Right now, if you didn’t know already, I am visiting my family back east. While there are several reasons I am here for a few weeks, one of the big reasons is to help a relative get a jump on cleaning out her house. While I am a neat freak with a slight case of OCD, this relative is the complete antithesis to this – a packrat with 30+ years of “stuff”, from floor to ceiling, in every room of the house…and the garage. And since I am very good at sorting/letting go/throwing away/recycling “stuff”, I have been brought in to jump start the process. And jump start it we did! Here is what we took out of the house for the last 2 days:
Day 1 – 8 bags to Goodwill, 5 bags to recycling, 8 boxes to the consignment shop, and 1 bag to the landfill.
Day 2 – 5 bags and a box to Goodwill, 6 bags to recycling, 2 tables, 6 chairs, 4 picture frames and assorted antiques to the consignment shop, and 2 bags to the landfill.
One of the keys to success working with packrats is to keep the operation moving. We started in the worst room in the house and first went through every item that was stacked in piles on the floor, sorting them into different “Keep”, “Trash”, Recycle”, “Goodwill”, and “Sell” boxes. In just a short amount of time, we could see the floor again – must to the delight of the homeowner! That gave us more inspiration to start working our way around the room, going through the boxes, bookcases, and bags that took up the rest of the space. By the end of the first day, we had managed to thin out the “stuff” in that room by about 70%, leaving behind a very manageable and slightly organized space. While our day had ended, we were both motivated to get started on the next room the following morning. Keeping everything moving and always seeing progress helps keep the spirits up, that’s for sure. But along with this inspiration, there are a few other things I have discovered (and always try to keep in mind) when working with other people’s clutter:
- Patience is definitely a virtue
- Take breaks often
- Let them help
- Give a little
- Help them with technology
When helping someone out with their clutter, you need to be very understanding. While I could never live like this, this is how some people do live – and you have to have patience with them about it.
People (myself included) get overwhelmed sometimes with their “stuff” when forced to deal with it. Taking breaks relieves some of this pressure.
If you are helping someone, let them do some of the lifting as well to appreciate all that you both are doing. Let them see things go out the door and how you organize what’s left.
You don’t have to get rid of everything when staring at a house full of stuff. If the person wants to keep some mementos, a few is better than a million! Give just a little on important items.
Helping to scan/digitize those mementos not worth physically keeping goes a long way to help settle nerves. Using something like Evernote can help in this respect.
I have found that by trying to understand the mentality of a packrat, you can actually get more accomplished than you would if you were negative towards the situation. Don’t get me wrong; it’s hard for me to be surrounded by clutter and chaos. But by staying positive and working with (rather than against) the “stuff”, the process goes a lot smoother – and the end result is much better.
What about you? Ever tried your organizing/decluttering abilities with a family member? Did you have any luck? And if you have any more tips for working with other people’s clutter, please do let us know!
One of these days I fear that I’ll have to go through a relative’s clutter. And it will be a major chore. It may take years. Unfortunately, she has a VERY, VERY big house and it will probably be when she has passed (her attitude at present is “over my dead body).
Part of me is a little resentful, that people leave behind such messes for others to take care of. But I don’t really blame her. She inherited most of it herself and lacks the time/energy to go through such a mountain of stuff — especially since she does want to dispose of things responsibly if she does get rid of things instead of filling up the landfills. And also, I do believe that some compulsive hoarders have a medical problem.
Most of all, it makes me sad to see people living surrounded by stuff they can’t even get to to use, living in homes they can’t really fully live in. Such a waste, especially when there are so many people in such desperate need — not that anyone needs a lot of knick knacks, but even those would bring more happiness if they were where they could be appreciated.
What a timely post. I’m in the process of helping clean out a relative’s house. They’re downsizing. Unfortunately, most of the time, cleaning out means hearing, “Don’t you want this? You should take it.” If there ever was an argument for living simply, this is it.
I think the biggest key point in this post is that the person doing the organizing was INVITED by the “organizee”. The person whose stuff is being organized must be wholeheartedly in favor of the project in order for this to work! Otherwise, you’ll be fighting tooth and nail over everything.
Nice to see that so little actually had to go to the landfill – most found a new home! Or was recycled!
When I bought my present house “AS-IS” it was an estate sale, and filled literally up the walls (couldn’t see the floors) with ‘stuff’… The remaining family was elderly and ill and didn’t want to have to deal with it either – they said, Do as you will with it…Please save pictures/jewelry for us, and anything else, you can have.
It took us several weekends to clear out the house, finding much mold and mildew, and other ‘surprises’ in the process.
Now it is a standing joke from my kids about about have to clean out my clutter when I am gone… so, knowing how bad it was when I bought the house, I am trying to make sure this doesn’t happen! If it doesn’t have a designated place, it goes out the door. While I still have a long way to go, it is encouraging to see a post like this that reminds me of why I need to keep purging!
We have the same standing joke in this house, too. 😉
A job that big could be so overwhelming. You’re right about keeping moving, and not dwelling on each item for too long. You were able to get so much done so quickly!
Oh it just keeps on going, but tomorrow is my last day. Then it’s back on the road to my own organized house! 🙂
“Comment by Krys on 15 July 2009:
I think the biggest key point in this post is that the person doing the organizing was INVITED by the “organizee”. The person whose stuff is being organized must be wholeheartedly in favor of the project in order for this to work! Otherwise, you’ll be fighting tooth and nail over everything.”
I completely agree. I have spent most of my life living with people who lean toward the packrat mentality, while I tend toward the other extreme. Lots of stress on both sides. (My sister still teases me about how I taped down the middle of our room and pushed her stuff to her side with a broom.) Also, I’m constantly returning things that family members and other guests leave behind in our home – because we have so much space. *sigh*
Since I can’t throw away (or give away) things that belong to other people – even if I think it’s complete junk – I’ve tried lots of strategies for getting them to let go of stuff. Nothing really successful so far. The motivation has to come from the other person.
The most useful technique I’ve used (when the other person is somewhat motivated) is sorting their belongings so that they can clearly see the duplicates.
I wish you’d organize our garage! 😀
Something to keep in mind with people who are compulsive hoarders is that you “helping” them can be bad in the long run. If you do most of the work the psychological compulsion is still there. In fact by helping sometimes they end up with even more stuff because that stuff has a special meaning to them. It could be they grew up in the Great Depression and didn’t have much as a child. It could be they were in hurricane Katrina and lacked clean clothes. My point is that sometimes you can help more by getting them counseling as opposed to just cleaning out their house.
Great advise. My garage is full of my stuff and other peoples stuff. I have taken in roommates for years and everybody leaves something. Now I have a garage full and it all has to go. We are going to need a dumpster for this! I want my helpers to read this before they set foot in my garage.