ELDER MUSIC: Beethoven Again
Not on the Backs of Elders

Uncluttering Seven Decades of Life

category_bug_journal2.gif After my mother died 20 years ago and it fell to me to empty her home, I was surprised at how little “stuff” she had. Her personal files were contained in half a file drawer yet all the papers and documentation I needed were there.

Her five or six closets in a two-bedroom home were mostly empty – some clothes and a handful of small boxes with such things as photos that didn't make the cut for the albums. Dresser drawers held a reasonable number of sweaters and undergarments, but no more than that.

The kitchen was well stocked with equipment but not overly so as mine is. The largest collection of stuff was the miniature tools and other supplies for the two- and three-story dollhouses and related furniture she built from scratch.

In retrospect, I'm pretty sure she had spent the year prior to her final illness cleaning out the clutter. She was 75, had lost one breast to cancer and had developed additional cancers. She knew she wasn't going to live to be 100 or even, probably, 80.

Yesterday, the estimable, New York Times health reporter, Jane Brody, wrote about a new book, The Hoarder in You: How to Live a Happier, Healthier, Uncluttered Life (good god, the author might want to unclutter that title).

That author is Robin Zasio, a clinical psychologist who has gained celebrity in the past few years on the television program, Hoarders. Brody tells us:

”...that Dr. Zasio’s book is about the best self-help work I’ve read in my 46 years as a health and science writer. She seems to know all the excuses and impediments to coping effectively with a cluttering problem, and she offers practical, clinically proven antidotes to them.”

So with this book, Zasio is not speaking to the extreme collectors she deals with on that TV show. This is for the rest of us, people like me who have some overstuffed drawers, closets and corners but are in no way irrational about saving everything.

Even so, hardly a day passes when I don't have such thoughts as, you really do not need 36 teeshirts. There are seven pairs of pants in that closet you haven't worn in two years. Six of those sweaters are threadbare; why aren't you tossing them?

How about the giant box of old photos – twice the size of your mother's – that are the rejects? Or, in another box, 30 years of daily diaries from the time before you kept your calendar and notes on the computer?

Neither do you need as much china as you have – enough to feed 15 or 20 people at a sitting when you have room for only four at the table? Do you even know how many quilts you have? Seven? Eight? Ten?

Plus, you transferred all your music CDs to your computer and a backup many years ago. Is there a reason you are keeping those hundreds of CDs?

And there are at least a dozen necklaces I haven't worn in several years and an unknown number of pins that once decorated jacket lapels – the kind of work-related jackets I no longer need.

And so on.

Like I said, I have these thoughts almost daily – often when I'm deciding, for example, what color teeshirt to wear UNDER a sweater where no one will see it.

Anxiety about parting with one's stuff is understandable, Zasio says, but usually dissipates quickly. Brody reports that Zasio prescribes setting aside an hour a day to work on clearing out the detritus.

”Make three piles (or bins) of stuff: Keep, Donate, Discard...Get rid of the Discard and Donate piles as soon as possible. Keep only those things that have a realistic “home” in your home.”

Brody's story about this book aroused the minor anxiety I feel regularly about having too much stuff. Part of it is that I don't want to die and leave so much crap around for someone else to deal with.

But then, rooting around in the lower reaches of my psyche about it, I realized that a good part of my reluctance to tackle what is, in my case, a relatively simple task is that it represents a winding down of my life.

Although I haven't looked at the reject photos in years, trashing them feels like trashing parts of my life. Some of the things I don't use anymore have a history. They may have been gifts. Or they relate in other ways to people I've known and places I've been.

Each time I see them or touch them, I recall those events for a few moments so if I don't have those reminders, I wonder, will I forget those people and places?

That, then, is what keeps me from discarding unnecessary stuff – that without them I might lose pieces of my life, my self.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Marcy Belson: Time Out


I cannot count the number of times I have thinned out, pared down, sold, donated and gifted - and still we are buried under mounds of stuff we no longer need, and few will want. I am no hoarder either.

When I moved to a small 2 bedroom apartment in Italy I committed to having only enough things as would fit here comfortably. I kept only what I love or need. Things that had meaning before I gave to my daughter or nieces. I have two sets of shelves in the garage for the off- season items and if I want to buy something new I get rid of something I have. It's been a freeing, lightening experience that I treasure.

You have given the exact reason we do not live a cleaner life. These are memories, useless perhaps, but part of our life and we do not want to diminish that quite yet.

Don't toss your diaries, ever. I've tossed out past manuscripts just to find I'd love to have them back at least for reference. And I've got 40 years of diaries that I plan to hand down to my grand niece.

As for the other clutter, I've moved 3 times in the past 6 years, cleared out clutter each time, and now I'm buried in it again. Sigh.

I decluttered severely 3 times and I look around my office as I write this and can't stop WTFing.

I think you nailed it Ronni.


I have an overabundance of unneeded gifts from people I love or want to remember. As I get older and the gift giving season arises yet again, I know there will be more.

I read about taking pictures of these items and storing the picture in a special gift album (or gift file on your computer) and donating the actual item to a charity. I have kept the most recent gifts to display around the house and decluttered my closets and drawers.

If possible I now take pictures of the gifts with the gift giver. Now I'll never forget who gave me that stuffed roadrunner!

My husband just died (2+ weeks ago) and I am clearing the house so my daughter and her family can move in with me (2.5 acres, small livestock, too much for me at 62 with bad knees, but I will not leave until there is absoluely no alternative): he had lived in this [very small] house for nearly fifty years and I don't believe he ever threw a single thing away if it might possibly be useful for something sometime. Not a hoarder, per se, but someone who grew up poor and re-used everything until it was no longer possible. And who also collected books. And had enough clothes for probably three people.

I estimate at least a year to really go through everything.

However, it has provided closure, since his death was completely unexpected and he died at the emergency room before I got there.

I just wish I knew what some of these things were going to be useful for—so much was in his head and nowhere else!

Decluttering was one of the most things I have done for us. My spouse was willing to give up a houseful of his stuff because he knew he couldn't do much anymore & he realized his stuff was causing stress for both of us. I saved the most treasured things & he picked out a few antiques he especially liked. Other than that, we have only what we need & I don't miss any of it. Some things my 3 kids took, but don't kid yourself, they really don't want much of what we have. Just do a little at a time. :)Dee

As a natural compulsive, I've always warred between keeping things and throwing them out.

Overall, my anti-clutter angel won, and I live in a neat, uncluttered one-bedroom apartment.

Yet I have drawers and closets filled with items collected over most of the past 72 years, none of which I'll ever need or use again: the custom-made suits I wore in the City; the tape recorder I never used for interviews; the postcards I never mailed from Tahiti; the acoustic guitar I never really learned to play, and my shelves are filled with books I'll never read again.

If you get the urge to unclutter, have fun and go for it.

But if you have second thoughts, read a book, take a walk, eat some ice cream.

After you die, your relatives will sort through the detritus of your life.
A few photos, jewelry, and the antique rolltop desk aside, they'll chuck the rest.

It's cathartic to unclutter, but now and then I remember a big red metal car my Dad brought me after I cut my big toe on broken glass when I was four.

I wonder where it is?

I have two clothes closets in my home (plus a coat closet). I just transferred my summer clothing to the guest room closet and my winter stuff back to my walk-in closet. The latter is so full that I don't have room for another item. I always put a few things in the give-away bag when I make the transfer and know I should quadruple the items. But then I think, what if someone asks me out to dinner at a swank restaurant and I might need that velvet pants suit? And so it goes back from one closet to to the other year after year. There are a few other 'what ifs' that I can't bear to part with and I know intellectually that I will probably never have the opportunity to wear them again. How crazy is that?

I gave my good china set for 12 to my daughter years ago along with my sterling silver flatware and pared my dishes down to service for four but I acquired a new set of dishes as a gift and a new set of stainless flatwear so I am back to full cupboards again. The same thing happened with my books. When I moved to this town house I gave away almost all of my books and then started buying new ones. I don't have time to read the new books that come out so why do I think I will re-read the old ones?

I think I will go clean a shelf now and put at least one thing in the give-away bag. ;-)

I still am sorting through my mother' stuff. Recently just made it through two more boxes. I totally get it not being able to discard those items attached to memories, (my parents tiny round coffee table from the 40's), the kids say they don't want the pictures, no one wants the home decor items I have of Mom's and Grandma's. I do still use my pin collection, some from my grandmother that I wore to work; I put them on my winter coat and my jean jacket. But I still have some of my work clothes, unworn for years. Slowly I unload them. Fortunately I have 7 girls who are very interested in all my costume jewelry, although I wonder why I have enough for 7 ;-)

You are absolutely right Ronni! the reason we hang on to stuff is not because one day it mught be useful but because of the memories the objects bring back.

I'm like you, Ronnie, I can't throw away bits of me....... at least not yet.

Thank you for explaining the feeling at throwing out items from my past; I'm discarding parts of myself that used to be.

You nailed it. Memories.

I donated a bagful of blouses,
a year later I spotted a woman
wearing one of them, in the grocery store. Without thinking, I walked up and told her how much I liked the blouse! Well, I did, I bought it!

Oh my
you speak to my heart.
Downscaling over 35 years from the huge home, 3 each getting smaller to now a 1200 sf cottage living space for me. Still too much - but then
children tell me - everything is just right at this time Every childs home has items from me
and clothes now are mostly gardening and walking in the woods type. Never changed size seems nice things from the past are better made then what is in the stores at this time. Still looking for the items I can discard. I need to stop going on Amazon as it is to easy to order books to add to the pile of unread books that is growing.
But then books and gardening items are my main pleasure at this time of late 70's life.

Having just come off what I hope will be my last year of intensive employment, decluttering is my resolution for the next year. I've put in for Robin Zasio's book from the library -- it should turn up around Christmas.

But Ronni has already nailed what the problem is: I hang on to things I don't need or even want because of their association with memories. As a consequence, I still have some of the my mother's clutter and she's been gone since '99! When I cleaned out their 3 story house, I did pretty well getting through most of it, but ended up with boxes of old photos. This must be the year I scan and dispose of them. ... We'll see how I do with good intentions.

After 17 years in a home with lots and lots of storage space, I moved to a home with limited storage space. I had 3 garage/estate sales, and netted about $400. Rather than haul the leftovers back into the house, I put them in the car and dropped it all off at a local thrift store. Watching people dig through your 'things' was more stressful than donating would have been. Yet I find myself unwilling to part with extraneous items (the cheap hose that kinks, items used for staging the old house, excess towels, etc), once again.

I found it quite freeing to unburden myself of the 'stuff', and promised myself I would only bring home what I needed for a specific use. Immediately. I've been pretty good about that promise, and keep a box in the garage that goes to charity when full. It's not the memories for me, it's remembering what I paid for every blasted item!

However, it's more important to me to spare my only child the chore of having to go through it all, than it is to cause myself the momentary sense of loss.

The "one box method" works for me. When I decide to clear out a certain stash of special stuff, I keep only those items that fit into one box. Size of box depends on your available space. Most of mine is under the bed!

Moving across the country from east coast to west coast is a great motivator for de-cluttering.

For one thing, it's so expensive to move stuff. It comes down to the value of an item, so my antique roll-top desk made the cut. Lots of stuff didn't.

I really do not have much attachment to stuff and can get rid of it easily enough, but it still seems to multiply no matter my frequent flyer miles at the Goodwill drop-off.

When I was younger I thought I had no limitations and had accumulated many "to do", "to read" and so forth through the years.

I find as I'm growing older this gathering of mine is wearing me down.

Sorting through all the "stuff" and having to decide as what to keep and to go is very stressful.

I have a little notebook that I use for inspirational thought about clutter and such.

My favorite is, "When I die, I want you to be able to take the sheets off the bed and the clothes out of the closet, clean out the medicine chest and hang out a for sale sign, two hours and you'll be rid of me. I'm a pilgrim, I travel light".

Although I have made it to the point of realizing that it is not the thing that makes the memory, it is the mind, I now just don't have the energy to tackle the piles and boxes of stuff sitting in closets, drawers and shelves. I just don't want to deal with it.
My biggest problem, however is that I have files, boxes and boxes of files and documents from my business here in my home. These are client files that I cannot destroy. Paper is my nemesis.

Thanks for the pertinent and helpful post. The best thing about it, though, is your comment about the title of the book!

Once again, Ronni, you've read your readers' minds! I'm reluctant to let go of all the pieces of my life just yet. Still, I don't want my husband's adult children to be forced to deal with it, either! So that means I'd better make a plan and get going. I try not to accumulate clutter, and I'm better about it than I used to be. Even so, we still have more "stuff" than we need or have space for in our compact 2BR townhouse.

Like "chlost", I work part time out of my home office. I don't keep confidential files, but I do have a lot of business-related paperwork. I'll probably retire fully in 2 years, at which time that will be shredded.

We declutter every spring, but my intent is to get more serious about it in 2013.

I read this post just before leaving to teach my uncluttering workshop at the local adult school! I'm not a pro-organizer, but a sympathetic guide who's been through the uncluttering process. Bottom line: it's an important, liberating task that's well worth the temporary discomfort it causes. Anyone can do it, even though it may appear daunting. I speak from experience!(Google me if you'd like to find my book.)

That quote Patricia Lee cited (one of my favorites, too) is from a character in Garrison Keillor's book, "Pontoon."

I long ago realized reasons why I'm so reluctant to part with many things. Some reasons stem from my childhood and youth, having to part with what was important to me. Later, finally obtaining some longed for possessions, obtained through sacrifice. Then from past experience, knowing if relinquished they might be wanted again, but might be unattainable, all influence me.

I've written on several occasions one of the kindest things we elders can do for our children is to dispose of the "stuff" as your mother probably did. So I know what to do. I still have possessions of my mothers I should have relinquished long ago.

My husband had organized necessary folders in a metal file that we could grab in an emergency (i.e. earthquake.) When he died they provided the materials needed. I need to do the same now, and should have before this.

I fully intended to begin the sorting process after my husband died but my momentum focused elsewhere and I eventually bogged down. I've lived in this house almost forty years after several distant moves and everything came along.

There's so much other I want to do, increasingly less time left in which to do it, so the sorting seems not as important -- BUT it is. I know I must simply adopt that shoe slogan -- Just Do It!

I think I must begin with only a drawer a day. Maybe I'll finally get my typical enthusiastic task spirit and lose myself pleasurably in the activity for hours, regularly, until I'm done.

I like goals and have been on the declutter trip for over a year. I want to make the choices while I can and not leave a mess to my nephew. In the past year, I sold, donated, passed on things in every category. A nice surprise was my ultimate tax donation receipts....total $ 8,000. Nice present to self :-) Less is more is my mantra these days....

I so enjoyed reading all the comments...Syd and I have lived in this house 40 years and if we make it, will be married 50 years in April. We are not hoarders but we have a big house with room for lots of stuff...I agree with you all I know what needs to be done BUT just can not do it yet.

I vacillate on this subject. My husband and I both have a problem..not hoarding per se (you can indeed walk into the house), but we are emotionally attached to tons of stuff. Sometimes I think, lets get rid of this crap and other times I think, oh let the heirs handle it. So what if we leave behind too much stuff--they might grumble (Damn these people for not being considerate of us!) but I know that they will still be ahead of the game even if they have to devote some time to the effort. So I left crap behind...so what. That's my current thinking. However, I do realize (like Ronni does) that divesting might be in my better interests. It's probably so liberating to stand before a closet of just the things you actually wear.

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