20 Tips to Help You Get Rid of Junk

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Helping a parent downsize for a move can be complicated. Where you see a houseful of stuff to sort and toss, your parent is apt to see treasures, essentials, and a lifetime of memories.

"To let go of what we have around us is to confront a very different living situation," says senior-relocation industry leader Nan Hayes of Hinsdale, Illinois, founder of MoveSeniors.com. "People tend to cling to their possessions to avoid dealing with other issues, like stress or fear."

For adults over 60, only a spouse's death and divorce rank as more stressful than moving to a nursing or retirement home, according to the Social Readjustment Rating Scale, aka the Stress Scale.

Here, 20 expert-tested ideas to avoid the "junk wars" and make downsizing less stressful -- for all of you.

SEE ALSO: Find In-Home Care Help Near You

Sorting | Coping with treasures | Selling | Donating | Discarding | Getting help

Downsizing tips: How to sort

1. Avoid tackling the whole house in one go.

Though it's more efficient for you to plow full steam ahead, your parent is apt to be stressed emotionally, if not also physically. When organizing a parent's move, it's better to think in terms of months, not days.

Tackle one room or area at a time. About two hours at a stretch is ideal for many older adults, says Margit Novack, president of MovingSolutions in Philadelphia and founding president of the National Association of Senior Move Managers.

SEE ALSO: Find In-Home Care Help Near You

2. Frame decisions as yes-no questions.

Open-ended choices put a reluctant mover on the spot, raising stress. Avoid asking, "Which pots and pans do you want to keep?" Winnow them down yourself first, then present a more manageable yes-no option: "I've got your best frying pan, a large pot, and a small sauce pot. Does that sound good?"

"Couching questions for yes-no answers provides the opportunity for the parent to feel successful so you can move on to the next thing," Novack says.

Items that exist in abundance work especially well to presort: clothing, kitchenware, tools, and anything else you know the person has way more of than he or she will have space for.

3. Use the new space as a guide.

Measure exactly how much closet or cabinet space the new place has (assisted living communities will provide this information if you ask), and fill an equivalent amount of space as you sort. Mark off the comparable space so your parent has a visual guide.

Beware of excessive multiples. In assisted living, your parent only needs one frying pan, one or two sets of sheets, one coffeemaker, one or two coats, and so on.

4. Banish the "maybe" pile.

Relocation experts call it the OHIO rule: Only handle it once. The less decisive you are about what to do with an item, the more attached you (or your parent) risk becoming to it, Hayes says. Moving things in and out of "maybe" piles is also takes time.

Tempting as it is to set aside tough sorts for later, unless there's room to "hold" them at a relative's house, it's not generally worth paying storage-rental fees (unless it's a very large estate and time is tight). That's because once they're boxed, your parent isn't likely to look at the items ever again. (Out of sight, out of mind.)

Exception: Save time by boxing piles of paperwork, which doesn't take much room. Papers are time-consuming to go through and present an unpleasant task for many disorganized people, casting a pall on your packing.

5. Encourage your parent to focus on most-used items (and let the rest go).

Be patient and follow your parent's lead -- what seems old and useless to you may be a source of great comfort and joy and therefore worth moving. "Don't go by the newest and best; go by what they use," Novack says. "You may think Mom should pack her pretty cut-glass tumblers for assisted living, but the reality is that those ugly stained plastic ones are what she uses every day."

When facing especially hard choices, ask for the story behind a dubious object -- where it came from, when it was last used, whether a young family might put it to good use. This takes time, but the payoff is that once your parent starts talking, he or she may have a clearer perspective and feel more able to let go, Novack says.

Downsizing tips: How to cope with treasures

6. Pack representative bits of favored items (not the whole kit and kaboodle).

Photos, memorabilia, and collections typically take up far more space than the average assisted-living quarters can accommodate. Many services digitize images and papers for you for reasonable prices -- sell the idea to your parent that every family member will get a copy, too.

Pick key prints to display on the walls; large tabletop displays take up too much precious space.

7. Cull a collection by asking, "Which is your favorite piece?"

Assure that one or two "best" items can have a highlighted location in the new home. "People sometimes feel OK about giving up the rest if they have a sense of control over the process," Novack says.

8. Take photos of the rest of a collection and present them in a special book.

No, it's not exactly the same as owning, but it's a space-saving way for a collector to continue enjoying.

9. If it's meant to be a gift or legacy, encourage giving it now.

Urge your parent not to wait for the next holiday, birthday, or other milestone to bestow; remind him that there's no space for storage. Ask, "Why not enjoy the feeling of giving right now?" (And if you're the recipient -- just take it, and encourage your relatives to do the same. You can lose it later, if you don't want it, but the immediate need is to empty your parent's house.)

Downsizing tips: How to sell

10. Think twice before selling items on your own.

Craigslist, eBay, and other self-selling options are time-consuming when you're trying to process a houseful of goods. Be realistic: "The value of an item isn't what you paid for it or how well made or special it is -- it's what someone is willing to pay for it," warns Novack.

11. If there are several items of high value, consider an appraisal.

Go through the entire house; the appraiser will only come out once and is more interested in relatively large lots. Auction houses, whose goal is to sell items at the best price, are better options than antique dealers, whose goal is to get items for the lowest price, Novack says. Consignment shops will also sell items, but they tend to cherry-pick (they take fewer items) and often charge to pick items up.

Downsizing tips: How to donate

12. Understand how charities work.

The main donation outlets include Goodwill, the Salvation Army, AmVets, and Purple Heart. Depending on your area, popular alternatives may include other charities or a local hospital or PTA thrift shop. Senior living communities and moving companies often furnish lists of area charities that accept donations, says Nan Hayes of MoveSeniors.com.

These charities work by selling castoffs; they don't want (and often won't take) dregs that are better left to the trash. Some take only furniture; some won't take clothing. Larger charities tend to accept a wider variety of items. Get a receipt for a tax deduction.

Clarify whether they offer free pickup (a huge time-saver). Some charities will remove items from the ground floor only.

13. Target recipients for specialty items.

It's time-consuming to find willing recipients for everything, but it may be worth the effort for items that your parent would be relieved to see in a good home. Examples: Schools may welcome musical instruments, old costumes, or tools. Auto repair shops and community maintenance departments may take tools and yard tools.

14. Try the "free books" tactic.

In some communities, setting items on the curb with a sign that says "Free! Help yourself!" will make items miraculously disappear. This works great for books, Novack says, and sometimes other items. (Libraries don't normally take books; some charities or schools may, but finding a willing recipient and transporting the books -- or any other items donated piecemeal "“ takes time.)

In some areas, freecyling is an option. You post an item available for pickup to a membership list, and anyone who wants it can come pick it up from you (or from your curb). More than 5,000 groups make up the Freecycle Network. Like selling items on Craigslist, however, the communications involved can be time-consuming and tedious if your goal is fast disposal of a large number of objects.

Downsizing tips: What to discard

15. If it's chipped, broken, or stained, toss it.

Charities don't want nonworking Christmas lights, snagged clothes, lidless plastic Tupperware, or any items that they can't sell. Period.

16. Weigh your loyalty to recycling against your available time.

Avoiding waste is noble, but finding a home for every object can be incredibly time-consuming. "If you recycle the other 364 days of the year, tossing a few things in the interests of time is fine. You have to be pragmatic," Novack says.

17. Don't be shy about tossing replaceable items without consultation.

Not worth moving, donating, or even conferring about: old spices, junk mail, old magazines (yes, even all those yellow-spined National Geographic issues), outdated medications, unused toiletries, plastic food containers, candles, stuffed toys (most charities won't accept them), and the contents of the junk drawer (just hang onto change and spare keys). Get rid of it when the homeowner isn't looking.

18. For a price, you don't have to haul it away yourself.

The local garbage company may have limits on how many large black trash bags it will take, and not all local dumps take unsorted trash, either.

Waste Management's Bagster is a smaller-scale alternative to a Dumpster, and it doesn't harm your driveway. Buy one of its large bags at a home-improvement retailer (about $30, depending on pickup location), fill with up to 3,300 pounds of trash, and call to schedule a pickup.

Services like 1-800-Got-Junk and 1-800-Junk-USA (which recently merged with the industry's other biggie, College Hunks Hauling Junk) remove appliances and furniture as well as smaller items.

Smaller local junk dealers may haul things away for free if they see, on appraisal, items that they'll be able to sell.

Downsizing tips: Get help

19. Consider bringing in the pros.

A fast-growing specialty, senior move managers specialize in helping older adults and are skilled at both the emotional and practical dimensions of late-life transitions. (The ten-year-old National Association of Professional Move Managers has more than 600 move-management company members.) These experts can defuse a parent-child emotional clash while handling everything from sorting and packing through hiring movers and unpacking in the new place. They usually charge an hourly fee that varies by locale.

Find a senior move manager.

20. Investigate one-stop solutions if time is tight.

Deciding whether to sell, donate, give away, or throw away is stressful and takes a lot of time. Another way to outsource the tasks is to hold an estate sale. Caring Transitions is a chain of senior-relocation franchises that handle estate sales.

Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio

about 1 year, said...

I had the mammoth task of sorting through all of my mum's things. This is what I did. Collect all the clothes, I found clothes still with tags on and clothes I'd never seen her wear. They all went to the charity shop and some that were passed their best went to the dump. I collected all the books up and they went to the charity shop. Then I did the kitchen. I asked everyone I knew if they wanted anything or knew someone and I got rid of a lot of things, The rest went to the charity shop. I contacted the local charities and 2 of them came and took all the furniture. Some relatives took some pieces. I collected all the photographs and paperwork together boxed up to look at later. I collected all her jewellery and took it home. And it's true what others have said room by room or even cupboard by cupboard but it is hard and you have to be strong. For example I found stacks of greetings cards from years ago up to when she passed. I made a decision after reading a few that it was wasting time, she'd just kept them not looked at them since she put there so they all went in the recycling bin. Remove any valuables to either sell, give to relations or to get valuations. I knew my mum wanted certain things to go to some of her family and friends so I gave all those out. It's hard but be methodical and you'll get there.

over 1 year, said...

I forgot to mention another tactic, arising from a problem which is shared much earlier by another poster Keep one of those checkout bags, a 50cent Large opaque recyclable shopping bag in a strategic spot in your bedroom for clothing. And keep a wastebasket next to it. This is mental training for clothing sorting, (which I am utterly awful at) When getting dressed,w or folding laundry, problem with that piece? Hate those socks? It either gets tossed into that bag or the wastebasket, and STAYS there. YOU ARE NEVER PERMITTED to LOOK INTO the BIG BAG, even if just looking for a shirt to do a paint job. The minute you remove an item, you will find yourself torn over it, all over again, so the rule is, ONCE IT IS IN THAT BAG, IT HAS ALREADY LEFT THE HOUSE!!! And it's a handy catch all for other types of odd bits that must leave as well! When near full, take away and replace. Do not wait until you can see the top layers staring at you for days, get it out of the house before you undo your efforts!

over 1 year, said...

Although my mother moved numerous times, often downsizing of her own accord along the way, she also collected back into her life in her new homes! Downsizing for her, often meant packing up assorted items, such as the china which was missing too many pieces to be useful anymore BUT HAD BEEN HER MOTHER"S, her mother's pink depression glass, etc, etc, and dumping these boxes on me when my own kids were little with the express order, that I MUST keep them for the kids as they grow up. (Ignoring the fact that I loved my Art Deco collections from other relatives, and my cupboards were full of these items which we actually used) Usually, she would have the entire family history written on the box, along with whatever child she decided would want them. My kids, in their 30's now, do not want them, and never did. Unfortunately, I missed those peak prices on the pink elegant & depression, but this lot has moved on! I think one of the points I am trying to make is; When Mom passed 6 yrs ago, my brother and I both were so terrified to part with anything, with that ironclad law she used to put over us on her objects and possessions, that he came up with a fabulous solution (since he lived the other side of the country, and had traveled by jet plane!) Oh yes, he arrived in secret, rented the biggest vehicle he could find, and brought over to my house every box I had packed, plus all loose unpacked items, trip after trip, until I came home from work and found I had to climb over piles just to get in the front door. MY HOUSE HAS YET TO RECOVER. I had a broken arm & wrist at the time of my mother's passing, and recovering from surgery, yet still managed to pack boxes up for their intended charities, which my son would help disperse when I had loads ready. So, in fact, I had diligently been making great progress, but brother 'helping' threw all that into the air! What a tangled mess of stuff, covered every inch of my living rm in stacks and stacks and spilling piles. Unthinkable. Trust me, if it is an estate you are dealing with, you will know which 3-4 items you really yearn for, with your eyes closed. Everything else, should be left to a sale held, and cleared from the property. No one needs other people's households, just a couple items will be far more appreciated! Now, I'm 61, and must downsize. The age old story...you own the house, but the property taxes are too high for me to keep it. Kids are grown and gone, been here for 30 years, (and yes, am still tripping on the boxes of papers from Mom's, which brother says must be kept for 10 yrs though, think I'll cheat on that pretty soon here..!!.) I too, get overwhelmed at times, deciding what to part with, of my own items,.. quirky, antique, or just fun and pretty, memories, etc.. My own Rules thus far, if they should be of any help: (but let's face it, I've found this wonderful article in the first place, as I was hoping to find further guidance!) nonetheless, rules I find helpful for myself; 1) If you're really confused and overwhelmed but have a scrap of time you need to use efficiently, then just sort and clear 1 cupboard/drawer that doesn't seem too confusing, you can easily move through fairly quickly. Old make-up, that dusty-rusty tool box in the basement, whatever! (This inspires you, not only do you get results, but find it easier to tackle more, and then more, on that day which started out with feeling rather overwhelmed and was at risk of being wasted!) 2) If I have to wash it ONLY because it was dusty, then it goes. (Sell on Ebay, take to consignment, give to friend who wants it, donate to PBS auction if valuable, donate to charity, etc, but it GOES.) (Underlying rule here is, I cannot afford property taxes merely to continue housing every single symbol of my life) ..which brings us to the next rule.. 3) I agree, I use this too, JOY. Believe it or not, we have had some very treasured family heirlooms, which, if I stop to consider an item, I'm astonished to find have unconsciously been casting a pall, and make me sad. I may not know why they make me feel grim, but when I use this rule, and part with that item, it definitely lightens the space, (and I don't miss it!) and the happy JOY items are that much brighter! ONLY KEEP the things that make you smile inside. You cannot be joyous yourself, if you allow items to own you, (rather than you owning them!) 4) I suppose I use a few other tactics on myself which I cannot think of at the moment, but I do have a fun one, just one more to share ;) Pretend, Dream, BELIEVE...If I am moving to an far-0ff island paradise next week, or say a lovely mossy stone hut in the Faeroes, WILL THIS BE COMING WITH ME???? Almost everything gets a prompt and resounding "NO" .!! That little trick works beautifully, and gets you dreaming again, in the process! Especially at a time when it may seem like you are dispersing your life as though it had never existed, and have naught to look forward to (or so you think, anyway;) Re-Frame Brain. I use the major Earth relocation tactic a lot, it truly does help make the job at hand so much easier and happier, practically JOYOUS, one could say! Yeah, if you should be wondering what makes the grade, the one thing I think I could not part with, under this tactic, is my dearly beloved pelican sculpture, lol.. (It brings me so much JOY, total JOY factor) Now that's sensible, I can make do with dragging that along with my little dog and I !!

over 1 year, said...

Most auction houses will come out to your house and appraise the value of the belongings. If they like what they see they leave the house broom clean and put up the hopeful stuff for auction with a 15% buyer's premium. If the sale is greater than their costs they refund you the extra profit. If you have a lot of valuable stuff to clean out, it's a good way to go.

over 1 year, said...

Find a storage solution for your valuable memoirs/antiques from your ancestor to avoid clutter in your home.

about 2 years, said...

Banishing the 'maybe' pile is a must. As soon as I have decided I am going to toss something, I get it right out of the house. I never remember what it was I tossed and don't feel any guilt about it but if it sits in a corner of the house waiting for a garage sale or some other event, inevitably it will find its way back into use somehow.

over 2 years, said...

Thanks everyone for your comments! @Anonymous who requested info about a free or low-cost agency who can help you with downsizing or moving. Your local Area Agency on Aging may be able to refer you to such an organization. Here's how to find and contact them: https://www.caring.com/local/area-agency-on-aging We also have a directory of Senior Move Managers that may be helpful: https://www.caring.com/articles/caregivers-guide-to-senior-move-managers Hope this helps!

over 2 years, said...

I lost my job at 62, I can't get a job so I have to downsize. So I can sell my home to have enough money to live on. And I don't have any family close enough to help. Does anyone know of a free or low cost agency that can help? Thank you

over 2 years, said...

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over 2 years, said...

There are some good tips here but the best thing I ever did - and taught my 80+ parents to do came from "The life changing magic of tidying" by Marie Kondo - her method and insight is remarkable - and super effective at not only downsizing but creating a home that reflects a person's NOW life - that changes with age! Her secrets are: Attack by CATEGORY not place or room, sort by 'JOY' - and treasure, (not just get rid of everything), have a visual of abundance first, and assign everything that gives 'joy' a place. She recommends 6 months - I took 4 - it was inspiring, stimulating and the results are truly 'life changing'. Her other insights are don't use your home for retail storage! We are spending thousands on 'square footage' (that property taxes are based on) for sheds, attics, basements, garage bays, storage units, totes and organizers when we can get the item instantly - with the click of a button the next day! We also tend to 'keep' what we spent a lot on - even though its taking up space, we're insuring it and never using it! If it no longer gives satisfaction - joy - pass it on - let it GO! and if you do follow her method - Goodwill is the best! They also take books! Hoarding however is a mental illness/disorder based on anxiety - her process could be effective - but true hoarding requires a team of professionals that may include medication, counseling, moving vans, dumpsters and exterminators. The person's anxiety and depression (apathy is a symptom - they don't care!) needs to be treated first and throughout. Just 'getting rid' of their possessions is not going to 'help' like you hope.

over 2 years, said...

I wish there were a printable version

about 3 years, said...

I would have loved this article about 6 months ago when we sold my dad's house, but now I'm trying to go through 'the papers' and the things he saved for over 60 years! He is still living, in a memory care facility, and has no recollection of most of his life any longer....that's sad enough. But to have to toss 'his life'...the things he saved....it's just tugging at my heart. I feel sorry for my sons when they have to try to wade through all MY stuff...and my dad's and my mom's! Ha...no I don't!

about 3 years, said...

There were so many helpful suggestions, which I need badly! I am trying to sort out my own house, and just get so terribly overwhelmed I don't know where to start! I will try some of these suggestions myself and see if I can stay on task a little better. Thanks for putting this together!!

about 3 years, said...

A suggestion for the yarn hoarder family. Ask if you can borrow yarn for a project. Then tell her you need a different color/colors... Just keep "borrowing" till you have the pile out of the house. The books might be valuable so get those to a book collector (You might ask mom if you can index them on the computer.) and make a list to send to book dealers to find out which they would be interested in. Put those into protected storage so they are not peed on by the dogs (condition is everything in book collecting). Have your Dad take your mom out for the day and then you and your siblings can come in and get rid of the piles of bottles, newspaper and jars (my mom's favorite collectable) except for one or two (so she won't know they are missing). Be sure to check with Dad as to what is okay to remove though, first. As for Auntie's old china? Look on e-bay... Some old china that is ugly as anything may go for a good price to the right buyer. (Heck, I sold Barbie Doll head - not bodies - heads! - for 25 cents each and made about $5 at a garage sale. There's a market for everything as long as it's CLEAN. Get started with the puppy piddle pads first and work from there. Good luck!

about 3 years, said...

I'm kinda appalled at some of the people attacking the author. I thought the suggestions were thoughtful and realistic. I just spent the last ten days at my parent's house, trying to help them get started on downsizing because my mother is a HOARDER. Not only that, but they have two schnauzers that they thought it would be a good idea to "piddle pad" train, but who now think it's perfectly okay to pee on the corners of cabinets, on carpets, and all over the tile floor. I am completely grossed out, and got physically ILL while trying to help them get rid of a few things. After purchasing a black light to try and locate the source of the appalling smell, I realized that it was EVERYWHERE and I was walking through the urine that was spread all over the floor. You folks who are nearing the age where you are totally dependent on others need to realize that in digging your heels in and refusing to get rid of anything, you really are causing a LOT of stress for your children and the people who will be taking care of you. I don't mean to sound ungrateful, but unless you don't want any help at all, you should try to be considerate of our needs as well. My grandmother tried to hold inheritance over my dad's head, but the reality is that inheritance means nothing when you're faced with putting your life on hold for months while you sort through somebody's else's stuff. The considerate thing to do is start downsizing before the last minute...it will help EVERYONE involved. As a child of a hoarder, the amount of junk in my parent's house is scary...and I DREAD the day that I will have to go through all that stuff. It's nasty, and it's unhealthy. I'm tired of fighting my mother who is already experiencing dementia symptoms...trying to explain to her that her medications from the early 1990s should be thrown out for SAFETY reasons, and that her collection of disposable water bottles (from the kind you buy water for $1.49 at the convenience store) is not worth keeping and hiding under the bathroom sink. I'm trying to get them to start thinking about what they want to keep, and thankfully my dad is on board. But my mother's refusal to get rid of even the most basic of things is frustrating. And for my health, I CANNOT stay more than a day or so because of the smell of pet urine in their house. If a health department even walked in the door, they'd both be declared incompetent. I did take an entire carload of yarn—so full that I couldn't see out the windows—to a charity that knitted hats for cancer patients. At one time she agreed to get rid of it all when my father generously offered to buy her new yarn for any specific PROJECT she wanted to work on. He didn't do it right away, and last week we couldn't get her to agree. My recommendation is that when you get agreement, IMMEDIATELY remove the items...don't wait for them to change their minds. Anyway, she was left with three more floor-to-ceiling cabinets full of yarn, and we still have those to deal with. My only goal in sharing this is that aging parents...you need to be considerate of your children. If you are going to try and burden your children with your stuff, make sure that we really want it, and be prepared for the possibility that we may not want to lug that stuff around for the rest of our lives. I told my mother this...think about what I might do with the item when choosing whether to keep it or not. Vintage books? I'm going to take them to the vintage book seller. So you might as well go ahead and find a historical society to take them sooner than later, or they're going to be sold on Etsy as "home decor items." That's really the only market for most of those kinds of things now. Those little books of four-minute essays that your grandfather used to read? Our generation is not out looking for those books...the only people probably interested in them are people from YOUR generation who are also trying to downsize. Our generation might keep a few smaller, sentimental items. But don't be upset when we have no interest in Aunt Edna's ugly china!