very cluttered apartment with piles of belongings

Spring is just about here and with the longer days and warmer weather come the annual itch to sweep out the little-seen corners and clear out the overstuffed coat closet. For those of us who’ve been in a home for a long time, however, our things can become laden with memories and that weight can make them much harder to get rid of than dust bunnies.

“If you have spent years in a house, you become the keeper of things and define yourself as the keeper of memories,” said professional organizer Janet Schiesl, who has been helping people get organized since 2005 with her company Basic Organization. “It’s a struggle because you’ve held on to an item to honor someone and you hoped to pass it on so the next in line could honor you.”

The reality is that the younger generations are less interested in antiques and hand-me-downs and more interested in living in smaller homes with fewer items. As we age-in-place and we start thinking about the next phase of life, it’s useful to start thinking about downsizing.

Since many of us are thinking about shared living, we need to make space for the new roommate. The really interesting part is that as you freshen up your home and clear out the unneeded items, it feels like a load has been lifted and you have a fresh start!

Here’s another thought. Look around and realize that you have everything you need and you simply don’t need to buy more stuff. Replace broken items, but don’t buy new. Replace clothing that is old, but don’t add stuff. Replace a worn out or broken piece of furniture, but don’t keep the old item. Give it away to someone who will repurpose it.

Here are some ways you can use this year’s spring-cleaning momentum to get yourself ready for your new roommate:

1.  Identify a method of donating your unused items.  

If you have a Freecycle group nearby, join it. This is an easy way to give something away and know that someone else will continue to get use out the item. Also think about charities, church groups, and certainly think about a yard sale! Yard sales are great…especially when you can donate your items to someone else’s sale. It makes it a lot easier to say goodbye to a favorite item if you know someone else will enjoy it. Have a spot where you collect “give away” items, and then give them away. It’s much easier to give away than to throw away. Our founder, Bonnie Moore, still goes through her house and garage annually looking for “goodbye” items…she loves to tell the story about how she finally gave away all of her camping gear to a Girl Scout Troop.

2.  Question whether an item will support the future you. 

Schiesl asks mature clients to envision their future: Would they like to spend more time enjoying life rather than taking care of stuff? Then she asks how a particular item will support that idyllic future. “It’s easier to let go of if you realize it’s not going to support you in the future than getting caught in the memories from the past.”

3. Focus on quality over quantity. 

“You can keep things near and dear to you, but just keep the best of them,” advises Schiesl. Use the pristine guest towels and get rid of old toweling. Old towels can be donated to an animal shelter. Keep the most comfortable pair of black dress shoes and donate the other three pairs. Choose your son’s baseball trophy that means the most to you and take a picture of the rest of them and preserve them in a scrapbook. Do you have a favorite collection? Are these dust catchers? Could you choose to display two or three, and pack the others away so that you can rotate them annually?

4. Talk with your kids now. 

If you’re holding onto an item for a child, call them now to ask if they want it. Perhaps they can take it off your hands. Perhaps they do want it, but don’t have room for it yet. And perhaps you’ll discover they’re not interested in it. No longer being a caretaker for an item lessens your attachment to it and allows you to discard it.

5. Embrace technology.  

Take pictures of those items that no longer serve a purpose but whose memories you’d like to keep. Your grandmother’s hutch can live on in a scrapbook or a digital photo frame. There may be a learning curve, but much of today’s paper clutter can be eliminated with the use of e-readers, online subscriptions, and electronic file storage. Old magazines, books you’ve already read, newspapers you never got around to reading, copies of something that was once important…all of these things can go now.

6. Schedule your organizing time. 

Schiesl warns that people woefully underestimate how long it will take to organize an area. Once you decide to start a Golden Girls Home, get that spare bedroom cleaned out, and keep going through the other rooms. Consider scheduling one room each month. Go through that room with a fine-toothed comb and get it organized. Schedule the next room for next month, and keep going. Do this every year and keep looking for items that someone else can use, bottles that are almost empty, duplicates, expired items, broken items…you know what we are talking about!

7. Allow yourself a “maybe” pile. 

This is the technique Schiesl recommends when you get down to the nitty gritty:
— Go through a closet or drawer as quickly as you can sorting everything into three piles – “Keep” “Get rid of“ and “Maybe.” The “maybe” pile gives you permission to not have to make a decision about every item.
— Put the “keep” items away, throw out the “get rid of” items, and put the “maybes” in a box.
— Mark the “maybe” box with the date and a deadline, say two months out.
— Review all of the gadgets…remember how often it has been used, then either keep it and put it away properly, or toss it.
— Everything still in the box after two months, items not useful to your future, can now be peacefully discarded.

8. Create a home for items. 

In shared-living situations, much of the stress of “I can’t find…” is eliminated when items are given a home – such as a basket for remotes and a drawer for keys – and everyone knows where that item “lives.” You can also create an area for “homeless” items or items that belong in someone’s room. A basket near the stairs can be a good spot to set items that need to be put away upstairs.

9. Bring something in, take something out. 

After downsizing, try this… discard an old item every time you bring a new item home. You will never struggle with de-cluttering again! Schiesl said a beautiful set of hangers will keep you honest in your closet. If you only buy a blouse when you’re prepared to discard one and never allow wire hangers, your closet will never be stuffed by more clothes than you need.

10. Work with a professional or call a friend over. 

Deciding what to keep and get rid of with an objective outsider can help lessen your emotional attachment to stuff, Schiesl said. A friend will ask you how often you have worn something, and she will be able to toss it when you can’t. A professional organizer can help you focus on your future goals instead of past memories and can help you stay on task until the job is complete. Professionals also can call in companies for jobs like junk removal, moving, and shredding, if necessary. Schiesl recommends checking the National Association of Professional Organizers for organizers in your area, and then meeting with the person before hiring to insure you are comfortable and feel heard.

Photo: Mark Wallace | CC License

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About The Author

Bonnie Moore's picture

After a 2008 divorce left Bonnie Moore living alone in a newly remodeled five-bedroom home, she searched for and found four great roommates to fill the empty bedrooms. The experience was so transformational that Moore embarked on a new career dedicated to helping 50+ adults ease their way into shared living. As founder of Golden Girls Network, she has written a book titled How to Start a Golden Girls Home and teaches classes on the same topic.  For more information about Bonnie, please visit You can also join her on Facebook and Twitter @GoldenGirlsNet.

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