Instead of putting off the huge task of decluttering, take charge of it (and your future) today
By Jane Gross
Originally Posted On July 8, 2013
Jane Gross, a retired correspondent for The New York Times and the founder of its blog, The New Old Age, is the author of A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents – and Ourselves (Knopf 2011, Vintage 2012).
Until recently, my basement had been full of stuff that should have long ago gone to Goodwillor simply been thrown away rather than saved as a project for another day. The same goes for my closets, my ample kitchen cabinets, my medicine chest and my backyard shed.
Trust me – I'm neither a pack rat nor a hoarder. Quite the contrary. Friends joke that my refrigerator is alphabetized. (It isn't.) The rare books or magazines on my coffee table are always at right angles. My desk is cleared nightly of every file and sheet of paper, even though I have a dedicated office in my home and could simply close the door. I have made my bed every day of my life. I separate paper clips by size. The items in my lint-free purse are always in the exact same place.
Any of us with elderly parents, or who are wise enough to think in advance about our own futures, know that many people – perhaps most – stay longer than they should in houses that are too big, too much work and sometimes unsafe. "Home" is where people generally want to spend the rest of their lives – aging in place, as we now call it. This is realistic for some. The rest of us will need to move, and will likely balk at the daunting physical, logistical and emotional task of leaving what might have been home for generations.
My own mother left my childhood home, by choice, in her mid-70s to relocate to a senior community. She was eager to flee the snow, the need to drive and the demands of taking care of a house as a widow. But she still came unglued at the actual task of clearing out. Without me and my brother there to help, I suspect she would have lost her nerve. He sold the house. I went through a lifetime of possessions with her, stickering every item red, yellow or green, for "toss,'' "sell'' or "keep.'' Together we disposed of everything, one way or another, and got her where she was going quickly.
It seems our downsizing choices are: Wait until it's really, really, no-more-fooling-around-and-hoping-it's-never-going-to-be-necessary time, and then all but kill ourselves trying to start the process at age 70 or even 80; never do the work and just burden our children with it; or, my preference, get ahead of the curve by starting, right now, to live every day like you're moving tomorrow.
This means setting rules, starting with a regularly scheduled purging – not "some day," "when I have time," or "when I feel like it," but weekly, monthly or on some similarly strict timetable, as if the task was no different than filing taxes by April 15 or, for those of us past 65, reviewing your Part D prescription drug plan during the annual open enrollment period.
Faking a deadline like that requires enormous discipline. If you don't have it, it might be easier, going forward, to shed belongings one at a time. When you break a flower pot, don't pitch it in the shed. Take it to the garbage can. When you get a new laptop or bicycle, allow one week – it will most likely be wasted – trying to sell the old computer and its accessories, or the old bike rack, on Craigslist, then pitch it or take it to your recycling center. (Better yet: Pitch it right away, unless the longshot chance you're going to get a $5 offer is worth potentially meeting the new Craigslist Killer in a darkened parking lot.)