Why and how to declutter a lifetime’s worth of possessions

Keeping a house in order can be a challenge, especially as we age. Sorting through decades of belongings brings with it emotional and sometimes stressful questions: Is this jewelry valuable? What should I do with these tools I no longer use? Will this china set that’s so special to me have sentimental value to my children?

If you didn’t get around to decluttering during the pandemic, there’s no better time than the present. Decluttering and simplifying doesn’t need to be exhaustive. Instead, look at it as worthwhile not just to make your home tidier but also to improve your health.

The health benefits of decluttering

Getting rid of things you no longer need or want may have a positive effect on mental health and can also help make for a safer environment. Falls are the leading cause of injury in the United States among adults 65 and older. In fact, 1 in 4 older adults fall each year and 1 in 5 falls cause a serious injury. Decluttering reduces the risk of falling, helping to keep paths clear and obstacles to a minimum.

Household chores, like cleaning, have also been associated with better brain health in older adults, according to a study in BMC Geriatrics.

Regular tasks like vacuuming and washing windows can be good physical activity, and a tidy home can also mean we’re more likely to invite people over – prompting social interactions that can help alleviate feelings of loneliness and social isolation that sometimes accompany aging, especially during the challenges of the past couple years.

Tips to get started

It’s good to know the benefits, but sometimes that’s not enough motivation to tackle an important task. But one step at a time can keep you from dreading it. Here are a few tips to get started:

1. Decluttering will take time and patience.

It’s hard to decide what to do with items that may have been in the family for generations, so don’t judge yourself if you find it more difficult than simply donating clothes that no longer fit.

2. The one-room-at-time approach might work best.

The kitchen can often be a good first stop. After all, throwing away chipped dishes and expired spices will be a lot easier than wading through boxes of potentially important paperwork or personal items. Tackle one drawer or cabinet at a time so you don’t become overwhelmed. Give shelves a good wipe-down and restock them with the necessities, putting go-to things within easy reach, and donate or store appliances and dishes that are used less often.

3. How about the closets?

It’s a good practice to go through clothing, shoes and other items with some frequency, keeping only what you use the most. Pick a handful of favorite outfits for everyday wear, social outings and special occasions, seasonal wear and wardrobe staples, then donate the rest. If it’s hard to part with handmade or other sentimental items, consider finding creative ways to remember them, such as making a memory quilt of old T-shirts.

4. Find a process to stop clutter before it starts.

Toss those unwanted credit-card offers and coupon packs into the recycling bin before they enter the house. If magazines and newspapers sit around unread, cancel the subscriptions. Here are some tips to cull the tide of junk mail. Consider mobile apps to help collect and digitize recipes, warranties, instruction manuals and memorabilia.

Finally, be kind to yourself. It’s OK to hang on to something that is near and dear to you. But if an item no longer holds sentimental or functional value, get rid of it. Your decluttering mission today can help you enjoy a tidier, safer and healthier home tomorrow.

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