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If Your Senior Won't Let Go...

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Getting rid of stuff is actually a two-step process: sorting and deciding, on the one hand, and disposing on the other. That's according to University of Kansas Professor Dr. David Ekerdt, who is coordinating a "household moves" project to determine the role that possessions play in older people's housing decisions. But convincing seniors can be a challenge.

Following are strategies if your loved one doesn't want to let go from Katherine "Kit" Anderson, CPO-CD, president of the National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization (NSGCD), and Vickie Dellaquila, certified professional organizer and author of Don't Toss My Memories in the Trash.

  1. Arrange And Cheer Small Victories.
    Suppose you spend a short time helping your loved one clear off a table. Celebrate the accomplishment together.
  2. Conduct An "Experiment."
    If your loved one has 150 empty margarine tub containers, suggest donating 15 of those to a school for a painting project. Allow some time to go by and ask how she felt giving those up. Chances are she won't feel as awful as suspected.
  3. Gently Approach The Idea Of Health And Safety.
    Remind your loved ones that too much clutter can actually keep them from being safe in their homes, which could jeopardize their ability to stay at home. They could trip over papers on the floor or lose bills and medications.
  4. Draft An Agreement.
    Agree to box up unused clothing or tools. Carefully list what's in the box and track that for six months. If your loved one does not use the items in that time, suggest they donate them to a charity.
  5. Consider The Control Issue.
    Clutter is all about control, but so is being the one to decide where stuff goes. Remind your loved ones if they don't decide where something will go, someone else will.

For more information, contact the National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization (NSGCD) at or visit For tips on talking to a loved one about sensitive subjects, go to

If you notice these characteristics about your senior loved ones or their homes, clutter could start creeping up on them.

  1. Piles of mail and unpaid bills.
  2. Difficulty walking safely through a home.
  3. Frustration trying to organize.
  4. Difficulty managing activities of daily living.
  5. Expired food in the refrigerator.
  6. Jammed closets and drawers.
  7. Compulsive shopping.
  8. Difficulty deciding whether to discard items.
  9. A health episode such as a stroke or dementia.
  10. Loneliness.

Download this list, If Your Senior Won't Let Go (PDF 354K)

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Last revised: December 15, 2010

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Thoughts and stories from others
  1. January 31, 2017 at 12:32 am | Posted by Dawn Reynolds

    My elderly mother, aged 87, is living in a small senior apt. in NJ. I live 2000 miles away in AZ. From what my sister in NJ tells me, my mother is living in dangerous conditions due to her own hoarding. She keeps buying things and the boxes and bags cover every surface in the apt. Tables, bed, floor.....there is only a small pathway she can walk through and she uses a walker! She will not let anyone into her apt. except that one sister; she will not call my brother so he can buy her groceries because then he will have to come into her apt. to deliver said groceries. I phoned her to ask what she is eating if he doesn't buy her food, she said she manages! My sister tells me that she gets a food bag monthly, but the bags, 12-15 are lined up on the floor, contents still inside. A few years ago, she fell in her apt. and broke a hip. Because they had to break into her apt. to rescue her, the fire chief came by and told my family that she cannot be living like this, amid all the clutter. While she was in the hospital and rehab, my family in NJ cleared her apt. of all the stuff, had it cleaned and painted and really had it looking beautiful when she came home. She only wanted to know where all her "stuff" was and was furious when told it was given away or donated or tossed out. Now, because she knows that the same thing could happen again, she lets no one in there except one of my sisters, who she says is "so sweet" and doesn't cause trouble. I guess my sister is just afraid to tell her that she can't go on living like this. She's offered help in clearing up for her, but I don't think my mother accepted the offer. I am worried for my mother, she definitely needs help, but who do I call? She gets furious when the family interferes. Do I call the people who manage her senior facility? Please help! Thank you.


    • February 6, 2017 at 6:00 pm | Posted by Home Instead

      Hi there, This may be a case for Adult Protective Services to handle. Call the APS in your mother's county for more guidance on dealing with her hazardous living situation and possible self-neglect. Thanks for reaching out for help!


  2. June 5, 2013 at 10:11 pm | Posted by Gwen A. Steen

    I'm 82 & have a spine problem. My husband is 90 with his mind fairly intact. He is also disabled with a spine problem; can't walk or stand is incontinent. We applied to the VA for assistance and was refused because our wages top the required amount. The reason is that I have cashed in all annuities, sold 2 houses to use the capital gains to pay our caregivers. The VA uses all this money and adds it to our income. In 3 months are money will be gone. What do we do, then. I am totally stressed.


    • February 11, 2015 at 4:35 pm | Posted by Sheri Schuchardt

      You need to reapply once the money is gone. You will need to be able to show the VA that this money has been used for you and your husband's care.


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