Organizing for Seniors: Embracing LongevitySep 04, 2015 03:00AM ● By Margarita M. Cossuto
At some point during older adulthood, many seniors will come to a transition point in their lives related to their homes and items in the surrounding space. They may be able to remain in their own home, but have difficulty reaching for items on top shelves or in less accessible locations. Or they may need to downsize to move into a smaller home, move in with a family member, or go to a senior community. These transition stages may necessitate having fewer items. Some items are necessary and useful and some have a great deal of sentimental value, while others have no particular sentimental value but have simply accumulated. Friends and family members may need to assist the seniors in reorganizing because of physical limitations or because of the emotional challenges caused by reorganizing everything.
It is often difficult to make decisions about your own items, such as whether to keep an item, donate it, or give it to a family member or friend. You form strong attachments to your items because they represent your memories, experiences, places you have visited, and times you have spent with family and friends. Your items serve as reminders about different stages of your life and memorable events, both good and bad. In general, you hold onto keepsake items such as photographs, letters, cards and gifts because they remind you of the people and moments associated with those items. Since you accumulate items more and more as you age, it is important to carefully evaluate those items, determine the item’s purpose in your life, and determine why you are keeping the items. In addition to physically moving items, friends and family members can help seniors through the emotional challenges of deciding what they really care about and what items are around due to accumulation over time.
Below is a list of common items that family and friends are bound to come across when helping seniors reorganize. Also outlined are discussion points and questions you can ask the seniors in your life as they review all their valued items.
Photographs and Albums
Pictures are a great way to share memories and give you the opportunity to relive them. This is especially important for seniors when they come across old photo albums they probably have not seen in many years. Be sure to give them ample time to relive the moments captured in the photographs and encourage them to share those memories with you.
According to Julie Morgenstern, an organizing and time management expert, it is helpful to categorize pictures by “era”, such a childhood, marriage, raising kids, and then by year or category within each era. These simple steps will help make the process of reducing the number of these items a lot easier for the older adult. If there is a large number of albums and boxes of photographs, encourage seniors comfortable with computers to have the pictures scanned so that they take up less space and can later be viewed on the computer. A good service for scanning pictures is ScanMyPhotos.com. It costs $99 for all the photos that can fit in the provided box, which holds at least 1,800 photos. Keep in mind that some seniors may prefer holding pictures in their hands versus viewing them on computer screen.
Decorative Items and Gifts
Often you keep items you do not use because the item itself serves as a reminder to the person who gave you the item, when you got it, or how your life was during that time. If the items are not used, encourage seniors to give it to someone who can enjoy it as much as they once did. Even though they will no longer have the item, it is possible to keep the memory of the item alive by taking pictures of the treasured items and putting them in an album. This will allow seniors to see those objects and think of the associated memories. Likewise, if they give the item to a friend they can still see it and someone they know will enjoy it.
Organizing paperwork can be a time-consuming task because it takes time to review each piece of paper to determine whether it needs immediate action, to be filed or shredded/recycled. Follow these three steps when organizing paperwork:
• Declutter paperwork by asking if the paper requires action? Does it require your immediate attention? Is the paper necessary for record-keeping purposes or reference?
• Categorize paper into general categories by subject, such as bills, financial statements, taxes, records and legal files, including wills.
• Create a space for all the important papers, which can be a small filing cabinet that contains labeled folders. When organizing paperwork, keep in mind the following guidelines. Statements for bills, utilities and credit cards can be shredded after a few months. Items that should be kept for seven years include year-end statements, tax-related information, any business expenses that are deductible, and medical costs paid out of pocket. Paperwork that should be kept indefinitely includes property/vehicle titles, wills and beneficiary designations, home improvement records and supporting receipts, and insurance information.
When seniors are downsizing to move to a smaller place or a senior community, it is very likely they will have to reduce the amount of furniture they own. This can be a challenging task in general and especially difficult if seniors have lived in their homes for many years and have strong attachments to their pieces of furniture. The first thing to do is determine how their furniture will (or will not) fit into the new space. This is particularly true for large items such as sofas and beds, so measure every furniture item and the areas of the new space. Keep in mind that the size of the new space will likely dictate the amount of furniture that seniors can keep and which items will need to be given away. Reach out to family members and friends to find out if anyone is in need or would like certain pieces of furniture. For all the other items, consider the main donation centers such as Goodwill, the Salvation Army, Big Brothers Big Sisters and Vietnam Veterans of America. Some of these centers may offer a free pickup as well.
Keepsakes are items that are often the most difficult to make decisions about because of the associated memories and attachments you have to these items. They can include photographs, paintings, sculptures, clothing, handmade items and more. A recommended approach/mindset to take when organizing keepsakes and home items is to ask the person you are working with if an item reminds them of a happy time in their life. If it does, then encourage them to keep the item since it has a positive association. If, on the contrary, an item makes them sad or angry, or causes them to relive a time in their life they would rather not think about, ask them to think about why they are keeping that item and ask them to consider giving it away. As Marie Kondo, Japanese cleaning consultant and author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, says it is important to only keep items that bring you joy. Items that do not “spark joy” are not worth keeping. These items can be given to an agency or donation center, versus giving it to a friend.
One of the keys to having a long and happy life is to surround yourself with people and items that remind you of positive times and make us feel good about yourself. By keeping the items that make you happy and letting go of items that bring you negative emotions, you are allowing yourself to move forward and put those memories in the past. The process of letting go of items you once loved can oftentimes be difficult, but it allows you to focus on the future instead of the past. Organizing can be a very energizing experience because it gives you the opportunity to review items from different stages of your life and surround yourself with items that truly represent who you are.
Margarita Cossuto, Ph.D., is a professional organizer and owner of Living Organized, LLC. She applies her background in psychology to understand the unique needs of special populations, such as children with developmental challenges, people with disabilities and mental health issues, and seniors who are downsizing. Cossuto can be reached at 203-451-7880 or LOrganized.com. She would like to thank Dr. Ronald G. Shapiro for helpful comments. See ad, page 27.