this is done without clear direction from the senior.  This may lead to a great deal of tension and conflict.

In addition, there may be family tension will arise around ‘big ticket’ items – either those with financial value, but more often than not, those with purely sentimental value.  Some family members may be hurt or conflicted when possessions are not given to them, especially if they have counted on it over the long term.

Communicate early and well.  Keep careful records about what is done.  Be respectful of the senior’s wishes. from MILLDENHALL

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