Clutter can be hazardous to seniors

Herald Health CorrespondentOctober 29, 2013 


Kitchen clutter can slowly creep up and a home cook ends up dealing with a tangle of gadgets. Make a resolution to clean up drawers in disarray by getting rid of things you don't use and putting often-employed items in easy-to-reach places. MCT


Maybe it's not being able to get rid of the clothes of a deceased spouse or to let go of a collection of trinkets that evolved over 60 years. Or the mail has piled up so much that mounds of bills, junk mail, flyers and magazines are stacked in heaps on the couch, the floor and the dining table.

For the elderly, who have had a lifetime to amass possessions and the memories they bring, clutter is an especially easy trap. Add to the fact that staying on top of things takes energy that can be hard to find when dealing with a chronic illness, frailty or the death of a spouse.

Clutter, though, can be more than just a mess. For a senior, a cluttered home may be potentially hazardous or a warning sign that something beyond disorder is happening.

"I tell people that clutter is an accident waiting to happen, especially if it's floor clutter," said Lorraine Berry, a professional organizer in Bradenton.

Berry helps seniors downsize possessions when they are moving from a home into an independent living community and assists older people who need help reining in their houses because they can't find anything or are bothered living amid the visual chaos.

The problem of clutter may start slowly, and as good intentions sputter, becomes too much to handle.

"They'll think that they'll pick up, then run out of energy and just leave it there," said Berry.

"They don't go through the mail and don't do anything until it gets overwhelming. Often after awhile they stop even trying," she said.

Attachments to possessions can lead to dramatic clutter pileups, said Ann Bahri, who works for Home Instead Senior Care in Venice and gives talks about how clutter affects seniors.

"Some of the reasons that people collect clutter are because of memories. There is a lot of sentimental attachment to the history of that possession or the memory of an event," said Bahri.

"Or they may have a sense of loyalty because something was from a friend or family member and they have conflicted feelings about getting rid of it," she said.

Among those who lived through the Depression, giving something up can feel like a loss. They hang onto such things as old bank statements from long-closed savings accounts, said Bahri.

"The clutter can bother them intensely but often they're so overwhelmed they can't or won't deal with it," she said.

"But the clutter can be almost like having a security blanket. They think they might need it or have to have it and when you say 'let's get rid of this,' they just dig in their heels."

Adult children may want to take heed: Clutter can be a signal that help is needed. For instance, when big piles of mail are unopened and unsorted, it may be an indication that help is needed with bill paying.

The slide into out-of-control clutter is often triggered by a life-changing event, said Bahri. "The death of a spouse or the death of a loved one is often a major one," she said.

Along with the growing clutter, there can be an increasing sense of isolation. Being lonely and isolated amid the disarray becomes the norm as depression takes hold. No one is invited over because of the mess and it's just too much trouble to go out.

"Clutter is a good indication that something is amiss," said Bahri. "It's not laziness, stubbornness or a personality flaw."

She recommends tactful understanding when trying to help.

"Rather than say, 'This is a mess,' you have to be prepared to say non-confrontationally that, 'Look, I don't really feel there is a problem but how does it make you feel?' " said Bahri.

Explain very gently that "I'm worried this could be a fire hazard because mail is on the stove and the burner might be turned on.' "

Helpful tips

Meanwhile, there are classic organizing tips for anyone, including seniors, who want to disarm clutter: Don't expect clutter to be cleared in a day; it took time to build up and therefore will take time to clear. Do a little at a time, consistently, and you'll get there.

To get started on reclaiming a house, Berry will first ask her clients what's bothering them the most. Often, it's the kitchen table covered with mail. First step: Work on clearing the table, throwing away all the junk and setting aside anything important.

From there, she helps organize space according to purpose. Books piled up by a chair on the floor means bookshelves are needed near the chair. Sewing equipment can be organized in one designated space.

"I tell people you wouldn't store your pots and pans in the bathtub," said Berry. "You need a space for things where they are going to be used."

When Berry is helping seniors downsize, she encourages them to give up their collections. Your children won't want it, she tells them. Pick only five to 10 of your favorites and get rid of the rest. If you have shelves full of trophies, keep only the one that means the most to you.

It may feel hard but usually people love the result of uncluttered, manageable spaces, said Berry.

Susan Hemmingway, Herald health correspondent, can be reached at

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