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The Truth About Decluttering Your Parents’ Home Is Not What You Think

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Decluttering your parents' home

I’m going to venture an unpopular opinion here and say that helping your aging parents declutter their home can be both fun and fulfilling. What, you don’t agree? Maybe that’s because you’re not doing it right! If you are in midlife like me your parents are likely looking at some version of downsizing in the not-too-distant future. You’ve likely heard your friends complain about having to go through their parents’ things, either preparing for a move or after they’ve passed away. It’s a big job. It’s physically and emotionally taxing. It’s a LOT. But with a few small shifts in perspective and tactics it can be an experience you value and treasure for years to come. Here’s my advice to make decluttering your parents’ home something you’ll look back on with pleasure.

Don’t Wait For A Crisis

Decluttering your parents' home is much harder in a crisis

Everything is easier to deal with when the waters are calm. Tough conversations are easier to have. Feelings aren’t as big or scary. Conversation flows. Even tougher parent/adult child dynamics are more easily navigated when things are fairly status quo. So my advice is start decluttering now, before there is a need. You can use the act of decluttering your parents’ home as a backdrop to suss out their feelings and opinions on aging, what they’d like their golden years to look like, how they want things handled in case of a bad diagnosis or what is important to them when they die. These are not fun topics to discuss at dinner or on vacation, butagainst a backdrop of decluttering they become less intimidating somehow. Decluttering can set the table for an organized end stage instead of an emotion-inflamed scramble with all parties stretched to their mental limits.

Break It Down

My parents as a young couple
I uncovered this darling pic of my parents while decluttering

Which brings me to my next suggestion. There is no rule that says you have to declutter your parents’ home in one weekend. That approach would cancel out the benefit of not waiting for a crisis because by the end of the weekend your nerves (and your parents’) would be stretched tight. No, you want to break this project down into small pieces executed over a stretch of time. The farther away you live from your parents, the longer the stretch. If you spend an hour or two each time you’re over, there won’t be pressure to finish. You can hit one closet at a time, stress-free. Decluttering, especially the sentimental stuff, can be exhausting. So keep things small and approach it as a blessing, not a chore.

Shift Your Mindset

Dad has a yeard sale

That’s my next piece of advice, flip the script that currently lives in your head which assigns ‘chore’ to the job of decluttering your parents’ home. I’m going to borrow a motto from Peloton Instructor Jess Sims, who is always telling me that I don’t HAVE to do my workout, I GET to do my workout. It’s a privilege, a gift of time with your parents that you will be happy you took advantage of.

Years ago when my mother had a stroke and had to go into Assisted Living, I helped my dad begin to declutter their house. Over a stretch of a few months I had one decluttering session a weekend with my dad. When we had edited down the contents of a closet, trunk or drawer I’d take some of the things we found over to show my mom. It was really cool to hear about her memories and parts of her life that didn’t intersect with mine.

Use The Time

That brings me to my last recommendation – use this time! People love to talk about themselves, that includes your parents. Ask them questions about their life and your life. Get their perspective on all of the decades they’ve lived through and what they’ve learned in their years. I know you’ve heard a million family stories, but trust me there are more! The months decluttering with my parents are so precious to me as my mom died 8 months after we started. Those weekend visits with her after a decluttering session produced so many cool insights into who she was. I didn’t know I was going to lose her but when I did I didn’t feel like we left anything on the table.

It’s likely that you won’t need any conversation starters! But if you are looking to get the ball rolling here are some great questions to ask your parents:

What have been the best and worst parts of getting older? 

What’s your happiest memory of us? 

What was the first year of motherhood/fatherhood like for you? 

What’s one of the nicest things I’ve ever done for you? 

What’s one thing you always want me to remember after you’re gone? 

Is there anything about our family’s history you’ve kept a secret?

What is a happy memory you have of growing up? 

Or there are a million guided journals like this one if you want a record of all the juicy stories you’ll hear!

Final Thoughts

You can enhance the experience even more by creating some rituals around the work. A music backdrop, your favorite takeout for lunch, or a walk together once you’re done with your decluttering ‘session’ that day. Anything you can do to add pleasure to the experience is good!

I know I’m biased because I declutter for a living. But when I hear people stressed out and complaining about having to clean out their parents’ home I think ‘you’re missing an amazing opportunity.’  So don’t miss yours!

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