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Your Health
A Noozhawk partnership with Cottage Health

Clutter Chaos: Happy Memories or Household Hazards?

Home Instead Senior Care alerts family caregivers of problematic clutter signs in seniors

Clutter is a problem all too familiar to caregivers. The issue is not unique to seniors but some age-related conditions, such as strokes or dementia, may make it worse.

An accumulation of daily junk mail, bills, newspapers and magazines may quickly overwhelm seniors who are struggling physically, mentally or emotionally.

Experts say even seniors who simply don’t know how to part with their possessions are vulnerable. The risks are many, from slipping on loose papers to the threat of fire or mold and mildew. Clutter may also interfere with family relationships. It also may leave adult children wondering if the only inheritance awaiting them is a big mess.

Cluttering — for those with this tendency — may have been going on for years. A “trigger episode,” such as having to use a wheelchair or having a health issue, could worsen the problem, according to Kit Anderson, a professional organizer and president of the nonprofit National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization.

While the source of clutter may be anything from outdated medications to a kitchen full of unused pots and pans, paper is the biggest clutter culprit, Anderson said.

Here are 10 reasons why seniors might hang on to “stuff” and what to do about it:

1. The sentimental attachment: That prom dress represents the history and memories of the event; it’s not the dress itself. Save only a piece of the dress to make a quilt or display in a shadow box.

2. The sense of loyalty: Older adults who have received gifts from family and friends may be reluctant to part with them. Encourage your loved one to give unused gifts back to the giver or grandchildren.

3. The need to conserve: Seniors are the original green people. Appeal to a senior’s desire to help others. “You went through the Great Depression, now it’s time for you to let go and help someone else.”

4. The fatigue: A home with a lifetime of memories can easily become too much for an older adult to handle. Help seniors manage clutter by establishing online bill paying.

5. The change in health: Seniors who have suffered a health episode may no longer be able to manage household duties, and could contribute to clutter. If you see a health change, encourage your senior to visit the doctor. Consider a professional organizer and caregiver to help your loved one.

6. The fear: Seniors often fear what will happen if they give up their “stuff,” like the older adult who saved three generations of bank statements. Use logic and information to help seniors understand it’s OK to let go.

7. The dream of the future: Those clothes in the closet don’t fit anymore, but your loved one is sure some day she’ll lose enough weight to get into them. Ask seniors to fill a box with clothing they don’t wear much and make a list of the items in the box. Agree that if they have not gone back to the box in six months to wear the item, they will donate it to charity.

8. The love of shopping: Today’s seniors have more money than any other previous generation of older adults, and they love to shop. Clutter can become so significant seniors can’t find things, so they buy them again, contributing to the clutter cycle.

9. The history and memories: Keepsakes represent history and memories. Encourage seniors to take old photos to a family reunion and share with several generations.

10. The loneliness: “Stuff” can become a misplaced companion. Loneliness may also lead to depression, which makes it difficult for seniors to get organized. Consider the services of a professional organizer and caregiver. Click here for more information from the National Association of Professional Organizers or click here for more information from Home Instead Senior Care.

“Clutter is sort of the elephant in the room,” said Catherine Roster, a University of New Mexico clutter researcher. People don’t want to acknowledge there is a problem, which creates anxiety, stress, guilt or embarrassment. It can have a negative effect on their mental health and productivity.

There are many issues, including financial, which can result from clutter. Disorganized people lose important documents, can’t find bills and then miss payments. Research shows people are often slow to recognize the problem themselves.

Home Instead Senior Care is alerting family caregivers to watch for signs in a senior’s home that indicate clutter creep could become a problem. Those signs include the following:

» Piles of mail and unpaid bills

» Difficulty walking safely through a home

» Frustration trying to organize

» Difficulty managing activities of daily living

» Expired food in the refrigerator

» Jammed closets and drawers

» Compulsive shopping

» Difficulty deciding whether to discard items

» A health episode such as a stroke or dementia

» Loneliness

Family caregivers may become just as overwhelmed as seniors. Spring is a great time to help seniors de-clutter for their own health and well-being.

We suggest a three-step plan in which the family caregiver brings three bins — one for the items the senior wants to keep, one for donations and the other for trash. Sometimes seniors just need a little help.

Convincing them to let go can be another challenge. Some suggestions on how to do that are the following:

» Arrange and cheer small victories. Suppose you spend a short time helping your loved one clear off a table. Celebrate the accomplishment together.

» Conduct an “experiment.” If your loved one has 150 empty margarine tub containers, suggest donating 15 of those to a school for a painting project. Allow some time to go by and ask how she felt giving those up. Chances are she won’t feel as awful as suspected.

» Gently approach the idea of health and safety. Remind your loved ones that too much clutter can actually keep them from being safe in their homes, and could jeopardize their ability to stay at home. They could trip over papers on the floor or lose bills and medications.

» Make an agreement. Agree to box up unused clothing or tools. Carefully list what’s in the box and track that for six months. If your loved one does not use the items in that time, suggest they donate them to a charity.

» Consider the control issue. Clutter is all about control, but so is being the one to decide where “stuff” goes. Remind your loved ones, if they don’t decide where something will go, someone else will.

Since 2002, Home Instead Senior Care has been helping older adults improve their quality of life in an environment of support and safety that allows them to remain at home. Click here for more information or call 805.560.6995.

—Susan C. Johnson represents Home Instead Senior Care.

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