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Declutter Your Parent’s Home While They Can Join In

Tips for turning what may seem to be an onerous chore into a fun opportunity for loved ones to share their life stories

By Cheryl Maguire

My mom is a bit of a hoarder. She's the type of person who saves her tax paperwork from the past 50 years. I often joke with her, "You need to declutter your basement now because it gives me anxiety just thinking about cleaning it when you die."

A woman and her father smiling outside. Next Avenue, decluttering
Amy Pickard and her father  |  Credit: Amy Pickard

Instead of waiting for my mom cleaning out on her own, Amy Pickard, an expert on advanced planning and owner of a business called Good to Go in Los Angeles, suggests that I declutter with her now. "I encourage people to clean out their places with their families," she says. "That way, you make new memories and it's actually fun."

When Pickard has suggested that clients declutter with their adult parent, "no one has said that was a bad idea" after they organized their home, she says.

What About that Gravy Boat?

Heather Aiello, CEO and founder at The Organized You, says you should declutter with your parents while they are still alive so you can hear the stories behind their treasures and belongings. "Once your parent is gone, you will no longer have the opportunity to ask, 'Why do we use this gravy boat every holiday?'" along with other stories behind the items, she says.

When Pickard's mother died, she didn't leave behind any directives about her funeral or provide any details about paying her bills or what to do with her belongings. As a result, the experience of settling her mother's estate was extremely stressful. To prevent that from happening with her father, she made sure to declutter with him while he was still able, at age 68, to tell the stories behind items found in his desk.

"It's one of my favorite memories in the last year of his life."

"We just cleaned out his desk, which took five hours, but we ordered Marions (pizza) and put on some '50s music and we laughed, sang along and reminisced," she says. Her father also enjoyed the experience and Pickard remembers him saying, "I can see how this process is more fun while I'm alive."

She also says, "It's one of my favorite memories in the last year of his life."

Tina Priestly, owner and CEO of Ready, Set, REFRESH, a company based in Occoquan, Virginia, that offers organizing services, says she was 56 when she helped her mother, aged 85, declutter. "We embarked on this journey together as she prepared to move into a retirement facility," she explains. "Going through items and reminiscing about our memories was not just practical but deeply enriching for both of us." Priestly adds that the experience made her mother's new home more manageable.

Another reason to clean with your parent is that talking to people helps them focus on the job and be less susceptible to distraction.

Motivate Mom and Dad

Decluttering with a parent is also important because parents usually have more stuff than they actually need. "As a parent ages, there is less energy and motivation to get rid of things," says Barbara Brock, founder and CEO of Barbara Brock Inc., a professional organizing and staging company in Brooklyn, New York.

A woman and her father smiling outside. Next Avenue, decluttering
Pickard and her Dad John Pickard at Woodland Cemetery  |  Credit: Amy Pickard

Pickard concurs. "We need to normalize downsizing," she says, "Our culture is obsessed with ascension, but the odds are, you're going to die in a room in an assisted living facility or hospital room with none of your possessions."

Most people dread the idea of decluttering, but organizing experts have shared some ways to make the process fun such as:

1. Use music to set the mood. Playing nostalgic music is a great way to lighten the mood and discuss memories of when you first heard the song. "Adding music can add some fun to the often-perceived daunting tasks of decluttering," says Brock. "With a streaming service like Spotify, you can create a playlist or, if your parents have a record player and albums, you can rotate artists." Priestly stresses that the key to making decluttering enjoyable for aging parents is to approach it as a shared experience filled with warmth and nostalgia.

2. Treat everyone with food. Having some pizza or desserts ready when you take a break from decluttering will give you something to look forward to during the process. Or both cook a favorite meal and discuss memories tied to it. "I feel close to my mom when I bake her recipes," says Pickard.


3. Share memories about the items. As you sort through photo albums, ask for details about the pictures; when you go through clothes, ask when each item was last worn. "We like to come up with ways to capture stories or memories," says Aiello. She suggests creating a memory box for each family member. You could also document the information in a journal, or record your parents telling the stories as you declutter.

4. Document the process. Pickard suggests taking pictures before, during and after you declutter. She also recommends taking photos of weird stuff you come across, the hilarious hairdo photos of decades past and old toys you used to play with. This creates fun memories. Before decluttering her mom's house Pickard says she took lots of photos; when she looks at them now, "it's so comforting to see how my mom lived like her decor choices and to see all her stuff where she wanted it. That is nourishing for me."

Decluttering Is an Opportunity

The best way to have a positive experience helping your parent sort through their things is to view it as an opportunity to get to know your parent better. "Engage in conversations, share laughs and cherish the moments spent decluttering," says Aiello.

"By creating a positive atmosphere," Priestly adds, "you can turn what may seem daunting into a meaningful bonding experience."

Cheryl Maguire
Cheryl Maguire holds a Master of Counseling Psychology degree. She is married and the mother of twins and a daughter. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, National Geographic, Parents Magazine, AARP and many other publications. She is a professional member of ASJA. You can find her at Twitter @CherylMaguire05. Read More
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