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  • Later Years Support

Clutter, what clutter? Shifting a lifetime.

When many of our grandparents or parents were children or teenagers, they lived in a time of limitations where they weren't sure if they would have enough food and other basics the next week or even the next day for some. Rationing, very modest homes and diets were the norm. It meant this generation learned to save things, to minimise waste, to do without and to put up with what they had. It also means that now, they are often reluctant to get rid of anything because it might just be useful or could be fixed or made into something else. One person's sense of clutter might be another's belief in hidden treasure.

This makes it hard for some people to get the energy and momentum to start decluttering their home in order to improve its safety or to prepare for a move. Decluttering takes many thought processes and decisions over each item. The story of where it came from, the connections to people the item or its associated purpose brings to mind, the struggles to acquire it or to keep it are evoked. Once the links are made, then there is the consideration of its worth and its potential. This means that some people in their later years find it so hard to start that they simply don't. The process seems too large and too complex.

The trouble with not starting has multiple implications. To start with, it means there is a lot of 'stuff' accumulating. Then there are the connections to the stuff and the feelings of legacy and remembrance, of loss, of mortality and of change which can be left to fester and boil up to be unnecessarily intense. Often older people will start a project of decluttering and find it so difficult to make the many decisions on their own, they get stalled. They might decide to clear out everything in a weekend and find themselves wandering from room to room or jumping between items without much to show for it. They might also be uncertain about what to do about it all. Where does it go? Will it all be wasted? Does anyone want it? If the stalling continues and their health changes, their ability to make all the decisions might, by necessity, be taken away, left to uncertain or overwhelmed family members. This means their choices and stories are lost as well. Supporting an older person to be proactive about taking control of their space and their stuff keeps them more in control of their life and their history.

One of the ways to combat such stalling is to pick a smaller section or issue to deal with first. Tackling the entire outside shed might be overwhelming, but the cupboard in the 2nd spare room might be enough to start off with. Then have an idea about what will happen with the stuff. Most people choose categories: keeping, gifting, donating, selling, and of course throwing away. Its valuable to have someone around when decluttering so that stories are shared and families get the opportunity to reminisce over the item. It helps to put the item to bed, and to move decision making further along.

By breaking down each part of the process it becomes a smaller sized problem and holds fewer decisions. Then, the next time there is a day for more decluttering, the person can remember that it wasn't as overwhelming as they expected and can approach it less fearfully. An important part of the process is to come back and continue it regularly so that it is consistently being addressed rather than haphazardly attacked in a frenzy then left for months, so allowing an ominous anticipation to build.

clutter, hats, bags and umbrellas

An option for some people is also necessary to allow them time and space over the decisions that seem the hardest. This is to have an 'uncertain' box. It is for those items that cause distress or concern but are still likely to need removal. The uncertain box allows the person to know they have made careful deliberations over it, making it it easier to address the next time or a few times down the road, when the emotion is reduced.

However decluttering is approached, its value cannot be underestimated. Packing up the superfluous items of a life helps us all to refocus on those things that are anything but superfluous. The memories, the family connections, the stories that shape us and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that led us to where we are now. These are the things of greatest value. The more an older person contributes to the process the more in control they can feel and the more chance they have for meaningful reflections over their lives.

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