How to Help Your Senior Parents Declutter and Organize at Home
No matter what part of the country you live in, home is where the heart is. Just ask the many people who prefer to grow older in their own homes.
Safely aging in place starts with decluttering and organizing your surroundings. It not only helps ensure safety but makes it easier for those with dwindling memories to navigate.
As with any decision, make sure you start by talking to your parents, so you understand what they are comfortable with. It is, after all, their house. Discuss concerns they have about losing important items as well as any challenges they have finding things. Ask where they keep important financial paperwork and medical records, as well as things like favorite snacks, hobby supplies, or other items they use frequently.
Assess potential problem areas. These include heavily used living spaces, bookshelves, pet areas, desks and file cabinets, refrigerators, kitchen cabinets, medicine cabinets, laundry rooms, attics, and garages.
Target one initial area first and resist the urge to purge in one fell swoop. Start slowly, tackling one room at a time, or even one medicine cabinet at a time, so you don’t overwhelm your parents. Those with dementia may be especially disturbed if you make too many changes at once. Suggest to your parents that you tackle these problems together, so they can participate.
Here are some room-by-room suggestions:
- Keep only necessary furniture. Because older people typically spend most of their time in their living areas—watching TV, reading, and enjoying their hobbies—it’s only natural that items accumulate there. But too much stuff can pose mobility risks and be overwhelming to those with cognitive challenges. If your parents find it difficult to part with meaningful furniture, suggest giving it to a relative so it stays in the family. Donate any other unwanted furniture if they are in good shape.
- Store pet toys in one area. Pet food bowls and toys have a habit of ending up in places where they could be a tripping hazard. Create a storage area, such as a tote or bin, where toys, leashes, and other pet gear can be stowed when not in use.
- Read and recycle. Newspapers and magazines can stack up. Keep them together in a single place, like a basket or magazine rack, and regularly sort through them to recycle or donate.
- Assess knickknacks. Neatly organize smaller items on shelves. Put loose photos in an album or scrapbook. This can be a meaningful family project that helps older adults and younger generations connect over shared history.
- Locate the important documents. Ask your parents where they’ve stored their will, funeral arrangements, medical directives, insurance policies, mortgage documents and deeds, and any other critical papers. Invest in a fireproof safe or chest to store these documents (and encourage your parents to share the passcode or key with a trusted individual or two).
- Go digital. If your parents are computer-savvy, eliminate as much paper as you can by enrolling them in online banking and automated paperless bill pay.
- Discard. Old manuals tend to last longer than the objects they’re for. Recycle any printed material that is no longer needed or useful.
- Sort. Organize mail with two bins marked “in” and “out” to help track upcoming bills and correspondence that requires a response. Organize loose papers into files that can be stored away.
- Shred. Dispose of outdated records and paper copies of anything that’s stored digitally (be sure you have a backup). Check out this New York Times article on how long to store certain records. Consult a lawyer or an accountant for more specific advice.
- Focus on the work. Remove unneeded items from desks to minimize distractions.
- Organize supplies. Use an organizer with compartments to keep frequently used items within reach. Dispose of any that are no longer used or broken.
- Keep a calendar. If your parents are digitally savvy, ask them to share their online calendar with you. A paper calendar can help track doctor’s appointments, family occasions, and other important dates and reminders.
- Clean out the refrigerator. Review the contents of your parents’ fridge and freezer once a month on a set date. Clean all interior surfaces to minimize mold and ask that they label every leftover that goes in the fridge with a date. Leave tape and a marker on the fridge to make labeling easier.
- Put important kitchen items in easy reach. Keep daily and weekly kitchen items readily accessible—not stored on a top shelf, which could pose a fall risk. Get rid of any broken or unused items.
- Organize the pantry. Put items used daily in the front row of the middle shelves and keep less frequently used items in the back, bottom, and top. Clean the pantry shelves periodically to discourage ants and rodents.
- Sort through cabinets and utensils. Pare down utensils and serving items to what’s really necessary for daily use. Discard or recycle storage items that don’t have matching lids.
- Designate a place for reminders. Use your parents’ fridge to post a to-do list, shopping list, or medication list for reference. Keep a list of emergency contacts posted there too.
- Clean out the medicine cabinet. Dispose of outdated over-the-counter medicines and prescriptions, as well as those no longer taken. Put them in a Ziploc bag and drop them off at a local pharmacy or community drop-off day. For more disposal suggestions, check out this advice from the Food and Drug Administration. Make a list of all current medicines, including dosage and the reason for taking it, and keep the list in an accessible place.
- Discard old bath products. Dispose of old makeup, lotions, sunscreens, and other unused personal products. Old linens and towels can be donated or disposed of, depending on their condition.
- Store all appliances and tools within reach. Keep hairdryers, razors, and any other frequently used items on accessible shelves or in easy-to-reach drawers. Corral cotton balls, swabs, and other small items in small containers on a shelf. Donate any old pairs of glasses or hearing aids that are no longer in use.
- Don’t treat the shower as a pantry. Minimize slipping and fall hazards by keeping shower items to a minimum.
- Donate old clothing. Review clothing seasonally and donate anything that hasn’t been worn in over a year. Organize the remaining items by color or season so your parents can quickly find what they need.
- Check the linens. Pare down bedding to two sets of linens for each bed in the house and donate or discard the rest, depending on their condition.
- Use shelves to control the clutter. Too many frames, books and other items can quickly clutter a nightstand or dresser. Consider hanging frames instead and put other items on a shelf or in a storage box.
- Check under the bed. Items under the bed can be difficult to reach or pose a tripping hazard. Ideally, the space under the bed should be kept as clear as possible.
Garage, Attic, and Basement
- Stop using the garage, attic, or basement as a catch-all. We all tend to store things away rather than deal with them. Review the contents of your parents’ storage areas for items that should be thrown away or recycled, including empty boxes, old house or yard supplies, or broken furniture.
- Say farewell to unused sporting equipment. Your parents may be holding onto sports equipment from days past for nostalgic reasons. Encourage them to pass these items (and their love of the sport) on to younger generations or donate them if they are in good shape. Dispose of anything broken or inoperable.
- Add storage solutions. Pegboard walls or shelving can help organize tools and supplies for ready use.
Whatever approach you take, this will likely be a difficult experience for your parents. Remind them that decluttering and organizing helps make everyday life easier and minimizes fall risks. Treating the organization process as a series of achievable tasks and as an opportunity to reminisce can keep your parents focused and motivated—and it can help them achieve their goal of aging in place.