Recently, I worked with an elderly couple who had decades of things to clean out of their large home so they could move into a small apartment in a retirement village. The couple had been married for 40+ years and had lived in several houses with their children and random pets. Years ago they had retired and focused on enjoying their lives, traveling and nurturing relationships with friends and family. They kept accumulating things without thinking much about how they were going to deal with it when the time came to downsize. The wife, Mary, in an attempt to purge, had a few yard sales here and there but she mostly left her husband’s things out of it.
I received the call two short months before they were to move - a snug time frame by anyone’s standards, but even more so when dealing with a lifetime of things to go through, a major change in the size of their home, and more than their share of physical ailments. Ed had a couple hard falls recently, as had Mary. In addition, they suffered from other ‘normal’ ailments due to plain-old aging, including arthritis, memory loss, poor eyesight, and hearing difficulties. The process was by nature going to be slow and difficult and it was my job to make it quick and easy.
In addition to time and physical restraints, I needed to assist the couple with uncovering what they wanted to take with them to their new home. Ed was a book and records lover and Mary had memoirs, heirlooms and keepsakes that needed gone through. The closest family member was amazing throughout the process, but she was an hour and a half away and could only come about once a month. Their other two sons, many miles away with full lives of their own, were not able to be of much assistance, nor did they want to absorb many of their parents’ treasures.
In the end, I’m proud to say that the job got done, but not without some major consequences. Most of the items in the house had to be donated, a small percentage of the items were sold, and the garbage, recycling, and shredding bins filled up over and over and over again. Ed was heartbroken through the process because of not being able to physically help more and because of having to donate most of his treasured books, records, and other items that he thought would be worth something when the time came. Additionally, shortly after the move, they both ended up hospitalized. This was not what either of them wanted in terms of the ending to so many happy years in their old house, or the beginning of a new life in their lovely new retirement village.
As much as I loved working with this couple, I was struck daily with the lesson - DO IT WHEN YOU CAN!
Now, that’s easy to say and yes, easy for me to do, but I get that it might not be for others. The point is that the physical and emotional strain is much less if you do it bit by bit. The whole ‘ripping a Band-Aid off quickly’ thing doesn’t work as well with organizing. The important thing to always keep in mind, then, is that you can break it down into small, non-conventional chunks in whatever way suits you.
Here are some suggestions of the tiniest things that mostly anyone can do in less than 5 minutes:
- One drawer (desk, kitchen, garage, dresser, etc.)
- One file folder in a filing cabinet
- One shelf (kitchen, bookshelf, etc.)
- Fill one bag of stuff from your car and make a decision on those items
- Choose three pair of shoes and decide if you want them, where to put them, etc.
- One foot of clothing hanging in your closet (get out your measuring tape - why not?)
- Set a timer for four minutes and see what you can get done. When the timer goes off, stop and treat yourself.
Come up with your own parameters and encourage those sharing your space to do the same - whatever you need to do to keep moving forward. I’m currently working with another elderly woman and after our first session, her homework from me was to go through TWO pieces of paper daily. That’s it - TWO. She did it and was proud of her progress.
Think outside of the box and allow yourself to do whatever you are capable of. Rome was not built in a day, and Caesar did not clean out his throne room in a day, either.