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Cleaning Out Your Parents’ House? Don’t Forget To Look In The Cookie Jar

By Lee Nyberg, 7:14 pm on

Did you know your stuff is talking about you? What you’re hanging onto is a clue to your mental state, according to psychologists quoted a Wall Street Journal article, because we tie our stuff to us with emotions.  Depending on your situation, the volume and degree of clutter could be indications of anything from procrastination to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and beyond.  I’m a bit on the opposite end of the spectrum, not compulsively neat or unsentimental, just an army brat, used to paring down on a regular basis.  As a child of military parents, I thought they’d have kept things fairly pared down, too.

Imagine my surprise when my brother, Chip, and I dismantled my parents’ house after my dad passed away. My parents’ house had lots of treasure in it from their years of vagabond army postings, but I was unprepared for the enormity of the task and the volume of material.  The boxes in their basement weren’t all their things either, but also the things both of my parents had “inherited” when their parents passed away.

Back to the psychology of hanging onto belongings—my parents were not hoarders, which is actually a distinct psychiatric disorder 2-5% of the population are unlucky enough to suffer from.  Dr. Simon Rego, a psychologist in New York, said, “most people have ‘dysfunctional thoughts’ and flawed thinking which leads them to keep things for future use or potential resale value.”Sentimental “value” can cause us problems, too, according to Dr. Rego, when we “confuse letting go of the object with letting go of the person.”

Clearing out the house taught my brother and me some good lessons. First, if someone really wants something, let him have it.  Your relationship is more important than a 4-foot tall,antique bronze statue of a Chinese warrior, even if it would look great in your living room.  Second, you must have a plan.

If you have a similar task ahead of you, here’s what I recommend:

Determine ahead of time, the kinds of things you value, so you don’t get caught up in wanting to keep everything.  My brother decided to keep all of my Dad’s military decorations.  We divided all of the family photos.  I kept the classical record collection and my mother’s interior design books.

Decide where the things you’ll let go of will be placed during sorting.  Every organizer will advise three piles:  keep, toss and donate. When disposing of a family household, you need two extra categories: “give to other family members” and “for estate management/disposition,” (usually financial and legal papers).

Sort by category, not by room.  We learned this after having to do several categories at least three times. In frustration, I bought a copy of “Shed Your Stuff, Change Your Life,” by Julie Morgenstern; it’s the source of this tip.

Box and label as you go to keep–and put the trash straight into black plastic garbage bags.  Leave the drawers open so you can see they’re empty.

Use a secondary sort for memorabilia.  Naturally, Chip and I had a mountain of treasure we could not immediately part with.  In the end, he took a lot of it with him, because he had the space. I left a lot of it because I had to get home by plane.  We kept what we were willing to accommodate, each in our own way.

Check every last item, handbag, between pages of books and the cookie jar.   We did not find the much-heralded wads of cash in old jacket pockets, but we did find my mother’s favorite jewelry in the cookie jar. Her handwritten, deepest thoughts on faith were nestled inside a beloved novel.

My interest in tackling the unwanted in my own home was ignited as I sorted my parents’ house.  If you still want to wait a bit, Morgenstern says, “Retirement is an ideal time to de-clutter. You don’t want to leave your kids a big mess. On top of that, your life will be better if you are not overrun with things that are obsolete and don’t have any relevance to your life now.”

Lee Nyberg is a partner in Home Care Assistance, a long-term care company specializing in 24 hour, live-in care.  To learn more about how older adults can continue living independently at home, even with chronic conditions, call 402-763-9140.

Thanks to the Wall Street Journal and USA Today for additional information on clutter.

Photo credit: I love clutter…don’t you? By Karl Sinfeld,

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