Decluttering:  A Vital Step to Empower Healthy Aging

By Lindsay Hutter, GHI Chief Strategy & Marketing Officer

iStock.com/luanateutzi

Take Your First Step 

Ask an adult age 55 or older what the key steps to healthy aging are, and you likely will hear responses such as “Exercise more,” “Drink more water” and “Eat brain-boosting foods.” Few people will respond with one of the more significant steps to empower healthy aging: decluttering.

After decades collecting memories, mementos and material items, even minimalists can find the process of clearing out daunting. It need not be, and there are many benefits derived not only from the results but also from the process.

Enjoy the Benefits

Decluttering can stimulate cognition and reduce anxiety, including anxiety that stems from family tensions. As we work through our belongings, we often come across items that might bring back happy memories. And as we re-organize what we keep, we get a sense of calm from restoring order to our home. Search the internet and you will find a range of articles and blog posts written by psychology experts who tout these and other benefits of decluttering. Many Alexandrians – those who have chosen to age in place at home as well as who have chosen to move to a senior living community – concur.

“You come to the point in life where you are happy to pass things on to the next generation so they have a sense of continuity and history and things that have been important to you,” said long-time Alexandria resident Judy Bryan who moved into Goodwin House Alexandria last year with her husband, Jonathan. “Of course, younger generations do not want everything you have, so it’s important to find a way to dispose of items that may have belonged to your parents or grandparents in a way that’s honoring.”

For Bryan, the answer came through spending an evening going through old photos and letters with her daughter and sharing stories about those prior generations that had passed away. At the end of the evening, they disposed of the items – but not before honoring their loved ones’ memory.

Don Bradley’s challenge was what to do with a lifetime of books, accumulated during his years as a professor and later the Principal Economist at Freddie Mac. While their home in the Rosemont neighborhood of Alexandria could accommodate the books, he knew they could not make the journey to a smaller home and then to Goodwin House Alexandria in July of 2017.

“Ann and I started our decluttering by focusing on what we would need in our next season of life, not what we would donate or give away, and it was clear we did not need 100 cartons of my books!” Bradley said. “The benefit of choosing to declutter sooner rather than later meant I could thoughtfully donate the books to several college libraries and that has given me enormous satisfaction.”

Clearing Out to Stay Home

For older adults that want to age in place in their homes, decluttering takes on even more significance – safety.  Goodwin House at Home – an innovative program for active, healthy adults ages 55+ who want to stay at home as they age – engages an occupational therapist to visit and assess each member’s home. The therapist provides expert advice that includes tips for decluttering and other changes that will create a safer home environment, one that reduces risks, especially risks for falls. There’s good reason for this: every 11 seconds, an older adult is treated in the emergency room for a fall, according to the National Council on Aging.

Eileen Spata, an expert in helping older adults downsize and move into a smaller home or pack up and into a senior living community, says the first step is “Sorting 101.”

“The biggest challenge we all face is underestimating just how much stuff we have,” said Spata, who is area director with TAD Relocation. “A typical kitchen has more than three dozen types of items, from serving ware to beverage containers, cookbooks and recipes—those items add up. On average, there are several thousand individual pieces in an older adult’s kitchen.”

To get you started, Spata offers these helpful “Sorting 101” tips for successful decluttering:

  • Start with an easy room, such as a small den or guest bedroom
  • Start in one corner and work your way around the room
  • Stay there until it’s done – do not start another room or area
  • Combine like items
  • Separate what you want from what you do not want.
  • Your goal: decide what you are keeping/not keeping
  • Your benefits: you will stimulate thinking, strengthen your skills in focusing and create a healthier, safer home environment

What to Do with the Clutter 

Once the sorting has occurred, the next steps is determining what to do with those items you are not keeping. Spata offers these options: donation, disposal, sale or gift to family and friends. Options for Alexandria-based donations include Goodwill Retail Store and Donation Center, Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity Restore and United Community Ministries.

Does this whet your appetite to start decluttering and achieve healthier aging? Here are some further resources to assist you on your path to healthier living through decluttering:

Publisher’s Note: This article ran in the July 18 issue of The Alexandria Times.

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Lindsay Hutter is the Chief Strategy & Marketing Officer for Goodwin House Incorporated (GHI). GHI operates two Life Plan Communities – Goodwin House Alexandria and Goodwin House Bailey’s Crossroads – as well as the Goodwin House at Home program for aging in place and a range of other services to support, honor and uplift older adults.