My Aunt Naomi is overwhelmed.
Now 78, she was widowed three years ago. She lost her husband, but inherited his piles of files, cancelled checks and warranties for current and formerly owned equipment.
Aunt Naomi also has her own collections -- beloved tchotchkes that are scattered throughout her expansive home.
Along with feeling overwhelmed, my aunt is very lonely. She wants to move to a retirement community to be around people, participate in activities and have someone else do the cooking (and dust her tchotchkes). However, this idea has Aunt Naomi distressed.
"How can I possibly move to someplace half the size of this house?" she asked. "I have too much stuff; I'll never be able to figure out what to keep and what to get rid of."
She's not alone. A word search for "clutter" on Amazon.com returned 319 titles dealing with the problem of "too much stuff."
My sister and I were fortunate when we moved our mother from her home to a smaller place. I don't think I ever saw a stack of papers in mom's house, and she would no more own a huge collection of tchotchkes than an assault rifle. She was a minimalist when it came to stuff.
But professional organizers exist for a reason, and these experts point to several challenges when downsizing to a smaller home:
- The quantity of stuff and the daunting task of dealing with it all;
- The feeling of urgency to get this task accomplished quickly;
- A painful sense of loss.
This last issue seems especially important for older people.
"Getting old means facing a lot of losses," my 87-year-old father said. "I've lost my independence, my physical strength and functioning and people I care about. It's not easy."
Moving from a familiar home and letting go of things owned for years can feel like an additional loss. It's not just the loss of the objects that has an impact; it's the connection with the past that these objects symbolize.
I recently came home to find that my cleaning lady had broken a precious, hand-painted bottle that my grandmother had given me when I was 11. Whenever I held this bottle, I felt the special bond I had with my grandmother. It was painful to look at this shattered reminder of her.
It did eventually occur to me that the bottle was, after all, just an object. And I didn't really require it in order to remember my grandmother and our love.
But the fear of losing such objects and their associated memories is why many people hang on to things, said Peter Walsh, the professional organizer on The Learning Channel's show, "Clean Sweep," which helps ordinary people deal with their clutter.
I recently spoke with Walsh about the emotional and practical aspects of downsizing.
"People usually keep things because of fear, security and control," Walsh said. "But it's important that you understand that holding onto these objects doesn't make you who you are, and doesn't help you control the life you have; that's really an illusion.
"The goal is to just keep the things that really give your life meaning -- the items that bring you the most joy, which you have the best associations with. The objects you hang on to should be a reflection of you, rather than things you feel obligated to keep."
Walsh said that one needs to acknowledge that trimming back is indeed an overwhelming task, and a very tough thing to do: "As my grandmother always said, 'The only way to eat an elephant is one mouthful at a time.' Go through your stuff gradually, maybe over many months' time."
To help with the process, he suggested having an organizing buddy. For some people, a friend or professional is a better option than a family member, he said, because of the emotions that get aroused.
On the other hand, if children can take the time, handle the predictable stress, be patient and understanding and help their parent stay calm, going through mementos and photos together can be a very meaningful experience. While my sister and I helped mom go through her photos, artwork and books, we reminisced, laughed a lot, cried a little and learned more about her family history.
It might have been even easier if we'd known some of Walsh's tips for downsizing:
- The 1-to-5 Ratio. Go through a collection of anything, and for every five you keep, get rid of one. Once you've done it once, go back and do it again -- keep five items, get rid of one. You'll cull down the collection gradually.
- Reverse Coat Hanger Trick: We wear 20 percent of our clothes 80 percent of the time. Turn all coat hangers in your closet back to front. In the next six months, when you wear something, put it back in your closet the correct way. At the end of six months, you'll see what you've worn and what you haven't. Give away what you haven't worn.
- Two Garbage Bags Rule: Get two large trash bags -- one for giving away, one for trash. Spend 20 minutes every day, once a week, putting three items in the giveaway bag, and one in the trash bag. Immediately have someone take the giveaway bag to your favorite thrift store. Put the other out in the trash.
As my grandmother knew, giving treasured things to family members feels good. Walsh points out that doing so (or giving objects to a local museum or historical society) can help ease the loss of letting go.
A lifestyle with regular sifting through stuff is ideal, Walsh said: "Clutter sucks the life out of your space. As you get older, you need to surround yourself with the essentials, rather than the excess. It's safer, better for you health wise and easier to maintain. By having less stuff, you live a richer life."
For more information, visit the National Association of Professional Organizers at www.napo.net.
Ellie Kahn is a freelance writer, owner of Living Legacies Family and Organizational Histories and producer of "Meet Me At Brooklyn & Soto." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and www.livinglegaciesfamilyhistories.com.