Most people want to age in the home they have. According to AARP, three out of four people 50-plus want to stay in their homes and communities as they age but just 59 percent anticipate they will be able to do so.

The key to aging in place is making your home safe and accessible while you are still young and healthy to tackle the job. Part of that process has to do with decluttering and downsizing your possessions. But where do you start?

Having Stuff vs Hoarding

International OCD Foundation research shows that one in 20 people are hoarders. There is even a term for this condition – Diogenes syndromecharacterized by self-neglect, squalor, social withdrawal, apathy, compulsive hoarding of garbage or animals, plus lack of shame.

Certainly, aging and health issues contribute to this phenomenon. The Centers for Disease Control label hoarding an epidemic, and the World Health Organization has assembled an international task force to attack it. So, for most of us, we should be able to distinguish a clutter situation versus a hoarding one.

Clutter Sneaks Up on You

My good friend Dorothy Breininger, a.k.a., “Dorothy The Organizer”, known to millions as the fearless-yet-endearing problem solver on the Emmy-nominated TV show on A&E, Hoarders, tells me there are three stages of clutter.

In our youth, we establish our identity by acquiring not just things but relationships. When we get to our age, it becomes about managing our stuff, our kids’ stuff, and our parents’ stuff.

And, finally, if you are wise enough to get there, you reach the sharing stage, where you share your wisdom with others and you give back by, in part, giving away.

It’s an Emotional Process

Dorothy tells me you cannot make your parents happy during this process, so get comfortable with being uncomfortable. That goes the same for you if you are the one decluttering. If you are the caregiver, set limitations for yourself in the amount of time you will devote to this task.

And, don’t expect praise.

The most important skill we need is the ability to listen. Listen to mom and dad’s ideas. Take a notebook and go from room to room to understand how they feel about the things in those rooms. Prioritize your projects by first grouping like things with like things.

For example, gather up all the photo albums, the CD and DVDs, etc. Each becomes a zone or collection. Pick the easiest zone or collection to start your organizing. For example, memorabilia might be the hardest so save it for last.

Five-Point Value System

Dorothy uses a five-point value system where you keep anything that is rated a four or five. So, let’s say you have all of the china in one place and there is a dish, that one dish, that is so sentimental, you cannot bear to give it away. That’s a five. That is a precious dish.

Now all other dishes have to stack up against this one (pardon the pun!). If it’s not a four or five, it goes. It also helps to understand that part of the rating comes from the item’s sentimental value, utility, and aesthetics.

Don’t Be Frozen, Let It Go

Now let’s talk about an article I read about a couple that was using a technique called the Swedish art of Death Cleaning.

According to Margareta Magnusson, author of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Make Your Loved Ones’ Lives Easier and Your Own Life More Pleasant, this is “a permanent form of organization that makes your everyday life run more smoothly.”

Essentially, this approach involves getting rid of your stuff as you end middle age. The contention is that it will make you happier, less stressed, and help you deal with your own mortality.

It provides a reminder that things can’t last forever, and practically, it helps ease the burden of family members who have to handle your estate later. So why wait until then?

Karen and Fritz Mulhauser had fun with it. Living in DC, they held a downsizing party based on the idea of death cleaning. They sent out invitations and served food and all day long, they gave stuff away.

Besides having a party, you can sell things online or in a garage sale. Donate to charity. Deal with sentimental items that you can’t keep by taking a picture of them, writing a description, and storing it on a Cloud solution.

You can make downsizing fun. I think of Chevy Chase in the attic in the movie Christmas Vacation wearing a mishmash of old clothes he gathered to stay warm. Try out old clothes, costumes, and sports memorabilia.

Get help from a sibling, children, or from a professional. We’ve written about senior move managers in the past and you can also find estate sale professionals that can help you before the fact!

Of course, you want to talk to your kids about the things they would like to have as well. You may find more and more that they want less and less of it.

Would you classify yourself as a hoarder? Do you collect stuff or has clutter crept up on you? Are you ready for Swedish death cleaning? What are you doing to declutter and organize to make your life easier and safer? Please share your thoughts and let’s have a conversation!

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