Seniors: Decluttering is a vital step for healthy aging

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Judy Bryan in front of a bookcase of family mementos. Bryan and her husband decluttered their belongings last year when they downsized and moved into Goodwin House Alexandria. (Courtesy Photo)
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By Lindsay Hutter

Ask an adult age 55 or older what the key steps to healthy aging are, and you likely will hear responses such as, “Exercise more,” “Drink more water” and “Eat brain-boosting foods.” Few people will respond with one of the more significant steps to healthy aging: decluttering.

After decades collecting memories, mementos and material items, even minimalists can find the process of clearing out their homes daunting. It need not be, and there are many benefits derived not only from the results but also from the process.

Decluttering can stimulate cognition and reduce anxiety, including anxiety that stems from family tensions. As we work through our belongings, we often come across items that might bring back happy memories. And as we reorganize what we keep, we get a sense of calm from restoring order to our home. Various studies by psychology experts have proven these and other benefits of decluttering. Many Alexandrians, both those who have decided to age in place and those who have moved to a senior living community, concur.

“You come to the point in life where you are happy to pass things on to the next generation so they have a sense of continuity and history and things that have been important to you,” long-time Alexandria resident Judy Bryan said. Bryan moved into Goodwin House Alexandria last year with her husband, Jonathan.

“Of course, younger generations do not want everything you have, so it’s important to find a way to dispose of items that may have belonged to your parents or grandparents in a way that’s honoring,” Bryan said.

For Bryan, the answer came through spending an evening going through old photos and letters with her daughter and sharing stories about those prior generations that had passed away. At the end of the evening, they disposed of the items – but not before honoring their memory.

Another resident, Don Bradley, faced the challenge of decluttering a lifetime’s worth of books, accumulated during his years as a professor and later as the principal economist at Freddie Mac. While his home in the Rosemont neighborhood of Alexandria could accommodate the books, he knew they could not make the journey to a smaller home and then to Goodwin House Alexandria in July 2017.

“Ann and I started our decluttering by focusing on what we would need in our next season of life, not what we would donate or give away, and it was clear we did not need 100 cartons of my books,” Bradley said. “The benefit of choosing to declutter sooner rather than later meant I would thoughtfully donate the books to several college libraries, and that has given me enormous satisfaction.”

For older adults who want to age in place in their homes, decluttering takes on even more significance: safety. Goodwin House at Home, a program for active, healthy adults ages 55 and older who want to stay at home as they age, engages an occupational therapist to visit and assess each member’s home. The therapist provides expert advice that includes tips for decluttering and other changes that will create a safer home environment, one that reduces risks, especially risks for falls. And for a good reason: Every 11 seconds, an older adult is treated in the emergency room for a fall, according to the National Council on Aging.

Eileen Spata, area director with TAD Relocation, an organization that provides older adults with downsizing and relocating services, said the first step was sorting belongings.

“The biggest challenge we all face is underestimating just how much stuff we have,” Spata said. “A typical kitchen has more than three dozen types of items, from serving-ware to beverage containers, cookbooks and recipes — those items add up. On average, there are several thousand individual pieces in an older adult’s kitchen.”

To get you started, Spata offers these helpful “Sorting 101” tips for successful decluttering:

• Start with an easy room, such as a small den or guest bedroom.

• Start in one corner and work your way around the room.

• Stay there until it’s done. Do not start another room or area.

• Combine like items.

• Separate what you want from what you do not want.

• Your goal is to decide what you are keeping and not keeping.

• The benefit of sorting is that it will stimulate thinking, strengthen your skills in focusing and create a healthier, safer home environment.

Once the sorting has occurred, the next step is determining what to do with those items you are not keeping. Spata offers these options: donation, disposal, sale or gift to family and friends. Options for Alexandria-based donations include Goodwill Retail Store and Donation Center, Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity Restore and United Community Ministries.

Does this whet your appetite to start decluttering and achieve healthier aging? There are numerous resources for older adults in Alexandria, so get started today.

Lindsay Hutter is the chief strategy and marketing officer for Goodwin House Incorporated. GHI operates two life plan communities – Goodwin House Alexandria and Goodwin House Bailey’s Crossroads – as well as the Goodwin House at Home program for aging in place and a range of other services for older adults.

(Foodie: Savor the flavor of homemade buttermilk biscuits)

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