The Junk Wars: 8 Ways to Get Rid of Aging Parents' "Stuff" (and Your Resentment Over Having to Deal With It)


Last updated: April 30, 2009
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"Christmas lights. Do not work." Three boxes, so labeled and tucked in the basement ceiling joists, were perhaps my favorite find while clearing out my parents' house. Well, those or the shelf of neat notebooks recording weekly bowling scores back to the 1960s. A dozen casserole lids, no casseroles. Spare stereo knobs, circa 1975. Enough yarn to knit a sweater that could encase the entire house and yard, Christo-style.

I tossed plenty of useless stuff while clearing out my parents' home of 40-odd years, recently. (100 pairs of elastic-waist pants, anyone?) But I had it relatively easy, because my parents weren't involved. (My mom had died and my dad, who was relocating, was sidelined by dementia.)

Most caregivers face the "junk wars" with still-living relatives. It can happen when you combine households because of the recession. Or help a parent downsize into assisted living. Or just try to make a crowded old house safer for an older adult in which to age-in-place.

Sorting through the accumulated years can be exasperating. Even a nightmare, if the person is a packrat, under stress, or hopelessly sentimental. (Which doesn't leave too many people, I know.)

This week I read some great tips on the topic in a thread in Caring.com groups on whether people fantasized about getting rid of parents' stuff.

Here are some of the best, and a few others:

1. Start yesterday.

Just about everybody who's been through the ordeal "“ whether they have to "de-junk" in crisis mode or not "“ wishes they'd begun sooner.

Tip: Appeal to the person's sense of not wanting to be any "trouble": "Dad and Mom, it will be a heck of a lot more trouble for me to sort through all this after you're gone than to sit here and help you get a handle on it now."

2. Snap it, then dump it.

Great tip from Caring user Bobbi in Florida: Take pictures of beloved objects before disbursing them. "What is really important are the memories, not the stuff," she says she discovered. Your parent is apt to have more fun looking at albums (or downloaded images online) than dusting and digging. Likewise, you can scan old documents.

Tip: Perfect summer job for an unemployed teen.

3. Box it and "forget" it.

For stuff you're pretty sure you're not going to want to see again "“ but the resistant person insists is important "“ try some elegant boxing. Get official, sturdy moving boxes, carefully label contents, and relocate the clutter to a basement or storage unit. Nine times out of 10, it's never asked about or seen again. But the person feels reassured that it's safe.

Tip: For items worth leaving out, write the significance (where it came from, family meaning, etc.) on a piece of paper stuck to its bottom. Your own children may appreciate this tiny extra step.

4. Develop some questions to sort by.

The specific questions depend on the situation, but you can make a game of it. Samples: When was the last time you wore it? (More than two years and it's out.) Does it work? (If it doesn't function, forget it.) Is this a sentimental thing for you or a memory you want to pass on to somebody else? Is there anybody who could use this more than you right now (a young family starting out, a charity)?

Tip: Focus on potential gains (less to clean, safer floors, money, helping someone else) rather than losses.

5. Distinguish saving from collecting or hoarding.

It might all look like junk to you, but understanding the person's motivation can guide the psychology you use on them. People reared during the Depression tend to save stuff because they "might need it someday." (That would explain my Dad's broken Christmas lights.)

Collectors might be persuaded to cash in on their collection(s) in this economic climate. Or work with them to plan ahead to divide a collection among, say, grandchildren as Christmas gifts.

Hoarders are often ill. Often you can surreptitiously cart off some of their stuff with less much fuss. Learn how to spot a hoarder.

6. Cope with it as an alternative to "American Idol."

Try easing a willing parent into a downsizing spirit by suggesting you spend an evening a week, or an hour every evening, having "Sort Time."

Tip:Start nonthreatentingly small: a corner, a box of paper paraphernalia or photos, a bookcase.

I love how one Caring user put it: "I've learned stuff I would never otherwise have learned and for my Mom it is a trip down memory lane, on the one hand, and a chance to say goodbye and move on with the next life chapter, on the other."

7. Enlist professional help.

Especially if it's a crisis or you're out of town, consider finding a senior move manager. These experts know not only what to do with all that stuff but, more importantly, empathetic ways to get someone to willingly part with it.

8. Think twice about grabbing it for yourself.

Your own kids will thank you someday.

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22 Comments So Far. Add Your Wisdom.

Anonymous said over 1 year ago

both parents have passed in the last 4 years. I am an only and, they were packrats. I am having a very rough emotional time of getting rid of all their stuff I have here and at a unit. I also have stuff animals I sometimes want to get rid of and then wonder if I will feel bad about it, any suggestions, I don't have anyone to help me with this.......


almost 2 years ago

I'm not into really being a collector, but I do have a lot of "stuff". Looking at it every day is really getting me more depressed. So with the new year coming I believe that I will start cleaning out all the unnecessary "stuff" and have myself a good time doing it. It is hard parting with some things, but in reality, as the saying goes "you can't take it with you" so why hang on to it. Whenever my kids come, not as often as I would like, I tell them that if there is anything that I have that they want to please take it. Good Will and Habitat for Humanity are only a few blocks from where I live and I have taken about 6 bags to them already. After January 1st, I get serious! Happy New Year everyone.


about 2 years ago

Feeling overwhelmed, I searced the internet for helpful tips helping my aging Mom clean out her home. Fortunately, Mom wants my help!!! Thank you for the helpful information!


about 2 years ago

I have sorted through many bags of papers of all kinds, tossing as much as possible. My Mom always wants me to save certain items and papers - articles from old newspapers - magazines from several years ago - things my Mom doesn't even know she has, but that she wants to read someday. It's difficult because I don't want to hurt her feelings, but at the same time, the important papers are getting lost amidst all the clutter. It's an overwhelming task and there are days I just don't seem to accomplish much at all. Therese


over 2 years ago

I got rid of 3 dumpsters worth of "maybe we'll need it someday" when my dad passed away in '98. My mom still had a bout 3 households worth of stuff, having combined her parents and aunts' things - oh, and a good friend's things. By the time she passed in 2010, I still had stuff I felt guilty about getting rid of - letters, receipts from the 20's, pictures - many duplicated and so interesting! Every time I'd go into the "room" where this stuff was stored, I'd get sick. Finally, I decided to shred it all. The anquish is not worth keeping it and putting stress on your family. It is cathartic to trash everything. Kind of like entering a monastary and getting rid of your earthly possessions. Good luck all. Oh yes, and your kids are going to throw it away anyway!


over 2 years ago

Both of my parents are still alive. I have 2 brothers. I will start working on the mess, and getting control of it, on my own, while my father is at work. And I will insist my mother is in a different room. And I DO NOT want my brothers there. Will start with the shed, then move onto the basement, then attic, then the house. Trying to get anything done by comittee is terrible. Doing it solo is better, you cant quickly make progress make executive decesions and GET ER DONE.


about 3 years ago

When I moved into my mother's house it was even diffulcult for her to let go of half consumed take-out! Now she is confined to bed and it is easier to get things out - I have been amazed at how many items that are still useful that people on 'FreeCycle' want and need. Most of the six partial sets of dishes have gone to the homeless shelter, etc., Now, what to do with the 30yr collection of fossils and minerals!


over 4 years ago

I'm a little slow in reading posts - but thought I'd add my comments. I moved in with my mom 10 years ago to take care of her. My dad had recently died. Talk about holding on to things. They had saved every, yes every cancelled check they had ever written in their life. They even had federal income tax returns back to 1947 when they were first married and for every year since. I put all special its (paper weights, vases, ornaments) into two glass book cases. So there was still special things showing. My mom to this day will not allow me to get rid of "her" things even though she has no idea she has this junk. I move everthing not used into one unused room. Let it sit there for a while until she doesn't notice it. Then I wait until she goes to bet at night and moved it to my car and take it to a charity that can sell it. Little by little I have cleaned most of the house. Or I lie and say it is mine and I don't want it and her dementia is so bad she won't argue about that. I still after 10 years have a room full of furniture that "that was mine when I was a child" (not true) that has been difficult to move out of the house. The clutter is out from under foot at least and makes it easier to manager taking care of her. I just ignore the "junk" room a lot since it becomes overwhelming dealing with her and the junk. I figure that if I wait longer, her dementia will be bad enough to where she won't pay attention any more. It is very difficult and the point of many arguements.


over 5 years ago

There are so many great ideas embedded in these comments, the power of group-think! Thanks for sharing them --


Anonymous said over 5 years ago

Whew, I just clicked on this site out of morbid curiousity since only the first line of the page title showed and said "The Junk Wars: 8 ways to get rid of aging parents" Guess you only need to push the comment button one time, eh?


Anonymous said over 5 years ago

In some circumstances, a good way to unburden everyone emotionally attached to, or burdened by, excess property, is choosing to sell at auction. (In fact, a probate court may order an auction if a will is lacking, debts are owed, or due to embattled or neglectful heirs). With an auction nothing is thrown away and unwanted property is converted to cash. Its easy to sell small lots at a consignment auction house, many even offer pick-up service. If you have a large amount of property, an on-site auction can avoid the cost and work of moving, and the auctioneers crews will do all of the work. Call each auctioneers listed in your area, then meet with least three, discuss all costs for ads, set-up, workers, commissions etc, and get an estimate in writing, ask for references and call them. Read the contract before signing. Auctions can also avoid or resolve battles between heirs for cherished items and the competitive bidding puts the money back into the estate. Expect to pay 10 to 40% of the sale value for auction services. If you have the fortitude, time and energy and need to maximize cash return you can combine a family reunion with a garage sale or estate sale. You can tag you items or take offers. If you haggle hard and promote your event well, you can sum out ahead of an auctions proceeds by doing it yourself, but you may still have a pile of leftovers for the recycling center and local charities. If your parents are going to help, make them promise not to give anything away once the item has been designated for the sale, not even to the grandkids. Ebay is another alternative for a few items, especially valuable collectibles. On line auctions involve a lot of work unless you contract someone to sell and ship the items. Be assured that for each and every discarded item there was a lamenting collector who would have gladly parted with good money to save that treasure from the ride to the landfill or the flames of the burn barrel.


Anonymous said over 5 years ago

In some circumstances, a good way to unburden everyone emotionally attached to, or burdened by, excess property, is choosing to sell at auction. (In fact, a probate court may order an auction if a will is lacking, debts are owed, or due to embattled or neglectful heirs). With an auction nothing is thrown away and unwanted property is converted to cash. Its easy to sell small lots at a consignment auction house, many even offer pick-up service. If you have a large amount of property, an on-site auction can avoid the cost and work of moving, and the auctioneers crews will do all of the work. Call each auctioneers listed in your area, then meet with least three, discuss all costs for ads, set-up, workers, commissions etc, and get an estimate in writing, ask for references and call them. Read the contract before signing. Auctions can also avoid or resolve battles between heirs for cherished items and the competitive bidding puts the money back into the estate. Expect to pay 10 to 40% of the sale value for auction services. If you have the fortitude, time and energy and need to maximize cash return you can combine a family reunion with a garage sale or estate sale. You can tag you items or take offers. If you haggle hard and promote your event well, you can sum out ahead of an auctions proceeds by doing it yourself, but you may still have a pile of leftovers for the recycling center and local charities. If your parents are going to help, make them promise not to give anything away once the item has been designated for the sale, not even to the grandkids. Ebay is another alternative for a few items, especially valuable collectibles. On line auctions involve a lot of work unless you contract someone to sell and ship the items. Be assured that for each and every discarded item there was a lamenting collector who would have gladly parted with good money to save that treasure from the ride to the landfill or the flames of the burn barrel.


Anonymous said over 5 years ago

In some circumstances, a good way to unburden everyone emotionally attached to, or burdened by, excess property, is choosing to sell at auction. (In fact, a probate court may order an auction if a will is lacking, debts are owed, or due to embattled or neglectful heirs). With an auction nothing is thrown away and unwanted property is converted to cash. Its easy to sell small lots at a consignment auction house, many even offer pick-up service. If you have a large amount of property, an on-site auction can avoid the cost and work of moving, and the auctioneers crews will do all of the work. Call each auctioneers listed in your area, then meet with least three, discuss all costs for ads, set-up, workers, commissions etc, and get an estimate in writing, ask for references and call them. Read the contract before signing. Auctions can also avoid or resolve battles between heirs for cherished items and the competitive bidding puts the money back into the estate. Expect to pay 10 to 40% of the sale value for auction services. If you have the fortitude, time and energy and need to maximize cash return you can combine a family reunion with a garage sale or estate sale. You can tag you items or take offers. If you haggle hard and promote your event well, you can sum out ahead of an auctions proceeds by doing it yourself, but you may still have a pile of leftovers for the recycling center and local charities. If your parents are going to help, make them promise not to give anything away once the item has been designated for the sale, not even to the grandkids. Ebay is another alternative for a few items, especially valuable collectibles. On line auctions involve a lot of work unless you contract someone to sell and ship the items. Be assured that for each and every discarded item there was a lamenting collector who would have gladly parted with good money to save that treasure from the ride to the landfill or the flames of the burn barrel.


Anonymous said over 5 years ago

In some circumstances, a good way to unburden everyone emotionally attached to, or burdened by, excess property, is choosing to sell at auction. (In fact, a probate court may order an auction if a will is lacking, debts are owed, or due to embattled or neglectful heirs). With an auction nothing is thrown away and unwanted property is converted to cash. Its easy to sell small lots at a consignment auction house, many even offer pick-up service. If you have a large amount of property, an on-site auction can avoid the cost and work of moving, and the auctioneers crews will do all of the work. Call each auctioneers listed in your area, then meet with least three, discuss all costs for ads, set-up, workers, commissions etc, and get an estimate in writing, ask for references and call them. Read the contract before signing. Auctions can also avoid or resolve battles between heirs for cherished items and the competitive bidding puts the money back into the estate. Expect to pay 10 to 40% of the sale value for auction services. If you have the fortitude, time and energy and need to maximize cash return you can combine a family reunion with a garage sale or estate sale. You can tag you items or take offers. If you haggle hard and promote your event well, you can sum out ahead of an auctions proceeds by doing it yourself, but you may still have a pile of leftovers for the recycling center and local charities. If your parents are going to help, make them promise not to give anything away once the item has been designated for the sale, not even to the grandkids. Ebay is another alternative for a few items, especially valuable collectibles. On line auctions involve a lot of work unless you contract someone to sell and ship the items. Be assured that for each and every discarded item there was a lamenting collector who would have gladly parted with good money to save that treasure from the ride to the landfill or the flames of the burn barrel.


over 5 years ago

Went I die I would like everything I own to disappear, like in O'Henry's poem "One Hoss Shay" where everything falls apart into molecules and atoms and the wind blows it away. But I would add to that, whereever my name appears on any registry, military records, social security, bank accounts, and etc. to also vanish into thin air and definitely no grave or any marker that I was alive.


Anonymous said over 5 years ago

I found a great book that helps you deal with Dealing With Your Parents Lifetime Accumulation Of Stuff it's called The Boomer Burden. It was written by a real Estate Lady. Great book, it was helpful when we needed!!! She is a really great person to be able to help so many others deal with this difficult topic.


Anonymous said over 5 years ago

This advice is wonderful, and not just for helping the elderly. I'm an archivist, and helping my mother clean out my grandmother's house after we moved grandma to a nursing home was...trying. Mom wanted to keep all the supposedly-valuable collectibles and toss all the "family papers", while I was focused on the unique family memories. The idea of taking photos of bulky items is great. I also use this idea for favorite items of my daughters' (clothing, toys) so that it is easier on me to pass these items onto the next owner rather than keeping them for sentimental reasons.


over 5 years ago

This summer I will be packing up/downsizing my Mom's home of 55 years, a home single-handedly built by my Dad, her husband of 51 years, for an out-of-area move to be closer to me. The idea of taking photos of their home is absolutely priceless! I am going to take photos of every aspect of their home and beautiful yard, as well as the surrounding neighborhood and neighbors. In addition I will add photos of special places we frequented as a family. All will go into a photo album which will be on her coffee table when she arrives at her new apartment at assisted living. I think initially it will help her feel her grief of what was and can no longer be, and hopeful that one day soon it will be a fond reflection for her of happy memories.


over 5 years ago

That's a great idea about taking pictures and creating an album of the items. When my late husband went into a nursing home at 33, he thankfully helped me sort through a list of items. While the process was frustrating, at the end of the day, he knew the new owners (relatives, friends and non-profits) could use the stuff better than either of us could in the throws of a healthcare crisis.


over 5 years ago

Another suggestion would be: learn about the options for disposal and recycling that are available in your area, and offer to help. I am caregiver to one person, and informally help two others as part of their support system. Giving usable things to charity, or putting it in a consignment shop is an easy fix compared to trying to throw things out in a somewhat responsible and "green" way. I have to drive 35 miles to a large recycling center to get rid of such things as old metal cookware, etc. And it's hard to know what to do with broken televisions and small appliances


over 5 years ago

I tried many of those same things. Dad passed away and Mom has dementia, She double checked anyone leaving the house. "They better not take my treasures". I finally started calling it my mess and kept appologizing. Mom finally told me to quit saying sorry and just clean it up. Unfortunatly Mom also told everyone else it was my mess and he can do it himself.


Anonymous said over 5 years ago

Thanks for your helpful and entertaining account of cleaning out. I need to get going.. I'm reminded of when I was cleaning out my Grandmother's things. I had sent my Grandfather out for the day. (She'd passed away several months before). I worked into the night, and slept in the spare room. The next morning, Grandfather came out and looked particularly grizzled. I'm sorry Grandfather, this must be very hard for you. "Actually," he said "I simply can't find a razor, comb or toothbrush in the entire house!"


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