cluttered kitchen

When a loved one dies, we often go into cleaning mode. There is an urge to bring order to a world that has been turned upside down. I began cleaning out my mother’s condo the same day that she died. I was desperate to stay busy, to wear my body out with exhaustion as my mind reeled from the profound moment I had just experienced. After a cleaning frenzy, I certainly was exhausted, but dismayed at how much remained.

My parents weren’t hoarders, but they came from a generation that was reluctant to discard of household goods. I was fortunate in some respects that my parents had always lived in small quarters, whether it was an apartment or the retirement condo, but a lifetime’s worth of stuff was still formidable to assess. Over time, I have made significant progress. The local Humane Society took my parents’ sofa and recliner, and I found a lovely woman via Care.com who picked up several boxes of donations to take to a church thrift shop where she volunteers. My mom would be pleased that everything from Avon dish collections (which she received from her brother and never used) to my childhood toys will have new homes.

Almost two years after her death, my mother’s clothes still hang in the close, as do my dad’s clothes, and he died five years ago. Furniture and books also remain. What happened?

It’s not sentimentality, as I long ago selected keepsakes from each of my parents that hold special meaning. It’s been difficult to find the rest of the items a home. Other families are running into the same issue.

As a Next Avenue article bluntly put it, “Sorry, nobody wants your parents’ stuff.”

I don’t have children, but even those who are parents will find that younger generations are not interested in acquiring “stuff,” especially when that stuff includes heavy furniture and book collections that will hinder their much-beloved mobility. While furniture, artwork, and books used to be family heirlooms, handed down from generation-to-generation, for younger people, these items are seen less as treasures and more as burdens.

As a Generation X member, I’m somewhere in-between in my love of old family items. I have a few such pieces in my home, but I’m not a collector. Even if I wanted all of my parents’ stuff, with their condo in New Mexico and my home in Georgia, the logistics and cost wouldn’t be worth it.

Family caregivers may end up babysitting their loved one’s stuff long after their family members are gone. For those who can afford it and need to move items quickly, there are estate liquidation companies and senior move managers who can offer tips on downsizing while your loved ones age in place. For others, especially those in rural communities, unloading household items can be more of a chore.

Charities that accept donations such as clothes and furniture often have a higher standard for quality than one might expect. They are not meant to be dumping grounds for junk, and they have every right to refuse items. My parents’ wardrobe, heavily worn and hopelessly out-of-fashion, would not make the cut at many charity-operated thrift shops.

Items like my parents’ bed are beyond well-used and simply need to be disposed of, but that is easier said than done in a small town. In Atlanta, when I want to get rid of junk, I simply used one of the many junk removal services. Some even provide same-day service. But no such service exists in my parents’ small town, and classifieds, online and in the local newspaper, have not been helpful. Unlike Atlanta, the town’s sanitation service does not offer a bulk rubbish day where heavy items can be left by one’s household trash for pickup. Everything would have to be trucked to a landfill. I asked a local home renovation company who was giving me quotes on repair projects for suggestions, and even they didn’t know of a local resource.

There are options which I’m going to explore. One option is donating clothing to nursing homes. My father wore mainly donated clothes during his time in a memory care center, because the distance was too far for my mother to bring laundry back and forth, as some family members did. Of course, there are no nursing home near where my parents live, so that would mean transporting the clothing.

Melissa Balkon/Freeimages

Another option is to use a service like Goodwill’s Give Back Box which accepts most items (refer to website for restrictions) and provides a free shipping label. In my case, because USPS did not provide mail delivery to my parents’ condo, I would have to bring such boxes to a post office or shipping center.

My father loved the local library so I may be able to find a home for his books there.

Unlike some families who are selling their parents’ home and are forced to clean out quickly, I have the luxury of time as I maintain ownership of the home. The old mattresses and box frames are stacked in a bedroom, collecting dust but out of the way. The books are boxed up. The clothes are doing no harm hanging in the closet. While I’m still eager to finish the job, once everything is gone, I wonder if I will have a pang of longing for what is no longer there.

Maybe the younger generations have it right. Hang on to the important things, the memories of time spent together with loved ones, captured in a neat and tidy digital form. Let go of materialistic goods that do not bring joy or have special meaning. It will certainly make the purging process less painful.

Written by Joy Johnston
Joy Johnston is an Atlanta-based digital journalist who began The Memories Project blog in 2012 after her father died of Alzheimer’s. Her essays have appeared in best-selling anthologies, including Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer’s & Other Dementias.

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40 Comments

  1. My mom hasn’t passed but she lives in a memory care facility now… I need to clean her things out but feel guilty about doing it…

    Reply
  2. I dread it…. both parents still living. My dad 95 and mom 76. My mom was never a hoarder but now she wants to hang on to everything.

    Reply
  3. Still clearing out mum and dads house where they lived for 50 years. The house was stuffed with clutter. Started with going through paperwork, then clearing one room at a time, keeping some things for sentimental reasons. Donated clothing that was decent enough to charity, gave a van load of ornaments and small furniture items to charity. Had a house clearance company to remove all large and heavy items. Mammoth cleaning operation as mum was incontinent so all carpets ruined and there was an infestation of mice. Just working on all the clutter in the loft, so can see light at the end of the tunnel, only taken me 7 months so far.

    Reply
  4. Still clearing stuff bit by bit

    Reply
  5. OmG. I have stuff that belongs to my husband, his brother, my brother, my mother, and some kids stuff. I don’t know where to start. Husband is still living but bed bound n probably will never be able to work on stuff again. First tho, he kept papers, bills, reciepts, biker magazines. Bike parts, bikes, camping stuff. Tools. Books clothes.

    Reply
  6. I’m doing it now. It’s a long process.

    Reply
  7. Yes,Clothes were given Away.
    All Out of Date expired foods trashed-several years out of date.Household items Sold.
    Paper Goods given out.
    Sheets and Towels Sorted.
    Excessive Electronics sold.
    Important Papers Kept- Wills,Land Deeds,Marriage and Divorce Records and Death Certificates.Bank Records.

    Shred All canceled Checks,Bank Statements that are Not Currant.
    Any Valuables go in Safe Deposit Box.
    It was not easy.

    Reply
  8. be careful…my sister’s whole life was packed up in garbage bags and disposed of in less than a week by other family members….like she was never even there….

    Reply
  9. Luckily, I didn’t have to rush to get things cleared out. I would handle items and decide if it had any emotional attachment to it. If not, it went to good will or the trash. If so, I put it back. Later on, I found that some things that held emotional attachment right after Mom’s death, really wasn’t that important months later.

    Reply
  10. This will be in my book with more details. Dad lived through the Great Depression & didn’t throw anything out (he passed in 1991). There were just pathways through the house. After Mom’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, I did a home mold test & there were 3 types of dangerous mold. When Mom was hospitalized with pneumonia the next month, I wouldn’t let her back in the house until it was safe. My sis boxed everything on the main floor (in about 2 weeks, which means she busted her a$$ doing it). The boxes were lining the walls, but you could see the floor. She stopped on her way to the basement when my bro said he wanted to look over everything. It took 4 months, an ultimatum & deadline for my bro and hiring “Good Riddance Junk” for the basement to be cleared before Mom went home. Then, I continued the process slowly on the main floor. It took several years, but with limited help, some arguing with the sibs and some deadlines with consequences, her house got cleared out more, deep cleaned & painted. I had several garage sales (I put Mom’s stuff in my van & brought it up to my house), too. I also had to hire a lawn service & cleaning lady because nobody else in the family cut the grass or dust, vacuum & scrub her toilet once a month. BUT … She was in a comfortable, safe environment for her last few years in the house we were raised in. Mom was in hospital, rehab & NH for the last 6 months and not going to be able to go home. I got her house ready, staged & it sold to a young couple with a baby girl on the way. What family didn’t want got donated to a disabled veteran who had just gotten an apartment. Mom never knew. This is a before pic of her living room.

    Reply
    • Can you believe my sibs argued with me that this needed to be done? I don’t think they have ANY IDEA how much heartbreak & hard work I saved them because we didn’t have to do this after Mom passed.

      Reply
  11. I didn’t realize that my Mom, very organized and fastidious, had been so confused that she started hoarding. Like the Alzheimer’s disease; she hid it well. My son was helping me clean out her backyard storage building. We found stacks of white trash bags, ends tied and perfectly stacked to the top of the building. Each trash bag held butter bowls and cool whip bowls, etc. We began throwing everything away. My son decided to open up a bag and found that Mom had stored paperwork in some of the bowls, her birth certificate, pictures, money, receipts, and even jewelry. Silently my son began unloading what we had just completed…
    Alzheimer’s runs in my family and I am purging now so hopefully it won’t be so difficult for my family.

    Reply
  12. When my mom moved in with me she was 97 1/2. We both knew it was permanent. I started asking her what she wanted done with certain things. So she was involved. She died 6 1/2 months later. I was blessed to take my time. I would say donate all nicknacks unless there’s any antiques or 1 or 2 that has special meaning. Ask friends and family if there are anything they want (if you have that kind of relationship). I sold the furniture on FB flea market sights. All kitchen stuff was donated.

    Reply
  13. I am currently in the process of cleaning out my parents’ stuff as well as our own (we’re a family of five) and somehow got on the calling list for Cedar Lake who send a truck around our neighborhood about once a month AND a veterans group who also send a truck around. So every couple of weeks we get a chance to clean out a room, pack some boxes, transport them to the driveway and someone carts them off. I cannot express how helpful this is. We moved into my parents’ house so there’s no rush to clean it all out at once. I know many of you are working on a time crunch, but you may be able to find a charity who will pick it up for you. And they give you a receipt for tax time.

    Reply
  14. Been there, done that. I did it in during short trips to another state over a period of a couple years with very little help overall. I narrowed life down to a few bins saving only the most sentimental or valuable possessions for the most part. Honestly, I felt a tremendous weight lifted after my mom passed and my dad was with me safe that the house and all the “things” weren’t weighing my down anymore and my time could be solely devoted to my dad’s care and not a house sized storage unit!

    Reply
  15. We had to empty out my mom’s apt. While she was admitted the 1st time to the hospital & took 3 1/2 months. The rest we donated cause she didn’t want it to be thrown away. I know my hub/siblings need to get together to start donating or sell or something w/mom’s stuff she has ALOT of things. We have started getting rid of the older stuff & she passed me down most of her crystal items,I eventually have that in the garage..there is a lot more to get rid of or donate but no one want to give any time to get it done..

    Reply
  16. we down sized a LOT when my IS got sick. I was living in a studio apartment so there just wasn’t room for a lot of stuff. At this moment, everything we own fits in a 20 foot uhaul truck, including the cats. a good majority can be recycled. the furniture we do have is current and in good shape. anything he would have left to anyone has already been given to them

    Reply
  17. I know it takes forever to separate yourself from emotional attachments with material items. We have only just moved into a senior focused rental area, and I’m trying my best to gather things to take into the club house and see if anyone needs what I don’t. I have miles of lace curtains, extra platters, etc. I figure why give to Good Will, when I have other folks who may really need these?

    Reply
  18. My advice is get busy ASAP. I’m an only child, so knowing that it would be me and me alone doing it, I started early. After my mom passed away, I sorted out and donated all of her clothing, sold all of her bedroom furniture in a yard sale, and purged all of the paperwork (income tax records form the 70’s 80’s and 90’s), old checks and registers, credit card statements for accounts long closed, etc…) as well as greeting cards, my old school projects, magazines that she had saved, etc…that had accumulated over the years, which actually helped quite a bit.

    My dad just passed away in January, and as soon as I saw the “writing on the wall” that he had entered the home stretch, I really knuckled down. From October ’16 on, I cleared out the entire house and repainted, except for the items in the living room, which is where we had him set up. Since he was confined to a hospital bed (as well as suffering from dementia), he had no idea what was happening in the other rooms of the house. Obviously if he had been able to get around and live in his *entire* house, I would have left things put and dealt with it after he passed.

    Reply
  19. Nice article… I believe that people should take help of various home cleaning specialist to make their home free from clutter.
    Thanks for sharing…

    Reply
  20. Even in Las Vegas, I have this challenge. It sucks!

    Reply
  21. We are going through the same thing.

    Reply
  22. Life comes to a full stop as you know it.

    Reply
  23. How do you throw some things away?

    Reply
  24. Same here…we had to have the house thoroughly cleaned when our furnace backfired….as Mom sat watching TV I tossed out at least a dozen hefty bags of crap…
    ….but it still looks the same….lol….

    Reply
  25. This is a great read. Spot on.

    Reply
  26. I am doing it while my Mourner is still here. It’s hard. I believe either way.

    Reply
  27. yep, am going through that now…with my own things, the items in my the storage unit of my mother’s estate… and same, hiring people to take things away, knowing they have value… getting myself down to items that would fit in my car.

    Reply
  28. This is exactly what I’m going through right now, except mom was almost a hoarder in a large house. Glad to know I’m not the only person who feels like this. It’s been a year and I’m still trying to make headway. It’ll be finished eventually, and I promised my daughter that I won’t do this to her!

    Reply

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