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.

An older woman boxes up some items from her 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 help make for a safer environment. Falls are the leading cause of injury in the United States among adults 65 and older: 27.5% reported having fallen at least once in 2018 and 10% reported a fall-related injury. Decluttering reduces the risk of falling, helping to keep paths clear and obstacles to a minimum.

There are other benefits beyond safety. Household chores, like cleaning, has been associated with better brain health in older adults, according to a study in BMC Geriatrics.

Regular household chores like vacuuming and washing windows can be great physical activity, and a tidy home can also mean we’re more likely to invite people over – prompting the long-awaited social interactions that can help alleviate feelings of depression and isolation that sometimes accompany aging.

Tips to get started

It’s good to know the benefits, but sometimes that’s not enough motivation to tackle an important task. But one step at a time can keep you from dreading it.

First, realize that decluttering will take time and patience. It’s hard to decide what to do with items that may have been in the family for generations, so don’t judge yourself if you find it more difficult than someone who’s deciding whether to get rid of out-of-style clothes or cheap furniture from their college years.

The one-room-at-time approach might work best. The most-cluttered areas of a home are the garage, kitchen and home office, so why not try the kitchen first. After all, throwing away chipped dishes and expired spices will be a lot easier than wading through boxes of potentially important paperwork or personal items. 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.

How about the closets?

Whether you have a huge walk-in closet or a small 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, then 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.

Another good tip to cut clutter is to find a process to stop it before it starts. Toss those unwanted credit-card offers and coupon packs into the recycling bin before they enter the house. If magazines and newspapers sit around unread, cancel the subscriptions. Here are some tips to cull the tide of junk mail, and mobile apps can help collect and digitize recipes, warranties, instruction manuals and memorabilia to clear away more piles of paper.

Finally, be kind to yourself. It’s OK to hang on to something that is near and dear to you. But if an item no longer holds sentimental or functional value, get rid of it. Your decluttering mission today can help you enjoy a tidier, safer and healthier home tomorrow.