On Clutter

The longer a person lives, the more things he collects. Some objects, like grandma’s yellowed apron or your youngest son’s drawings, remain important reminders of people and eras that live on in memories. But others are dispensable, without much meaning, simply collecting in our homes without any purpose. Clutter is not only a safety hazard, it is an obstacle to a clear mind. It is easier to misplace the things you want or need when they live in piles of useless things. For example, reminder notes about upcoming events, medication times, or appointments are nearly worthless when they are stuck on a refrigerator covered with paper.

Have you ever lost your checkbook or forgotten to mail bill payments because your desk is so full of papers? Filing the important ones, and throwing out the others, can streamline money management. For some seniors, the clutter has built up over years, and it can be a daunting mountain of work to clear it out. Adult children can help. Charlie’s kids used to take turns helping their father clean off the kitchen table where junk mail, travel brochures, and bills intermingled together. They’d get a big trash bag, and make three piles of paper: one to file away, one for Charlie to look over, and one for the trash bag. Predictably, Charlie’s bill-paying habits improved when the table was clear.

Even finding books on shelves can be hard when there is too much “junk”. Decorative clutter, like trinkets, vases, candle holders, and mementos, may be the fault of overly generous family and friends. They want to give gifts, but you don’t need anything!

My grandmother had a standard way to deal with this. On holidays or birthdays, as gift giving ensued, Grandma would express real gratitude for each gift she opened, hugging and thanking the giver. But, when all the gift-giving was done, she’d corral the grandchildren, one by one, and give away the thoughtful but unwanted presents. Usually, she’d go home as light as when she arrived.

Many elders find themselves in the predicament of having too many things. Family and friends should be considerate by giving gifts that are truly useful. Prepared food that can go in the freezer is always an option. Another wonderful gift is a personal “coupon book” with offers of assistance and time:  “good for one trip to town”, “dinner at Bob’s Ranch House”, or “worth two hours of garden weeding”. Just showing up for a leisurely visit more often may be a better gift than a new candle holder.

Most people find comfort in the material things that they have acquired. But over many years, especially in the same house, these things can accumulate beyond what’s necessary or desirable. If your home is loaded with things you don’t want anymore, take the initiative to change it. Enlist your children, grandchildren, friends, and neighbors, or hire a few teenagers for an afternoon. Donate useful items to charities, and throw away those that have lost their value. If you have many things of significant value taking up space in your home, consider bequeathing some to your future heirs. My old children’s books, some scrawled with elementary-school handwriting, have been getting doled out to my nieces and nephews for years! I like to think it is a way of sharing my past, and choosing how these beloved things will live on when I am gone.

Aging well means having the grace and foresight to let go of unnecessary burdens so you can focus on what matters. Both elders and their families can make efforts to lighten the load.