Bring up the topic of decluttering in a conversation with older adults and you’ll get a variety of responses. For some, getting rid of things is easy; they may even respond with something like “I love throwing things away!” On the other hand, you have people who can’t seem to throw anything away. You can actually see them shift into a state of panic at the thought of discarding their belongings. The majority fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, being able to confidently identify what is clearly trash, yet feeling certain about items they’re compelled to keep.
Why Is It So Hard to Let Go?
Clutter is common in the lives of so many. There is only one factor that makes the clutter of an older adult unique: time. The older you are, the longer you’ve had to accumulate things. As time passes, you attach meaning to those things which provoke certain emotions and these feelings may develop into a physical form of nostalgia. Many items can impact us emotionally, something renowned organizing and decluttering expert Marie Kondo calls “objects that speak to the heart.” These evoke a flood of memories and sentiment, something that provides even more significance and comfort as we age.
Though it may be hard to discard possessions, holding onto too much—especially as a senior with increasing needs for a safe environment—can have dangerous results. What we accumulate can present challenges throughout the living environment. Clutter resulting from stacks of mail, paperwork, packages, books, magazines, holiday décor, knickknacks, mementos, and more on and around surfaces and furniture can also contribute to feelings of confusion and overwhelm, increasing cortisol (the stress hormone) levels. Studies show clutter can also contribute to increasing dissatisfaction with life. Overall, these issues are something an older adult—possibly with increasing cognitive issues—needs less, not more, of.
Risks of Clutter and Life-Threatening Injuries
Statistics tell us that each year, 36 million Americans, or one in four adults over age 65, experience a fall. That number climbs every five years. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports falls are the leading cause of injury-related deaths for people over age 65.
Increased risk of falling
While some falls are caused by physical decline, including balance and mobility issues, clutter in one’s surroundings can raise the odds of an accident no matter what the senior’s condition. It can present hazards to navigate, resulting in tripping and breaking a leg, arm, hip, neck, ribs, requiring stitches, sustaining head trauma, or suffering internal injuries.
Confusion over medications
Cluttered medicine cabinets can be life-threatening for seniors. Decluttering your medicine cabinet is critical, especially for those with decreased vision. If a medicine cabinet is disorganized, it can be easy to confuse medicines one’s life is dependent on. Throw away expired medications and keep them organized to reduce confusion.
Excess furniture can lead to many challenges for seniors with limited mobility. Not only can they have more trouble getting around on a daily basis, but this trouble can be serious if disaster strikes and they can’t get through certain spaces.
If doorways are blocked, or even partially blocked, first responders may have trouble entering the premises or getting into specific rooms. Also, if caregivers are working in the home, it’s especially important that they have a safe, adequate berth in which to maneuver and support the client. With challenges mounting as seniors age, the last thing a caregiver needs to worry about is steering a client around piles of personal belongings or oversized furniture too big for a space, or pieces of furniture placed too close together, or improperly stored equipment including walkers, wheelchairs, oxygen concentrators, shower chairs, and more.
Health Benefits of Decluttering
The benefits of having an organized space extend far beyond general safety conditions. Mental health experts and geriatric social workers concur that aging seniors with less clutter in their everyday lives enjoy many health benefits.
One of the most noticeable differences you may experience after you declutter your living area is an improvement in your ability to concentrate. Although you may not realize it, the items in your space are constantly competing for your attention. When you are in a cluttered environment, you are essentially forcing your brain to multitask by giving it extra stimuli to filter through as you try to focus on your task at hand. As soon as you declutter your space, you will likely notice an immediate boost in your productivity.
Many older adults experience a surge in sleep disturbances as they age.
Another great reason for seniors to declutter their space is that it can positively impact the quantity and quality of their sleep. You are probably familiar with the feeling you have when you get into your bed after you just cleaned your room. You feel noticeably more relaxed and ready for bed than the previous days.
Interestingly enough, those with more clutter have been shown to have more difficulty not only falling asleep but also staying asleep. Those with clutter often have more sleep disturbances.
Another good reason to get rid of your clutter is to reduce your overall level of stress. Many studies have shown a negative correlation between those who keep their homes clutter-free and those who reside in well-organized homes. There are many reasons for this.
As mentioned, having many items in your space places additional work on your brain as you force it to constantly work at filtering out irrelevant information so you can focus on what’s important.
There has been a study conducted that identified a relationship between homeowners and their density of household objects. They found that the higher the density of household objects, the higher their levels of cortisol tested – thus indicating higher stress levels.
Walking into a room where there is a lot of clutter can do more than add to your stress, it can also cause you to feel like you don’t have your life together.
If you think about it, looking at a pile of papers can easily remind you of all the things you haven’t completed yet, directing your attention away from everything you have accomplished. You know the phrase, “out of sight out of mind.” Well, that is certainly the case with a pile of papers, along with all other clutter.
Using The Four Box Method for Decluttering
One of the simplest strategies for decluttering your home is one referred to as ‘the four box method.’ This method works great because it forces you to make decisions about everything you own.
To use this method, you are simply going to take four boxes (trash bags can work too) and label them as one of the following.
- Keep/put away
One room at a time, you will use these boxes to help you categorize your belongings.
For example, let’s say you have made the decision to organize your home. And let’s say you decided to start in your living room. You figure this is not only where you spend most of your waking hours, but it is also where you entertain your guests.
When you are ready to begin, you will bring your four labeled boxes into the living room. You will then go through each item in the room and make a decision as to whether you need to keep it, donate it, throw it away, or store it.
The Keep/Put Away Box
The keep/put away box is designated for items you want to keep. Ideally, this should be the smallest box. If the item you want to keep belongs in the room you are working with, you are going immediately put it away. If the item you want to keep belongs in another room, you are going to place it in the box. This is going to help ensure you have enough space for all the items you want to keep.
For example, there might be piles of magazines and miscellaneous papers on the table in your living room. In this case, you might want to sort through the pile. You may decide to keep the current magazines on the table and place the important papers in the keep box to be filed away. Any papers deemed unimportant can be placed in the trash box.
The Donate/Sell Box
The donate/sell box is going to be designated for items you want to donate or sell. These items should be in good condition. Ideally, they should be items you no longer find valuable but that may be valuable for someone else.
You might have furniture in your living room taking up space. You might want to consider selling or donating it. You can even give it to someone in your family who would make better use of it.
Also, take a look at unnecessary “knick-knacks.”
The Toss Box
The toss box is for items you decide to throw away. This should be anything you don’t want any more that is unworthy of selling or donating. Think about damaged items or broken items you intended to fix but never got around to.
The Storage Box
Refrain from thinking of storage as a place for items you don’t know what to do with, but think of it as items you don’t currently need.
Seasonal items are a great example. Think about seasonal decor or holiday-specific decorations. These are items you don’t need out at all times, only during the particular season or holiday time. Place the out of season items in the storage box.
Clothing may be another item you may want to store. If you live in a seasonal area, you will have little to no use for a winter coat in the summer. This would be something you want to keep for the cooler months, but you don’t need to have it handy in the summer. Place it in your seasonal box.
It’s Okay to Ask for Help
At the end of the day, decluttering should be about letting go of the things you have weighing you down for the benefit of your quality of life. Mental health experts confirm, explaining that the process can result in feelings of accomplishment and control for seniors who are aging at home. In short, decluttering has a positive impact on so many levels.
Frequently, the most difficult step is simply to start and that being the case, it’s okay to ask for help. Check with your county aging services department or community senior resource center on the availability of decluttering services. If you’d like to learn more about how a trained caregiver can support a senior loved one to live safely at home, feel free to contact one of our friendly and resourceful Amada Senior Care advisors. Click here to find an Amada Senior Care location near you.
“Why Seniors Have a Hard Time Letting Go of Clutter,” written by Ashley LeVine and updated by Beth Herman, Amada Blog contributors.