A Guide to Moving for Seniors
PART 4 | 21 Tips to Declutter & Get Rid of Junk
For many of us, belongings that once brought us pleasure now seem like a burden, extra weight we would rather not have. But sorting through a lifetime of accumulations and deciding to part with them is hard.
Think of downsizing from a home of decades like losing 100 pounds. You didn’t gain the weight overnight, and you can’t lose it overnight, either. Your belongings are like those pounds. It took years to accumulate them, and sorting through them will take time. Just as each pound, taken individually, doesn’t appear to make a difference, there may not seem to be a lot of improvement from each sorting session. But losing 100 pounds is accomplished by losing one pound one hundred times, and with planning, patience and perseverance, you can get ready to move and maximize your home’s marketability, one bag at a time.
Here are some proven tips and techniques that you can begin implementing today, even if your move is years away. Remember that the key to losing 100 pounds is not losing the 100th pound; it’s losing the first one. The key to downsizing is not finishing the process; it’s starting it.
1 | Avoid tackling the whole house in one go.
Tackle one room or area at a time. About two hours at a stretch is ideal for many older adults, says Margit Novack, president of MovingSolutions in Philadelphia and founding president of the National Association of Senior Move Managers.
2 | Keep sorting sessions short
Try to keep them at two hours at most and start with the simplest room first. Starting with the most complicated area means you may get discouraged, throw up your hands and quit. Starting with a simple room helps build the confidence to say, “I can do this.”
3 | Use the new space as a guide.
Measure exactly how much closet or cabinet space the new place has (assisted living communities will provide this information if you ask) and fill an equivalent amount of space as you sort. Mark off the comparable space.
Beware of excessive multiples. In assisted living, your parent only needs one frying pan, one or two sets of sheets, one coffeemaker, one or two coats, and so on.
4 | Decide on what “go” means.
It may sound silly, but “this goes” can mean you are getting rid of it or taking it with you. To avoid confusion, decide what “go” means and use it consistently. Better yet, use removable color-coded dots to separate what you are keeping and what you are getting rid of. You can find these dots in the school-supply section of your local grocery or drugstore.
5 | Be clear.
If you plan on temporarily storing things in trash bags, use clear bags for items being stored and opaque bags for regular trash to avoid confusion down the line.
6 | Frame decisions as yes-no questions.
Open-ended choices put a reluctant mover on the spot, raising stress. Avoid asking, “Which pots and pans do you want to keep?” Winnow them down yourself first, then present a more manageable yes-no option: “I’ve got your best frying pan, a large pot, and a small sauce pot. Does that sound good?”
“Couching questions for yes-no answers provides the opportunity for the parent to feel successful so you can move on to the next thing,” Novack says.
Items that exist in abundance work especially well to presort: clothing, kitchenware, tools, and anything else you know the person has way more of than he or she will have space for.
7 | Banish the “maybe” pile.
Relocation experts call it the OHIO rule: Only handle it once. The less decisive you are about what to do with an item, the more attached you (or your parent) risk becoming to it, says Nan Hayes of MoveSeniors.com. Moving things in and out of “maybe” piles also takes time.
Exception: Save time by boxing piles of paperwork, which doesn’t take much room. Papers are time-consuming to go through and present an unpleasant task for many disorganized people, casting a pall on your packing.
8 | Throw a downsizing party.
Cover your dining room table with items you no longer need and invite friends over for coffee, with the caveat that they must take one thing away with them. It’s fun, and since each person selects what she wants, everyone leaves thinking that they found a “treasure.”
9 | Focus on most-used items (and let the rest go).
Be patient and follow your parent’s lead — what seems old and useless to you may be a source of great comfort and joy and therefore worth moving. “Don’t go by the newest and best; go by what they use,” Novack says. “You may think Mom should pack her pretty cut-glass tumblers for assisted living, but the reality is that those ugly stained plastic ones are what she uses every day.”
When facing especially hard choices, ask for the story behind a dubious object — where it came from, when it was last used, whether a young family might put it to good use. This takes time, but the payoff is that once your parent starts talking, he or she may have a clearer perspective and feel more able to let go, Novack says.
10 | Develop a kitchen tracker
A kitchen tracker is simply a form that helps you track how often you use certain items in your kitchen. List the items that you don’t use frequently—like the ice bucket, Cuisinart, electric mixer, blender, bundt pan, 30-cup coffee urn, heating tray, turkey roaster, dutch oven…the list could go on, right? Keep the list on your refrigerator.
Whenever you use an item on the list, make a checkmark next to it. At the end of six months, look at the items without checkmarks. You may be surprised to find that you don’t use some of those items after all.
11 | Pack representative bits of favored items (not the whole kit and kaboodle).
Photos, memorabilia, and collections typically take up far more space than the average assisted-living quarters can accommodate. Many services digitize images and papers for you for reasonable prices — sell the idea to your parent that every family member will get a copy, too.
Pick key prints to display on the walls; large tabletop displays take up too much precious space.
12 | Cull a collection by asking, “Which is your favorite piece?”
Assure that one or two “best” items can have a highlighted location in the new home. “People sometimes feel OK about giving up the rest if they have a sense of control over the process,” Novack says.
13 | Take photos of the rest of a collection and present them in a special book.
No, it’s not exactly the same as owning, but it’s a space-saving way for a collector to continue enjoying.
14 | If it’s meant to be a gift or legacy, encourage giving it now.
Urge your parent not to wait for the next holiday, birthday, or other milestone to bestow; remind the, that there’s no space for storage. Ask, “Why not enjoy the feeling of giving right now?” (And if you’re the recipient — just take it, and encourage your relatives to do the same. You can lose it later, if you don’t want it, but the immediate need is to empty your parent’s house.)
15 | Think twice before selling items on your own.
Craigslist, eBay, and other self-selling options are time-consuming when you’re trying to process a houseful of goods. Be realistic: “The value of an item isn’t what you paid for it or how well made or special it is — it’s what someone is willing to pay for it,” warns Novack.
16 | If there are several items of high value, consider an appraisal.
Go through the entire house; the appraiser will only come out once and is more interested in relatively large lots. Auction houses, whose goal is to sell items at the best price, are better options than antique dealers, whose goal is to get items for the lowest price, Novack says. Consignment shops will also sell items, but they tend to cherry-pick and often charge to pick items up.
17 | Understand how charities work.
The main donation outlets include Goodwill, the Salvation Army, AmVets, and Purple Heart. Depending on your area, popular alternatives may include other charities or a local hospital or PTA thrift shop. Senior living communities and moving companies often furnish lists of area charities that accept donations.
These charities work by selling castoffs; they don’t want (and often won’t take) dregs that are better left to the trash. Some take only furniture; some won’t take clothing. Larger charities tend to accept a wider variety of items. Get a receipt for a tax deduction.
Clarify whether they offer free pickup (a huge time-saver). Some charities will remove items from the ground floor only.
18 | Target recipients for specialty items.
It’s time-consuming to find willing recipients for everything, but it may be worth the effort for items that your parent would be relieved to see in a good home. Examples: Schools may welcome musical instruments, old costumes, or tools. Auto repair shops and community maintenance departments may take tools and yard tools.
19 | Try the “free books” tactic.
In some communities, setting items on the curb with a sign that says “Free! Help yourself!” will make items miraculously disappear. This works great for books, Novack says, and sometimes other items. (Libraries don’t normally take books; some charities or schools may, but finding a willing recipient and transporting the books — or any other items donated piecemeal — takes time.)
In some areas, “freecyling” is an option. You post an item available for pickup to a membership list, and anyone who wants it can come pick it up from you (or from your curb). More than 5,000 groups make up the Freecycle Network. Like selling items on Craigslist, however, the communications involved can be time-consuming and tedious if your goal is fast disposal of a large number of objects.
20 | Weigh your loyalty to recycling against your available time.
Avoiding waste is noble, but finding a home for every object can be incredibly time-consuming. “If you recycle the other 364 days of the year, tossing a few things in the interests of time is fine. You have to be pragmatic,” Novack says.
21 | For a price, you don’t have to haul it away yourself.
The local garbage company may have limits on how many large black trash bags it will take, and not all local dumps take unsorted trash, either.
Waste Management’s Bagster is a smaller-scale alternative to a Dumpster, and it doesn’t harm your driveway. Buy one of its large bags at a home-improvement retailer (about $30, depending on pickup location), fill with up to 3,300 pounds of trash, and call to schedule a pickup.
Services like 1-800-Got-Junk and 1-800-Junk-USA (which recently merged with the industry’s other biggie, College Hunks Hauling Junk) remove appliances and furniture as well as smaller items.
Smaller local junk dealers may haul things away for free if they see, on appraisal, items that they’ll be able to sell.