The first time I had to dig through the belongings of a loved one was when my uncle had to move into a nursing home. He and my aunt had sold their long-time home a number of years before, and moved out to their birth-state to be us, their only family. After my aunt died, my uncle continued on in their lovely apartment for a number of years, with the help of my parents and an in-home agency. However, after a particularly devastating stroke, it was obvious that my uncle needed 24-hour care that only a nursing home could provide.


    We got him a private room at a lovely nursing home nearby, where we could visit daily. We moved as many personal items into his room as possible, with lots of pictures and momentos. However, their antiques, beautiful silver, huge book collection (weeded out heavily before their last move) and personal items had to be dealt with. Who should take what? Who had room? We tried to sell some things, and had a little luck, but it was hard to let these things go. There was so much history. There were so many memories. Nearly every item had some emotional attachment. In the end, we gave a lot to charity, and kept some small items. The whole process was painful. 

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    The next time I had to go through this was when my mom followed my dad to the same nursing home. My parents had moved several times since we lived in my childhood home, or even what my younger sister would consider her childhood home. Yet, there were still many sentimental items to wade through, and my mom had kept some of my aunt and uncle's belongings, so we were back to deciding what to do with those.  My brother lives in another state, but has a home that is more in keeping with some of my parents' things, so we sent a lot his way. My sister and I divided up many things, but as with my aunt and uncle, much had to be given away. 


    We, as a family, did the digging through and the cleaning up. But in neither case did we have a home with 50 years worth of belongings to go through. I've had people describe the horror of finding labeled plastic bags of broken drinking glasses in the basement - their parents couldn't throw a thing away. Some of that may go back to the fact that these people grew up in the depression, and they still had a fear of throwing away something that may "come in handy someday." 


    I do think if we'd had a home like that to go through, I'd have had to hire a third party to help. Partly, of course, because of the physical work. However, there is so much emotional work involved in doing these house cleanings that the whole process can be overwhelming and a professional organizer can look at things through clear, unemotional eyes.


    Another reason to hire a third party is to put a damper on old sibling rivalries. Hopefully, by the time you have to go through a home, whether because of a death or because of a move to a nursing home, your family has decided "who gets what." However, my e-mails tell me this isn't necessarily the case. Having a third party - a professional who is not emotionally involved - present, while the family does this work, can defuse potential hot spots in the process.


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    Most organizers will sit down with the family, make lists and write down goals and expectations. If a parent is present during this process - say they are moving to assisted living - it can be even more emotional, as letting go of each little thing is letting go of a piece of their past. Each item represents a memory.  An unemotional third party will know the right questions to ask.


    I believe people need time to relive their memories. Families need time to discuss the happy memories, if they are lucky enough to have time to do this. All memories need to be honored. But then decisions have to be made. A neutral party can help make that difficult part of the process more business-like. A neutral party can help the person through the process and may even be able to create some sense of excitement about the new living space the elder will be moving into.


    None of this to say it's ever going to be easy. But from what I've heard, most people have found that hiring a professional organizer to help sort, dispose  and then re-create a smaller living space from what is left, if that is the intent, makes this whole painful process easier for everyone involved. This third party can help the elder look ahead in a way that adult children can't, since often it's the adult children who have problems letting go of the momories that inhabit a parent's home.


    For more information about Carol go to www.mindingourelders.com or www.mindingoureldersblogs.com.

Published On: September 02, 2008