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Seniors Can Maximize Happiness by Minimizing Clutter

A place for everything ... and everything all over the place.

If this statement could replace the "Home Sweet Home" sign over your door--that is, if you can find the door--then you may have a problem with clutter. It's tough to enjoy the golden years among bundles of old newspapers, stacks of store receipts, and collections of used margarine tubs. You're also at higher risk for falls and fires.

Take heart, pack rats. There is a way out from under the piles.

"Clutter is postponed decisions, and seniors have just had more years than others to put off the inevitable," says Barry Izsak, a past president of the National Association of Professional Organizers. "So, tackle your clutter bit by bit, force yourself to make, and stick with, choices about what to keep and what to throw out, and then organize what's left so that it fits your lifestyle ... and your living space."

Strong associations

Izsak says seniors tend to associate possessions--even those with little or no intrinsic value--with people, places, and events in their lives. When a husband dies, for instance, his widow may feel guilty about getting rid of his clothes. Or seniors moving to smaller quarters may try to take everything from their longtime homes, he adds, "because it's a link to the world they're leaving behind."

But the real troublemaker, Izsak claims, is simply time. "The older we get, the more stuff we accumulate," he says.

So, what can you do to free yourself from clutter?

The first step, Izsak says, is making the task manageable. "You can't tackle 40 years of clutter in one day," he advises, "so break the work into smaller pieces. Clean out a drawer at a time, then a cabinet at a time, and keep expanding the 'no-clutter zone' until you complete a single room. Move on to the next room, break it into small projects, and expand outward again. Eventually, you'll get the whole house in shape."

Once a drawer, cabinet, closet or other household space is emptied, it's time for some tough decisions. Izsak recommends you ask a series of questions about each object you find.

"If the reasons for discarding an item outnumber the excuses for keeping it, throw it out and don't look back," Izsak says.

Trim down collections

For multiples of a sentimental item or collections of similar items, try to reduce the "keeper" group to a more sensible size. "Select three samples and not 300 to save. Take photos of a collection and then discard the collection," Izsak suggests. Of course, this doesn't apply to collections that may have monetary value.

Finally, when you've weeded out the clutter and you're left with just the practical, truly usable belongings for your home, put them away in a manner that will keep things organized.

"The trick is to make everything as easy as possible," Izsak says. "Make items easy to find, easy to get and easy to use."

Here are some organizing rules of thumb to consider:

  • Accessibility. Put objects where you won't have to make a special, perhaps risky, effort to get them (such as needing a stepladder to reach a high shelf).

  • Vision. Try to keep everything within your field of view. Avoid storing objects where they can easily get hidden by other things.

  • Logic. Place items near their point of use. For example, sponges should be stored near the sink and not in the cupboard across the room.

  • Memory. Store similar objects (such as coffee cups) together so you can easily remember where to find them. Color-code items--such as those to be used on different days of the week--or set them out in the order they'll be needed.

  • Maintenance. Establish "clear surfaces" (such as the dining room table) where items must be put away once you're finished with them. Put wastebaskets in every room so trash doesn't have a chance to accumulate.

What if you're still having problems getting clutter in check after following this advice? You might want to think about seeking outside help. A professional organizer can provide objective advice about what to keep, what to toss, and how to store what's left, Izsak says. To find a professional organizer in your area, visit the website of the National Association of Professional Organizers.