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Chief among the many projects vying for my attention last year was the need to help two different sets of parents downsize. We got through it, but it was stressful for everybody. This is something that just about everyone has to face at some point in their lives, so I’ve asked my good friend and professional organizer, Karen Brothers, to share some organizing tips on helping parents downsize. There is so much wisdom in this post! Whatever your stage of life, you’ll find plenty of food for thought here and on Karen‘s blog at modorganization.net.
A Different Sort of Spring Cleaning
January—a time of new beginnings. It can be exhilarating and daunting all at the same time. It’s a wonderful time of year to take stock of your home and dig into your closets and cabinets and decide what you want to KEEP, TOSS, or SHARE. This can be quite the task as you navigate through your own items, but it takes on a new level of challenge when you are helping an elderly parent as they downsize to a smaller home, transition to senior living, skilled care facilities, or in the days, weeks, and months after they have passed away. I’d like to walk you through some concrete steps to help you as you help the ones that you love.
One thing that I have found as a professional organizer is that while every family story is unique, most family storage is the same. If you live in the midwest, as I do, there are basements to contend with. A basement is a wonderful addition of space to a home, but can quickly become knee-deep in ‘stuff’. This ‘stuff’ includes boxes of children’s schoolwork, old clothing, gift wrapping supplies, photos, dishes, memorabilia – the list could go on and on. When it’s our own, wading through the boxes can be tiring. When it’s someone else’s it can be downright exhausting.
So, here we go.
Keep, Toss, or Share – A New Mantra
With any organizing job, I want you to think in terms of three categories, KEEP, TOSS, or SHARE. Determining where an item belongs, within these categories, is where people most often are completely and totally stuck. I’m going to walk you through some very specific types of items that you might encounter as you work with a family member’s precious things. I call them precious things right now because, in your mind, you are likely thinking they are precious to your loved one because they chose to keep it. But with all honesty, every single client I have worked with, regardless of age, was not aware of half of the items they had unwittingly saved over the years. Instead, one of my most important organizing tips is to start the entire process by honoring your family members by acknowledging that you will be thoughtful as you work.
Occasionally, time will be a factor with an impending move. If this is the case, and you can’t possibly make decisions on memorabilia in such a short time, box up items that need to be sorted and bring them to your own home. Work with your siblings when you are able. Communication is key in this area. Then, you can sort through one box at a time or choose an afternoon to explore them all.
Some Real-Life Examples of Organizing Tips
This worked well for a particular client of mine who hired me to help her go through these boxes and determine what to do with the items. She had the boxes for several months before she was ready to dig in. Her mom was beginning to struggle with her memory and she decided the time was now in case she had questions for her mom. Can I tell you what we found when we started opening boxes? Two boxes full of letters her parents had written to each other, almost daily, when her father was in the service and stationed overseas. Her mother kept all the letters she wrote, chronologically organized in one box, and all of her late husband’s responses in another. What a treasure that the family never knew existed! They scanned each letter and are making a bound book for each member of the family.
While that was a lovely story indeed, there aren’t always such beautiful treasures to be found. I was married in 1992 and as an engaged couple, we registered for china, crystal, sterling flatware, platters… all of it! Our parents had done the same. As had their parents. Newlyweds today are not doing this. They are way ahead of us in terms of organization tips when it comes to this. We can lament this for sure, and I’ve had many friends tell me that their young adult children do not want their dishes, crystal, and so on. What on earth are we going to do with our sets, our parents’ sets that might be living in our china cabinet, and our grandparents’ sets that are likely packed away in a box? Our daughters aren’t yet married and my husband is an only child. For our three daughters, we will have at least five full sets of china to share. IF they want them. Which, they likely won’t.
One Woman’s Junk is Another’s Treasure
What then, do we do with these special things we were taught to cherish and hand wash under all circumstances? I, for one, love to entertain. I will host a sit-down dinner for 40+ family members every other Christmas. Dinner parties are my jam. I enjoy using these sets, so I choose to KEEP mine. If you have incomplete sets of china that you would like to use, check out www.replacements.com and you can search for sets and buy more. I know I’m in the minority amongst my friends in wanting to KEEP these things. Well, good news! This same site will also purchase unwanted china, crystal, silver, and even collectibles.
(This is a brief interlude to address collectibles. I’m talking Hummels, Precious Moments, Lladros… I am so, so sorry to be the one to tell you this, but most of these items do not carry great value. Within each set, some are quite valuable. You can do basic research on these on the internet. I am italicizing this because I am whispering to you. I am a bit terrified of the fact that my mother-in-law, and her mother, were/are AVID collectors of the lovely Hummel statues, bells, plates, ornament sets, wall hangings, latch hook sets, everything, everything Hummel. They are not my thing. It will be a struggle when they are all in our possession someday. I am also whispering because the family members we have in our parent’s generation do not want to accept the fact that there is little monetary value in their collections.)
Bringing New Life to Old Belongings
If it gives you a literal stomach ache to think of selling your mother’s special items, here is an option. Think of something your mom, or both of your parents, valued and treasured. Did they love their sweet dogs? Were they active in their church, synagogue, or mosque? Take the money from what you sell, and note that you will likely never get the dollar amount that you think is high enough, and then donate all or a portion of that money to an organization that will honor them. And if your mom was a shopper, like my mom was, and she loved shoes? Then take the money and buy some awesome shoes! Take your extended family out for a meal and enjoy time together as a family with the cash. Make new memories while honoring the items you have decided to SHARE.
Dealing with the Photo Albums in the Attic
Here’s some concrete organizing tips on photos:
Gather all the photos into one place in your home. Grab a small notepad and a marker and literally dig in. I want you to clear a counter nearby. Start sorting the photos into categories. These might include immediate family, extended family, family vacations, school pictures, specific holidays, work trips, and so on. Write the name of a category on a piece of paper, place it on the counter and then sort, sort, sort – until all of the photos have been touched.
As you touch each photo, if you have no idea who the people are, or it’s simply a bad picture (or duplicates which was ALL we took for the entire decade of the 90’s), TOSS it. Don’t think twice. TOSS. As you work, you will likely create new categories. Great! Keep moving forward. I worked with a client who paid me for two hours and in those two hours, we sorted an entire dining room of photos. The trick with photos is you cannot stop at this stage of sorting and remember the stories. You will have time for that later.
The Cloud – The Ultimate Storage Space
Once everything is sorted, reward yourself! What a huge task accomplished! Where you go next is up to you. The newest way to organize photos is to have them digitally saved. I recommend www.procam.com to help you with this. You can literally send photos that are grouped together and labeled vacations, and they will put them in a digital file labeled the same. Once they are all sorted, you will likely TOSS more photos as you prepare them for storage, whether digital or hard copy. ProCam will also convert slides, VHS, any kind of form really. This can be costly, but very worth it. The client I mentioned ultimately worked on her own and continued to pare down her photos. She then got them digitized and her adult daughters now have copies of everything on the cloud. I consider the cloud a magical place that I personally don’t understand but fully appreciate.
Make sure that if you choose to send photos, videos, slides, and so on to a third party to be digitally stored that you clearly understand what will happen to the originals once complete. Some sites destroy originals, others return them to you.
How Long Do I Need That?
The last item I want to briefly touch on are papers. Oh, papers are so tricky. This link is my go-to for what we need to KEEP and for how long. A friend and client of mine shared, through tears, that going through her late husband’s papers was very hard as though she knew she didn’t need to keep the tax records from certain years past, her husband thought they were important to keep and she felt like she wasn’t listening to him by shredding them. It literally hurt her heart to follow what her head was telling her needed to be done. Paperwork is complicated. Following the above guidelines really does help to keep it direct and purposeful.
If you’re currently in a position of feeling overwhelmed by your own things or your family members ‘stuff’, here’s my final set of organizaing tips:
Create intentional blocks of time to work. Write it in your calendar. Stick to the times you set aside with no excuses to avoid the tasks. I do not recommend working for more than four hours at a time. Make it manageable and you’ll be more likely to accomplish meaningful work. If you feel anxious, take a deep breath and take a break. Walk out into the sunshine for a bit. Be gracious with yourself. If you feel anxious to the point of not being able to work, consider investing time with a professional counselor to help you work through deeper issues that might be blocking your progress.
You’ve got this! Good luck!
Meet Karen Brothers
Karen Brothers is the owner of Mod Organization, a coordination company that specializes in home and business organization. Karen also runs her own blog which focuses on educating readers on “Shining Simplicity Into Your Space” – her personal goal for all of her clients and readers.
Looking for more organizing tips on decluttering and reclaiming your spaces? Make sure to visit Karen’s blog!