“Clutter Is A Major Obstacle For Aging In Place, But We Don’t Like To Talk About It”

It’s common sense that when our living area is relatively free of obstacles to navigation that it’s easier and safer to get from one location to another – the living room to the kitchen, the bedroom to the bathroom, or any other room to the kitchen or bath. For this reason, there have been dozens of books written, seminars prepared, and online courses offered over the past few years on decluttering, organizing our living area, and living with less stuff.

While all of this is great – and so very true – most people don’t want to hear about it or discuss it. Somehow it reflects on us as people. We either are a little uncomfortable in how we have managed to accumulate so much stuff, or we intentionally meant to hang onto everything we have. Either way, we don’t like to be told that we are hanging on to more than what someone else thinks we should. We don’t want to hear that we might be endangering ourselves or other family members because we just have too much stuff and maybe don’t store it that well. We don’t want to hear this from ourselves as a reflection, and we certainly don’t want to hear it from strangers or consultants.

The real issue in having so much stuff – not that there is anything inherently wrong with this in and of itself,  because some people just like to collect and hang onto more of what they have experienced in life than others – is that it can hamper a person’s ability to live comfortably in their home of to walk through it safely without sidestepping items or running into them. Therefore, the real issue is not the stuff but how and where it is stored.

As aging in place professionals, we can help people to downsize what they have amassed and kept over the years – a very tall order – or we can help them to establish some order among the many items they own. How many times have we declared that on a certain weekend we are going to clean out the garage (or attic, shed, hall closet, spare bedroom closet, or basement) only to start the project and not all that far with it before putting nearly everything back where it was or leaving it essentially untouched. We have great intentions, and our clients might as well, but when we get started evaluating what we have kept we remember why this item was important to us or what happened when we originally touched or acquired that item. It brings back memories so we keep it just a little while longer. Some items are broken or missing the mate if it is a set or something. Those we have an easier time of tossing, but we don’t always do that either – it depends on the memories or sentiment attached to them.

So, this is us cleaning out our storage places – maybe even a few dresser or desk drawers – and not getting very far with the process. Our clients may be even more inclined to hang onto what they have accumulated over the years. This is why paring back is so difficult. So many of the items bring a flood of memories to us.

We certainly can’t be judgmental or heavy-handed in insisting that our clients remove many of the items that seem to be cluttering their home. They don’t mean much to us, and it seems obvious that they can live without such items. How would we like someone telling that to us? Therefore, we need a different approach to be more successful.

We can try working with people to get them to discard items they know they will never use again that don’t hold any sentimental value. We can get them to donate items to a thrift store that they really don’t want but still have some value. However, we know that most of what they have they feel is important in some way.

Therefore, we need to help them organize and store what they have. Later they might take a particular storage bin or a box or basket and work on going through it and reducing the number of items in it. If they never do that, or even if they never look at the items they have tucked away in a particular storage location, it will be neatly filed away with our help.

We are trying to create safe and accessible living spaces for our clients. That can’t happen with stuff out in the open or placed on shelves or in closets in such a way that they are likely to fall out and injure someone or clutter a passageway – possibly creating an unsafe condition but certainly making the passageway corded and more difficult to use.

Let’s consider helping people to organize and put away their stuff to create a safer environment rather than stressing that some of it needs to go. We may be more successful this way.

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