5 Tips For Helping Your Aging Parents Get Organized

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A combination of careful planning and tough decisions make all the difference.

There is, understandably, an emphasis on lessening the physical demands of people as they advance in age. Reducing stair climbs and removing unwieldy furniture are certainly necessary steps, but they shouldn’t overshadow the need to reduce their mental strain as well.

Helping your aging parents sort through important files, streamline access to vital information, and cut down on intangible clutter that can accumulate amid a swirl of bills, membership dues, and other paperwork, is equally important. Here’s our guide to some of the key steps you can take to get this process started.

Mental Health Note: If your parent has a problem with hoarding or letting anything go, which then leads to arguments and fights, it could be signs of a much more serious problem that requires outside assistance. You should look into hiring a professional organizer to help act as a buffer and make this a positive (or at least productive) experience.

Do A Sweep

The first thing you need to do is assess your parents’ situation and start to assemble a plan. Go through their house or apartment and identify potential problems areas:

  • An overstuffed attic?
  • Kitchen cabinets that have become canned food museums?
  • A garage that may or may not be housing a thriving community of Boxtrolls?

Figuring out where the biggest potential for cleaning up and organizing exists is always step one.

Tip: Keep all of your judgements to yourself. You might want to start throwing stuff away or use tough love to force your parent into making decisions they don’t want to make. Instead, you need to be as helpful and accommodating as possible. Yes, even if your parent is driving you absolutely insane.

Think About All The Eventualities

It’s one thing to move a trip-hazard coffee table out of the way or balance a teetering armoire, but you also have to think about all the Acts of God-type things that could potentially befall your parents during their less spry years. The American Red Cross has put together an entire Disaster Preparedness Guide aimed solely at seniors, and it’s worth a read. Some of the vital tips include:

Make arrangements, prior to an emergency, for your support network to immediately check on you after a disaster and, if needed, offer assistance.

  • Exchange important keys.
  • Show them where you keep emergency supplies.
  • Share copies of your relevant emergency documents, evacuation plans, and emergency health information card.
  • Agree on and practice methods for contacting each other in an emergency. Do not count on the telephones working.
  • You and your personal support network should always notify each other when you are going out of town and when you will return.

[See the full disaster preparedness guide here]

Try The “Four Box” Method

The PBS-affiliated Next Avenue proposed a system that can help make the process of de-cluttering and re-assessing much less daunting. They call it the “Four Box” system and it essentially boils down to creating four spaces (or literal boxes) in which you can divide up whatever’s been keeping your parents from using the guest bedroom since 1965. Next Avenue suggest the boxes be:

  • “Keep Until I Die” For items with sentimental value, such as family heirlooms, personal letters, wedding china, and photo albums.
  • “Appraise and Sell” For unwanted items of value.
  • “Keep with Me” For unsentimental items, such as furniture and art.
  • “Garage Sale/Donate” For unwanted items.

Then go room by room with your parents, sorting their possessions using this system.

Take Your Time If You Have It

Unless you’re working against a tight deadline -- a grave illness or moving residences -- this shouldn’t happen in one day or over a long weekend. It should be an ongoing process where you tackle specific areas, rooms, or even boxes over the course of weeks or months.

Cleaning and sorting a lifetime’s worth of stuff can be an emotional endeavor. The last thing you want is for it to be overwhelming for any of you. Instead, treat it like an opportunity to get to know your parents better and unlock the secrets and mysteries of their past. You can even use this article as a guide: How To Make Sure Your Legacy Lives On After You’re Gone

When All Else Fails...

Call in an expert. If you just need an extra set of hands, seek out legitimate posts on Craigslist or TaskRabbit to find someone that can assist. If you want to go further, services like Home Helpers can be useful, especially for people who live inconveniently far from their parents. They not only help move or dispose of items, they also offer specialized care for people suffering from dementia, and even frequent “check in” monitoring services. Knowing that there's a resource at your disposal that can act like a surrogate could, literally, be a lifesaver.

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