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Why and How to Declutter a Lifetime’s Worth of Possessions

Getting and keeping a house in order can be a struggle, especially as we age. Sorting through decades of belongings is often emotional and stressful, as questions and decisions pile up: Is this jewelry valuable? What should I do with all these tools I no longer use? Will this china set that’s so special to me have sentimental value to my children?

But while it can be exhaustive, this effort to declutter and simplify can be worthwhile not only for our homes but also for our health.

Infographic: Benefits of decluttering your home

The health benefits of decluttering

Getting rid of things you no longer need or want may have a positive effect on mental health and can also make for a safer environment. It’s a sobering fact that every 12 seconds, someone over age 64 will fall and end up in the emergency room. Decluttering can help keep paths clear and obstacles to a minimum.

A study at Indiana University showed that people with clean houses are healthier than people with messy houses. The movement involved with regular household chores like vacuuming and washing windows can be great physical activity. A tidy home can also mean we’re more likely to invite people over – prompting interactions that can help alleviate feelings of depression and isolation that can accompany aging.

Tips to get started

Of course, simply knowing something might be good for our health isn’t always motivation enough to take the first steps toward doing it. But decluttering doesn’t need to be a dreaded task.

Where to start in assessing and tackling the possessions we’ve collected over a lifetime? First, realize that it will take time and patience, so don’t judge yourself. It’s harder to decide what to do with items that have been in the family for generations than it might be for millennials to decide what to do with disposable fashion and big-box furniture from their college years.

Take it one room at a time. According to a study by Moen, the most-cluttered areas of a home are the garage, kitchen and home office. The kitchen is a good place to start the decluttering process, because throwing away chipped dishes and expired spices isn’t as taxing as wading through boxes of potentially important paperwork or personal items stored away. Take everything out of the fridge and cupboards and spread it all out on a counter or table so it’s easy to review. Give shelves a good wipe-down and restock them with the necessities, putting go-to things within easy reach, and donate or store appliances and dishes that are used less often.

Once you feel good about your progress in the kitchen, move on to tackle the garage, office and other spaces where belongings tend to pile up. Like closets!

Whether you have a walk-in closet most would envy or a closet that can barely contain your bulky winter coat, it’s a good practice to go through clothing, shoes and other items with some frequency, keeping only what you use the most. Pick a handful of favorite outfits for everyday wear, social outings and special occasions, seasonal wear and wardrobe staples, and donate the rest. If it’s hard to part with handmade or other sentimental items, consider finding creative ways to remember them, such as making a memory quilt of old t-shirts or photographing special items for an album and then letting them go.

One last sure-fire tip to help with clutter? Set up processes to stop the build-up before it begins. Keep a recycling bin handy for unwanted credit-card offers and coupon packs before they enter the house, and unsubscribe from magazines and newspapers if they pile up unread. Eco-Cycle has some tips to cull the tide of junk mail, and mobile apps like Evernote can help collect and digitize recipes, warranties, instruction manuals and memorabilia to clear away more piles of paper.

At the end of the day, it’s okay to hang on to belongings that are near and dear to you. But for items that don’t hold sentimental or functional value, kick-start a decluttering mission today so you can enjoy a tidier, safer home tomorrow.