By Patti Haddick, Director of Home Services – Years ago, as a young wife and mother just starting a new household, I could not understand why my mother and aunts requested “no knick-knacks and dust-catchers” for birthdays and holidays.  I loved the little tole-painted candleholders and the cute country crocks of dried flowers for my newly established home.

As I have aged I now see my Mother and aunts’ point of view.  Those knick-knacks have now turned into dust-catchers…things to be moved & dusted every time one cleans.  As decorations are added to tabletops there is the added chore of cleaning them.  I now rarely ask for anything to just set around the house as a decoration and look for more utilitarian gifts such as an organizer for the closet or washcloths and towels to replace my more threadbare ones.

Having lost my mother less than 2 years ago I also look at all the possessions to still be disbursed to family members or disposed of in a yard or estate sale.  The most wanted and precious to her 3 children are things such as the photos, the 3 angel statues representing the months of our births, and our baby books.  These are all memory evoking items, things precious to our hearts.  We all have our own households and do not need another microwave, set of pots and pans, or sheets.

How does one go about decluttering and downsizing before it becomes an immediate necessity due to nursing home placement, a move to assisted living, or the passing of a loved one?  Many articles have been written on the subject but dealing with it can seem insurmountable at first. If you want to follow the professionals’ suggestions here are some ideas:

Before starting have 4 bins labeled: KEEP, THROW AWAY, DONATE, and SELL.  As you go through things put them in one of the bins.  The things in the DONATE or THROW AWAY bins should be dealt with immediately after the cleaning session so as not to allow time to change one’s mind. If your loved one wants a certain person to receive an item after they have passed this might be the time to give it.  This will clear space and also deflect arguments among heirs.

Break it down in to small time increments.  Do not try to do one room in a day.  Maybe start with one drawer in the kitchen or one tabletop.  After this is completed there is a sense of accomplishment and a realization that the task is doable and not so overwhelming.

If the budget allows, rent a storage space to allow immediate decluttering without throwing away.  Bring boxes out one at a time from the storage shed and go through them with your loved one.  This helps them see the immediate results without feeling someone is pillaging and plundering through their precious belongings.

There are many more ideas on the internet for downsizing and decluttering but, to me, there is an underlying factor in doing this sooner rather than later.  As I age I know my memory is not what it used to be.  I don’t remember some of my family’s favorite recipes by heart so that is why I have them written down.  I don’t know who gave which knick-knack to my mother and what they meant to her.  I don’t know why Mom saved a certain article or poem that must have spoken to her heart or been important to her for some reason.

Going through possessions and belongings is a way of reconnecting with your parent or loved one and allowing them to talk about their history and the feeling and memories these items evoke.  For example, I remember Mom telling me the history behind her beloved Betty Crocker Cookbook.  As a newlywed she had little experience in cooking and taught herself (with some help from her mother-in-law and sisters-in-law) how to make pies for Thanksgiving and cook a pot roast for my dad.  She ended up being an excellent cook and always loved to cook.

Just last week I took some of Mom’s decades-old Christmas decorations to my sister.  We reminisced over the Elf Holding a Candy Cane Planters: the lavender one was in honor of my sister’s favorite color, the blue one was, of course, for my brother and the pink one was for me. (Can you guess my favorite childhood color?)  But don’t ask me where they came from. I vaguely remember Christmas greenery placed in the planter behind the elf gifted to us one Christmas maybe by my mom’s two sisters but I’m not sure.

I also gave my sister a wooden-based Christmas tree made from the netting used to make ballerina tutus.  I remember helping my mom paint the wooden bases, gather the netting, and put a rubber band on it to form the tiers of the tree.  These memories bring warm feelings that I wish I could have shared with my mom in her later years.  I wish she could tell me if the wooden bases were made by my dad who died when I was 8 years old or were made by Uncle Don, my mom’s brother, who was our family handyman after my dad passed.

Don’t let decluttering and downsizing be a complete chore or drudgery.  Let it be an opportunity to reconnect with your loved one and allow them to take you on a walk down their Memory Lane before the memories fade or are washed away by time or the ravages of dementia.  You won’t regret it and it may make them more cooperative through the whole process!