Creating Sanctuary

For seniors, moving is the perfect time to reassess the value of items that might be crowding them out of their current home. At some point seniors and children of seniors, who help their parents move to their next housing alternative, will downsize into smaller spaces.  It isn't realistic to think that all of their belongings will accompany them to their next home.  In fact, this phenomenon is true for all people on the move,' but can pose a significant challenge to seniors leaving home.

Accumulations Take Their Toll

60% of Canada's current economy is based on consumer spending. No wonder we have so much stuff! Storage lockers are a growth business and internet shopping has made it even easier to shop from the comfort of our home. The calendar year is full of opportunities to exchange presents and demonstrate our love: birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine's Day, Christmas, Hanukkah, the list goes on.  In addition to the "hallmark holidays" we also have housewarming parties, retirement parties and solstice celebrations.

The word clutter has it's origins in the middle English word "clotter" which means to clot or coagulate, and that is about as stuck as you can get! Many people don't realize that clutter is all about stuck energy. When doors can't open freely, hallways are narrowed by piles and clothes no longer fit in the closet, energy cannot flow freely throughout our space. As a result, energy will knock up against piles of laundry and stacks of magazines and sit there and stagnate.

People will complain of apathy, fatigue, muddled thinking, and irritability. We spend valuable time searching for lost items and even buy things that we already own, but can no longer find. At an extreme clutter leads to chaos ("can't have anyone over syndrome"), depression and tension within relationships. It can also be a health and safety hazard, as documented in a recent Times Colonist article (January 22, 2006), "missing woman turns up dead under house clutter".

As you can see, we are very good at accumulating things, but not so good at letting things go. The reasons for our reluctance are varied. Our upbringing plays a huge part especially if we lived through a war or the depression. Twice now I have heard the story of a glass jar containing bits of string that was found in a deceased relative's work room. It was labeled "pieces of string too small to do anything with". Organized, yes. Necessary? No.

As difficult as those times were (my parents often described how they emerged from the bomb shelter only to discover that their house in Cornwall and the surrounding homes had all been flattened by bombs), the circumstances no longer apply to our current life. While re-using shopping bags and wrapping paper remains a popular way to save money and preserve the environment, we need to recognize when we have enough. Saving sour cream and yoghurt containers makes sense, but it becomes counter-productive when you can't open the kitchen cupboard without a plastic avalanche spilling onto the floor!

By far the most consistent reason I hear from clients when I ask, "Why are you hanging on to that"? is "because I might need it some day". This represents the classic "just in case" scenario. If you think about it, this notion is based on fear, poverty, scarcity and lack. We fear that we will be left wanting. Such feelings are perpetuated by the media through the frequent and deliberate use of words such as, "limited time only, hurry in, this offer won't last. Limited quantities available, buy now". This artificial sense of urgency often leads to impulse buying and reluctance to let things go.

While it is true that you may indeed need something one day, honestly consider exactly how many times in the past five years you have used the item (the layer of dust may be a clue). Statistically speaking, if you haven't used it, you probably won't. Also, ask yourself, what is the worst thing that will happen if I get rid of it? Could you borrow an outfit from a friend? Rent a tool from a supply store? Unless it is a unique item, chances are you can find one within your circle of friends or family.

Sentimental attachment also contributes to our reluctance to let things go. Part of the reality of living in a consumer culture is being bombarded by marketing messages. We are led to believe that happiness can be acquired through the accumulation of stuff, but this is a strategy of the advertising industry and is not what we experience. Over time we mistakenly equate our identity with the clothes we wear, the car we drive, the house we live in. Unfortunately, we can't take any of this stuff with us when we pass on. Spending time with loved ones, contributing to our community and sharing stimulating conversation tend to bring more satisfaction than dust collectors and knick knacks.

The flip side of sentimental attachment is feelings of guilt and obligation. Consider the following scenario: the last time you saw your Great Aunt she gave you a vase. You have never liked the vase, it doesn't fit with your current decor yet you dutifully display it on your mantel piece. Every time you look at the vase it depletes your energy because it has been kept out of a sense of obligation. Just because we have been given something doesn't mean we have to keep it forever! Choosing to let go of the ugly vase does not mean you don't love your great aunt, nor does it make you a bad person. The vase is simply a ‘thing'. Separate your love for someone from the object and give yourself permission to let it go. Chances are there is someone out there who is looking for just that vase; it will complement their home and they will cherish it.


Now that you have a better understanding of why we tend to hang on to things, you are ready to look at your stuff through a new set of eyes. Ideally, we are surrounded by objects that we love, still have value, are in good repair and bring back fond memories. This will contribute to positive energy, improved moods and better quality sleep. If you don't use it, love it or need it, get rid of it! Below are some strategies that will help you get started.

Perhaps most important is the need to start small and pace yourself! Clutter doesn't accumulate overnight and it will not disappear in an afternoon. Similarly, schedule a time to clear out clutter. Just as you make an appointment to have your hair done or to take the car to the mechanic, schedule a time to go through your closet, pantry or dresser. Keep the projects manageable (a single shelf or cupboard) and leave the garage for later.

Set a kitchen timer or play your favourite CD. When time is up have a cup of tea or go for a short walk. Clearing out clutter is physically demanding work and emotionally, it is like taking a trip down memory lane. Often we will be reminded of past vacations, loved ones, previous jobs or events. Allow time to process these emotions; call a friend or do some journaling so that you have a chance to express any emotions that come up. Make a list of any action items that you need to complete so that you don't get sidetracked from sorting.

Just like we are more likely to exercise if we have a buddy that meets us at the pool, many people benefit from having an extra pair of hands or an objective set of eyes. Perhaps one of your children can help you pare down your possessions. This also gives you a chance to see if there are any items that they would like. Don't be offended if they don't; styles change and tastes are very personal. And remember, its just stuff. If children aren't available see if a friend would like to swap: have them help you with your bedroom and then go to their place the following week to tackle their kitchen. Four hands can sort faster than two and you will really notice the progress.

Speaking of sorting, make sure you do so into large, sturdy cardboard boxes. Label them "sell", "donate", "recycle", "shred" and "return to rightful owner". Sorting directly into boxes will prevent more of a mess from forming and will make it more likely that full boxes will make it to the thrift store or auction house. For items that you are undecided about, put them to one side and carry on. Focus your attention on the items you know you no longer want. The rest will become clear as you continue the process.

If you aren't sure about the current value of an item, have it appraised. Your items may have significant value and there is nothing wrong with getting some money back to offset future expenses. Selling items that won't fit in a smaller space enables you to purchase new furniture with a clear conscience. Remember, you want to be surrounded by objects that you love and that fit with who you are today.

If you come across an item that has a significant past, but won't fit in your next space, take a picture. Photos are much easier to store and will allow you to fondly reminisce without the burden of carrying the actual item with you to your next home. The local library might be interested in your collection of books. If they don't make it onto the shelves they will contribute to the next "friends of the library sale". Similarly, second hand bookstores might be interested in buying some of your titles. One of my clients donated an entire collection of Vogue magazines to a fashion school. Perhaps the gardening club is interested in your books or magazines. A phone call might identify a specific organization that will truly benefit from your donation.

Vet clinics and the local SPCA may appreciate old linens in order to line cages and shelters will accept those little soaps and shampoos from hotels and pass them on to people who use their services. Very rarely do we wear things out; once I spotted a coffee maker at a garage sale and when I asked if there was anything wrong with it, the woman replied, "it worked fine until my husband bought a black model and this one was relegated to the basement'. Unless an item is broken or missing pieces (in which case it should be thrown in the garbage) it is likely that there is a service group or non-profit organization that can make use of your cast-offs.

Contact family or friends to determine if they would like something in particular. One woman got creative and decided to host a party for close friends when her husband passed on. The party took place in their basement which had been converted into a pub-like atmosphere, complete with items from a life well-traveled. As the party concluded, she asked each guest to help themselves to any art or memento that they wished. In that way, she was able to distribute their collection of artifacts to close friends and family. What a wonderful way for people to remember her husband and for her to pare down her possessions.

As you can see, it makes sense to start this process early. Depending on your health, how much time you can devote to this process and the amount of stuff you possess, this process can stretch over several weeks or a few months. In my experience, going through my belongings is not only therapeutic but liberating as well. By taking control of our surroundings we get to decide where stuff goes and we make sure that family members aren't burdened with an overwhelming job should something unexpected happen. Only we know what is important to us, and I meet too many people who are paralyzed by the thought of letting go of items they have inherited. While it is not our intent to burden others with our possessions, too often this is the result.


If, upon reading this article, you realize that you are hanging onto items out of guilt or obligation, I give you permission to let them go. If you would like to recoup some money for items that still have value, have them appraised or do some research and put an ad in the buy and sell. Since we can't take any of this stuff with us, now is the time to get rid of any items that no longer serve us.

When you walk through the door of your home it should feel like the space puts its arms around you and welcomes you to enjoy, relax and marvel at your good fortune. You are entitled to a space that makes you feel fantastic, which is exactly how you will feel when surrounded by objects that you cherish. Letting go of clutter serves to rejuvenate the energy of our space. People report having improved sleep, more energy and clarity of thought. Health issues resolve, relationships improve and creativity and vitality abound.