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cluttered desk

Look around the home and ask yourself the following questions:

Closet/wardrobe: Do you find that your wardrobe is difficult to move around in and navigate? Perhaps you are unable to find that one special item from a few years ago, or maybe you are considering a renovation to expand the size of your closet and tailor it just to your liking?

Floor space: When you are cleaning your home, do you find it a hassle trying to sweep up those hard-to-reach places? Is there a lot of walking space available for you to get to all the corners of your home?

Miscellaneous items in boxes: Have spare rooms in your house that have been turned into storage for boxes full of miscellaneous items? This is a likely situation if you have had any children move away for college or for work.

Collection of items: Is your home decorated with photos of family members both young and old? Or maybe you have a collection of newspapers, magazines, cassette tapes, or VHS tapes laying around, stored in the garage, or fit into bookshelves?

Kitchen: Are you able to open your refrigerator and pantry and spot exactly it is what you need, when you need it? Can you fit new items in after your weekly grocery run? Do you know what the item at the very back is, and when you bought it?

Downsizing/moving out: Do you know you are moving in the near future, but just have not gotten to work on downsizing your home? Does the idea of beginning that process sound so stressful that you would rather wait until later?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, it may be time to consider decluttering your home.

What is clutter?

According to Cambridge Dictionary (n.d.), “clutter” is “a condition of disorder, or a lot of objects that are in a state of disorder.” This could include anything that is laying around or hanging within your home that contributes to a lack of free space. There are many items that can fall under the category of clutter: clothes and beauty products, expired food, stacks of memorabilia such as newspaper clippings or magazine subscriptions, and even souvenirs and photographs.

Now, having these items does not automatically make your space cluttered — it is the way we treat and preserve these items which can make our home unorganized and difficult to navigate. Instead of fulfilling a purpose such as clothing or feeding us, these items fill our rooms. What’s worse, we desire for more without ever letting go. Professional organizer and time management strategist, Daria Harvey (2017) calls the root of the issue, “our relationship with our stuff.” Harvey says that until we take the time to examine all that we have, what we actually need, and why we feel the need to continue buying things, we will never truly have an organized home.

cluttered desk

Japanese Cleaning Consultant Marie Kondo, with her cleaning method “The KonMari Method” emphasizes such a point, challenging us to only keep items that “spark joy” (Robinson, 2019). This consideration should not be made solely when we choose to declutter, but also with the rest of our lives moving forward. The KonMari method is not to be confused with minimalism, however. As Marie Kondo herself (n.d.) says, “Minimalism advocates living with less; the KonMari Method encourages living among items you truly cherish.”

Each method you may find online or hear about will have its own pros and cons. It is less important which method we choose to guide our decluttering, as long as we make the effort to get started and stick to it.

Why is it important to declutter? – Impact on physical and mental health

Freeing up our physical space is important because the environment in which we surround ourselves affects our moods, health, and how we can easily interact with things we use every day, such as our drawers, closets, bathroom counters, coffee tables, and shoe racks. Clutter causes stress and can distract us from what we need to get done, leading to a release of stress hormones like cortisol which can feel overwhelming and potentially aggravate existing physical health conditions (Cleveland Clinic, 2020; Harvey, 2018). Clinical Psychologist Scott Bea says, “existing in a cluttered environment taxes our brains because the cluttering objects compete for our attention… as a result you become chronically distracted” (Cleveland Clinic, 2020).

Accumulated “stuff” is also unhealthy, as items can accumulate dust, dirt, mold, or even mildew, all which can be hazardous to individuals who suffer from respiratory conditions like asthma or allergies (Cleveland Clinic, 2020; Harvey, 2018). These places can also become a breeding ground for household pests like ants, flies, roaches, moths, or mice (Maryville University, n.d.). Not to mention that having many items laying around poses a fall hazard — in extreme cases, clutter can block exits or leave only a small amount of room for walkability (Harvey, 2018). Just the accumulation of things can impede your ability to clean effectively, perpetuating clutter’s existence within your home. In fact, according to the National Soap and Detergent Association, the time it takes to clean your home could be reduced by 40% if there was no clutter to make tidying up difficult. The more organized your home becomes, the more you and your family become efficient. Knowing exactly where everything is placed allows everyone to move around and finish chores faster (Harvey, 2018).

Older adults and clutter

stack of boxes

As we age, it is easy to accumulate an abundance of things. However, it is our responsibility to make sure that we first have the space both physically and mentally to manage more items coming our way. With age, however, also comes the difficulty of being able to maintain a neat, spacious environment due to health. Maryville University (n.d.) states that “physical and psychological changes may result in increasing clutter that can quickly escalate into a serious problem.”

As previously mentioned, clutter could limit navigation around your home due to blocking walkways. However, this could especially be dangerous for older adults with mobility aids such as wheelchairs and walkers (Maryville University, n.d.). Additionally, many older adults hold onto furniture while moving around the home, which is another reason to create clear pathways within your home (Cornell University, n.d.). According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (2017), one out of four older adults fall each year, and 3 million older adults are treated in the emergency department for falls annually. As such, it is important to take care of our home not only for ourselves but for everyone in and around it.

How to start getting rid of clutter

With all this “stuff” we have in our homes, how do we possibly get started? People hold onto things for a variety of reasons — sentimental items especially are some of the hardest to give up. Additionally, many in the Japanese American and Japanese community grew up influenced by mottainai, or the practice of not to waste items (Sato, 2017). For those that have suffered loss in their life, professional organizer Barbara Reich acknowledges that many of her clients keep things to preserve memories they feel will be lost otherwise, giving them a sense of comfort (Dunn, 2014). However, collecting items over time can lead to an over-accumulation of stuff and turn into clutter. In order to start the process of organizing our homes, we must first realize that our items — which bring us joy — can also lead to a state of disorder. Although it is easy for us to be filled with guilt when it comes to the idea of throwing out sentimental items, Reich maintains that even an abundance of items that provide us comfort and security can become oppressive.

Rather than having a chest or spare room saved for mementos, consider making copies of your keepsakes. Psychologist Jim Davies recommends this approach to handling memorabilia — take pictures of each item you love, scan letters, cards, and photographs, and store them in either a digital folder or physical folder (or both!) labeled “nostalgia” (Abbit, 2013). You can also use the scan-and-save approach for papers that tend to be safely stored, like financials. President of Hands On! Organizing Sara Getzkin says, “There are some papers you need to hang onto for life, some you can relinquish after a set amount of time and some papers that you can throw out the same day they arrive… 80% of what we keep, we’ll never look at again” (Abbit, 2013).

To start the decluttering process, first mentally prepare yourself for the task. Reich says it can take anywhere from 20-30 hours to organize a house — “If you think you’re going to spend five minutes here and there, it will be undone in a minute” (Dunn, 2014). Start small, maybe slate a half an hour to an hour each week on the same day to declutter a part of your home. Reich says it is important to honor this time the same way as you would for a doctor’s appointment in order to truly get the task finished (Dunn, 2014). You do not have to fix up whole rooms right away – begin with a corner of a room. Have separate bags or bins labeled as “keep,” “donate,” and “discard.” You will use these to separate your item piles as you go through your home.

Go through all the objects in the space that you chose by holding each item one by one. Holding the item, ask yourself some questions:

  • Does this item make me happy?
  • Is this item useful?
  • Is it beautiful?
  • Have I used this item within the past year?
  • Does this item have a “home” within the house?

If you answered no to any of these questions, it may be time to time to consider relocating your
items elsewhere.

Furthermore, as you declutter, keep the following in mind:

  • The price of an item should not and does not determine whether it should belong in your home (Dunn, 2014).
  • Memorabilia may be difficult to keep, but there are always ways to pass it onto loved ones, or preserve the memories associated with it.
  • Jewelry and antiques can seem especially daunting to give up. If you have valuable items like these, consider antiques appraisers or vintage shops that will consign your items (Olson, 2014).
  • Medication — although useful to keep on hand — it does expire, and should be disposed of properly. Inquire if your local pharmacy has a medication take-back program to assure your prescriptions end up in the right place (Abbit, 2013).
  • Although fashion trends come in cycles, you should not hang onto pieces for that sake.

If you decide you no longer wish to keep an item, examine the state and quality of the item. Are there holes, stains, loose threads, or chips? If so, perhaps you would want to toss this item into the “discard” pile — do not forget expired food goes in the trash as well. Is your item in great quality, and could possibly be mistaken for new? Perhaps you would want to place this in the “donate” pile to pass onto others. For items you wish to keep, Getzkin recommends to really take the time to consider what storage space is available within your home (Abbit, 2013). You may have things you wish to keep, however what is more important than removing items you no longer need is being able to come back to a neater and cleaner space than what had existed before decluttering.

At the end of your session, take some time during the week before your next clean-out to move your items to their new home. If you have items in the “Discard” pile, move them to the dumpster. For items in your “donate” stash, perhaps you will want to sort them as either donate to friends or family, or to the nearest consignment store, thrift store, or charity. Churches and temples are also great resources as to where you can get suggestions on where to donate items. Perhaps the ministry is aware of some people that are in need, or are able to recommend specific charities. Once your clutter has been cleared, you are ready to begin your next cleaning session!

Getting help decluttering

boxes

Perhaps taking on the job of decluttering your home either by yourself or with your spouse is a bit much. Thankfully, there are ways to get assistance so that you do not have to do it alone.

Of course, your children (and maybe even grandchildren) can help. The pros are that having these individuals help is (probably) free, and you get to spend some time with loved ones. However, The New York Times has noted that “with careers and young children, fewer 40- or 50-something offspring want to acquire bulkier items or take on the task of sorting and disposing of unwanted goods in their parents’ homes. In the last decade, baby boomers, more used to paying for services than their Depression-era parents, have been increasingly willing to spend money for outsiders to help them pare down their accumulation” (Olson, 2014).  Such difference in views and opinions can lead to disagreements within families over what items to keep and what items to let go of. Therefore, it is important to sit down and have a discussion with family members before starting the decluttering process. Discuss what the priority items are, as well as which items are really important versus items that can be discarded.

You can also look to hire professional help. Use the National Association of Productivity & Organizing Professionals directory to find someone who specializes in assisting older adults declutter their homes. With this directory, you can find potential contractors. Feel free to select contractors through interview in person or on the phone. Payment to these organizers varies — it can be either hourly or on a project basis. When interviewing these individuals, get an estimate of both the time and rate involved. Keep in mind that prices can range from $40-$200 per hour, and packing and moving services can run up thousands of dollars (Olson, 2014).

Keiro’s Call to Action

View the task of decluttering as something empowering and exciting rather than a hassle. If you think of decluttering as making room both physically and metaphorically, the idea of your home should become something like a breath of fresh air. You should be able to walk into rooms and feel relaxed, know exactly where everything is, and how much storage you have available for items that you have a use for.

We challenge older adults in Our Community to take the first steps in decluttering their homes, for both physical safety as well as improved mental health. Slate some time each week to declutter a certain part of your home. Remember, you do not have to tackle whole rooms at once. Perhaps you would like to start with your master bathroom counter and work your way outwards from there. If decluttering is still difficult because you view all materials as repurposed, or mottainai, we encourage you to start the conversation with your family members to see if they can help you determine an item’s practical value.

Sources:

Abbit, L. (2013, December 8). Too Much Old Stuff: How to Bust the Clutter. Retrieved February 6, 2020, from https://seniorplanet.org/2013/10/08/too-much-old-stuff-how-to-bust-the-clutter/

Cambridge Dictionary. (n.d.). CLUTTER: definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary. Retrieved March 5, 2020, from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/clutter

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017, February 10). Important Facts about Falls. Retrieved February 5, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/homeandrecreationalsafety/falls/adultfalls.html

Cleveland Clinic. (2020, January 30). Clutter Making You Crazy? How to Tell If You’re a Hoarder. Retrieved February 5, 2020, from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/clutter-making-you-crazy-how-to-tell-if-youre-a-hoarder/

Cornell University. (n.d.). Best Practicies: Decluttering Tips. Retrieved February 11, 2020, from http://www.nycourts.gov/courts/nyc/housing/pdfs/gal pdfs/hoarding.pdf

Dunn, J. (2014, September). Decluttering Tips From A Professional Organizer. Retrieved February 6, 2020, from https://www.aarp.org/home-family/your-home/info-2014/declutter-tips-for-home.html

Harvey, D. (2018, January 5). 8 Reasons Decluttering is Important. Retrieved February 5, 2020, from https://www.yourorganizedlife.org/decluttering-is-important/

Harvey, D. (2017, December 26). What You MUST Do Before You Organize Anything! Retrieved February 4, 2020, from https://www.yourorganizedlife.org/what-you-must-do-before-you-organize-anything/

Kondo, M. (n.d.). KonMari Is Not Minimalism. Retrieved March 2, 2020, from https://konmari.com/konmari-is-not-minimalism/

Maryville University. (n.d.). Senior Health and Safety: Decluttering Guide. Retrieved February 5, 2020, from https://online.maryville.edu/online-masters-degrees/health-administration/senior-health-and-safety-decluttering-guide/

Olson, E. (2014, August 22). Moving to a Smaller Home, and Decluttering a Lifetime of Belongings. Retrieved February 6, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/23/your-money/moving-to-a-smaller-home-and-decluttering-a-lifetime-of-belongings.html

Robinson, K. (2019, January 8). Experts Share Why the KonMari Method Works: Everyday Health. Retrieved March 2, 2020, from https://www.everydayhealth.com/healthy-living/why-marie-kondos-de-cluttering-method-life-changing/

Sato, Y. (2017). Mottainai: a japanese sense of anima mundi. Journal of Analytical Psychology 62(1). 147-154