Rebecca Mezzino understands that she operates from a position of privilege.
But the unique circumstances the Adelaide simplicity coach frequently finds herself in has nothing to do with social hierarchy and even less to do with influence.
Instead Mezzino, a professional organiser, finds herself playing a pivotal role in supporting emotional active seniors as they go about packing up years, sometimes whole lifetimes, worth of memories when preparing to vacate their family home.
The founder of Clear Space – a business that specialises in tackling home clearance projects – Mezzino says despite the obvious advantages of decluttering, many active seniors struggle with their emotions when it comes to actually doing the deed.
Having written extensively on the subject in her book, Letting Go: How to choose freedom over clutter – she says clutter is less about belongings and more about what’s going on inside the mind.
Dr Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago, is an expert on the causes of clutter and its impact on emotional well-being.
In a piece that appeared in the New York Times recently, Dr Ferrari claimed there was much evidence to suggest that decluttering our physical environment has a positive impact on our emotional and mental states.
However, he also cautioned that being in a cluttered home had also been shown to induce a physiological response in many people, including increased levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.
In addition, he noted procrastination is closely tied to clutter, because sorting through and tossing items is a task that many people find “unpleasant and avoid”.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, his research into this topic had also revealed that frustration with clutter tended to increase with age.
The findings correlate with Mezzino’s observations that downsizers’ emotional connection with their properties is among the biggest psychological barriers to readying their homes for a move into a more manageable property.
“It’s quite confronting for many. One reason is that it brings up old memories. The good memories can result in sadness for what has gone, and the bad memories can be re-lived. Sometimes it’s confronting because they actually didn’t realise they had kept so much stuff and the reality of the work they have to do hits them. They are sometimes embarrassed and annoyed with themselves that they didn’t do it sooner.”
The physical workload and decision-making requirements of such a move can also prove stressful, she says.
Precis Pool, a director of Melbourne-based home clearance company The Junkman, agrees downsizing is a massive occurrence for anyone but particularly those in later life.
“Downsizing is definitely a life changing event, as the home may have decades of memories so discarding some of the contents can be difficult. They may have saved or put on layby pieces that hold great sentimental value that may now need to be discarded. [Others] can be a little more matter of fact.”
The experts agree that tackling the decluttering process to make way for a fresh start does not have to induce psychological trauma if the right steps are implemented.
Pool says a good way around this is to decide from the onset what you hope to achieve.
“All homes are different, some have minimal amounts of furniture which do not require much time and some are dense with furniture and other items, in these cases allow a month or two. Relocating to a smaller space will involve [identifying] what items to take or not to take, measuring where items will fit and sometimes purchasing new items. All of this takes time,” he says.
Mezzino agrees forward planning is key and says it’s best to get underway as soon as you make the decision to move.
It is pointless waiting for the house to go on the market, or for you to put your name down at the place to want to move to as this only delays the proceedings.
“Start now. Always ask family if they’d like any of the items you don’t and if you’ve still got your adult children’s stuff at home, give them an ultimatum to come get it or you’ll deal with it yourself. You’re not a storage unit for them,” she says.
It is also worthwhile visiting your new home prior to making decisions about what furniture to take or to cull prior to making the move, Mezzino says.
“Take a tape measure and a list of what major furniture pieces you’re thinking of taking and make a plan of what will go where. Measure up how much storage space you’ll have in the new kitchen, line cupboards and especially, hanging space in the bedrooms.”
Take the emotion out of it
Julia Zaetta, who spent 30 years as editor-in-chief of Better Homes and Gardens, and who recently hosted a forum for active seniors on this very topic, recommends that when it comes to organising what items to keep and what to divest, a step-by-step approach typically works best.
“Sit and look at your smaller items – remember why you have them, then ask yourself ‘is that story still valuable to me today’. If you’re not sure if their story still has value, put the item somewhere you won’t see it for a while. If you’re really torn on an item, put it away for even longer. If you don’t miss it, you can let it go. Appraise your larger items in the same way.”
Mezzino, who helps her clients manage the move from start to finish, says that when it comes to the order in which you should undertake the decluttering process, it’s always best to finish one area before starting the next.
Work first on a room that isn’t used, so that it can become your staging area where you put unwanted items until you can get them sold or donated.
“Then work on other rarely-used rooms and work your way up to the kitchen, the last one. Pack your wanted items as you go, packing unused items first such as decorative pieces, memorabilia, books and old paperwork.”
By not moving onto the next room before you have made a decision on every item in the current room, you will not only save any confusion but more readily be able to keep track of your progress, she says.