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Caring Currents

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

By , Caring.com contributing editor
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.