By Linda Abbit 



It accumulates. Over the years, a combination of sentimental objects, things we’ll use one day, the vestiges of a former life and too many years of tax returns, newspaper clippings, little gifts we never used… the list goes on and the house fills up.

There are obvious reasons to declutter. Safety: clutter can trip us up. Efficiency: with declining eyesight, it gets hard to find things we use everyday. Focus: messy environments can make it hard to process information.

But the best reason to declutter comes from “Ms Fix-It” Jennifer Phelps in Houzz, the online resource for home design and organization:  “When your house is full of things from your past, things that only remind you of who you were, you very literally have no room for who you are now and who you are becoming.”

Why Is It So Hard to Do?

Whether you want to pare down the stuff in your home, garage, or even your computer storage, one problem is knowing where to start. The more we have, the more overwhelming it is.

A lot of what we hold on to is loaded with meaning. You might not even like that big ugly vase, but it was a gift from someone you lost touch with and you feel guilty.

For some of us, getting rid of stuff is actually painful. A recent Yale study found for some of us, parts of our brains react the same way to the anticipated loss of valued possessions as they do to the idea of quitting an addiction. A deep and gut-wrenching anxiety sets in.


How to Start Decluttering

Enter Sara Getzkin, President of Hands On! Organizing. As a professional organizer, Getzkin has been been on the TLC show “Hoarding: Buried Alive” five times – soon to be six. In the course of that work, she has come across everything from sex toys and firearms to marijuana brownies! One of Getzkin’s cutest finds was a dance card belonging to a client’s great aunt.

Getzkin has some tips from her ten years of experience as a Professional Organizer:

1. Don’t try to tackle too much at once. Getzkin tells her clients, “Let’s carve out three hours and see what we get done. Then you are going to rest and not even think about this.” Very few people can sustain focus for more than three hours and stopping before you get stuck means you can start again tomorrow feeling positive .

2. To start, Getzkin, recommends preparing three bags or boxes and labeling them Keep, Toss, and Sell/Donate. You might add a fourth box for things that need repairing, mending or dry cleaning, but don’t add more options than that. Put away what’s in your Keep pile at the end of the day and throw out what’s in your Toss pile. (We’ll tell you how to use online resources to sell or donate next week.)

3. Decide what you really use and consider what storage space is available. Be relentless in your decision-making and follow through.

4. Find local consignment stores to sell stuff that’s in great condition (do a Google search for [your city] + consignment stores) or sell your stuff online. Craigslist is a good option for selling locally; eBay is good for more valuable stuff. Stay tuned for a Senior Planet guide to selling and donating online, coming next week.

Paul Foreman, the creator of Mind Maps, gets deep into the decluttering problem with the fantastic map below. “As you move up a gear in de-cluttering you may hit some tough questions and need to battle some gremlins,” he writes. “Are you hanging on to the past? Do you need to move on? Whether you spend 20 years, 2 years, 2 months or 2 minutes the end result is the same – you have to let go. Deep down you know this – holding on, is simply delaying the inevitable.”


Decluttering Challenges

  • Medications and medical apparatus  Medical needs vary as we age:  the medications and dosages change, but all too often we don’t throw away prior drug prescriptions. Time to get rid of them. Find out if your pharmacy has a take-back program; if not, figure that most prescription drugs can be put in the garbage. The FDA advises taking the pills out of the containers and mixing them with coffee grounds or vegetable peelings; then use a marker to black out the label – or scratch it out – before you put the container in the garbage. Some substances, such as narcotic pain relievers, should be flushed; check the label for instructions. Old crutches from 10 years ago? If you need crutches again, you’ll want to get a new and improved pair. Donate the ones you have.
  • Eyeglasses and hearing aids  We keep them because they were expensive purchases. “But they are not doing you any good sitting in the drawer if you’re not wearing them,” says Getzkin. Keep you last pair of glasses for use in an emergency, and recycle or donate the rest.
  • Nostalgic objects In Psychology Today, Jim Davies, Ph.D. recommends photographing some of those keepsakes you’ve been holding on to for years. “I take a picture, and save it in a folder called ‘nostalgia.’ Once I have this picture, I feel better about giving or throwing away the object, because part of why I wanted to save it was because I didn’t want to forget.”
  • Inherited Items  Things we inherit from parents or grandparents, can be hard to part with. “You feel like you are throwing away a person, but you’re not. You’re throwing away a possession of that person. Part of my job is to give you permission to let things go,” Getzkin explains. “In the old days when we didn’t have a lot of storage or big houses, we had one set of china and it was passed down from generation to generation,” she says. Nobody really needs multiple sets.
  • Clothing  On Houzz, Jennifer Phelps tackles a closet edit. Phelps recommends discarding clothes that make you feel bad about yourself: clothes from working days past; clothes you’ve “grown” out of. And she relates an exercise in editing she used with a client: She taped to the wall a picture of a jacket that the woman very much wanted to buy, and then hung each piece of clothing alongside it. Would her client choose this over the jacket? If there was no contest, it went in the giveaway pile.
  • Old gadgets  Jim Davies in Psychology Today refers to the “endowment effect”: he explains that “When we own something, we value it more than we would have been willing to pay for it when we didn’t have it.” In his decluttering, he asks himself if he would be willing to pay what a gadget is worth – say, $20 for his old point-and-shoot. If the answer is no, he sells or donates it.
  • Utensils On Oprah, Peter Walsh came up with the “cardboard box test” for utensils. You could use the same test for those pens and pencils that have been accumulating in cups and jars. Take all the utensils out of the drawer and put them in a cardboard box. For the next month, each time you use one, put it back in the drawer. At the end of the month, whatever you haven’t used, you don’t need.
  • Paperwork  We live in a world of digital files and virtual paperwork. Having a real paper trail is wise under certain circumstances, but we don’t need 30 years of financials. “There are some papers you need to hang on to 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” says Getzkin. Your attorney or accountant can tell you which papers fall into the different  categories. Making the effort a few minutes each day to sort and toss incoming paperwork keeps piles from forming. “Eighty percent of what we keep, we’ll never look at again,” Getzkin estimates. “It’s just taking up space in our homes.” Some paperwork can be scanned and saved on your hard drive.


Linda Abbit

Linda Abbit is a California-based freelance writer, editor, and eldercare content specialist.  She has a BS in Education from Adelphi University in New York and an MS in Education from Lesley College Graduate School in Boston.