A couple working together to move home
A couple working together to move home

What is everyone I know tearing their hair out about? Too much stuff: overflowing closets, drawers, garages... We all need to downsize, but how to begin?

A cluttered home is the single most used excuse for not be able to move by people wishing to go to smaller quarters or to a retirement community. This may be a time to reflect, regroup and organize our lives so that we can age with the least amount of stress for ourselves and our families. Looking at a house full of stuff is daunting indeed -- we don't know where to begin, so we just don't!

Our children don't want our belongings, and neither do the grandchildren. They have no desire for the lovely crystal glasses or the gold-rimmed dishes that should not go into the dishwasher. Don't feel rejected, it is a different time with a different lifestyle, a more casual one.

I remember the house my mother died in at age 96. She had lived there for over 60 years, and it was a confusion of stuff -- wonderful souvenirs mixed in with tax returns from over 50 years ago and children's letters mixed with old receipts. Sorting through and deciding what to hold on to and what to discard was exhausting and painful. Furniture no one wanted, paintings from known and unknown artists, lovely clothes which were too small for me, what to do?

Today I worry that after I die, my daughter will have the same nightmare of dealing with my 30 photo albums and hundreds of beloved books. I imagine her sifting through hundreds of sundry items: the beautiful ashtray no one has needed in decades, the cute wooden penguin from Antarctica, the rag doll I made from a mop... You get the idea.

We must start downsizing while still healthy enough to do it, or it will be done for us or without us. Why is it so difficult? Every object has a memory, and memories are a part of us; discarding an object is losing the memory. It need not be so. Take a photo and you can keep the memory, or give it to someone you visit and you will see it again. Your discarded objects may have a new life as someone else's treasure. Have you ever talked to your children and grandchildren about your life, about the history of some of the objects in your home? Many things have stories attached; share these memories, and they will become part of your legacy.

Those who have been able to get down to just what they need or really, really cherish say they feel liberated, a large weight has been lifted from their shoulders.

But most of us look at everything we own and feel despair; the task is too monumental. So we postpone and postpone, feel defeated and guilty. I know I do when I look at my file drawers knowing how many useless papers are residing there, and yet, instead of starting to sort, I find something supposedly more important to do.

There are two strategies to help us get rid of clutter: one is the piecemeal way, and the other is to do it all in one day or week.

If you feel you can't get yourself going, set aside 30 minutes or an hour a day to work, or do it by territory: one drawer today, one-half a closet tomorrow, one corner of the living room the next day.... By limiting yourself to something small and easily achievable, it is possible to break a large task into segments.

If this feels like an endless process, then go for the "in one swoop" strategy. You will need help; your children are wonderful for this task, so are good friends. You work as a team making decisions as you go along. For this strategy you will need five categories:

1. Trash and recycling

2. Give away to specific people or donate to charity

3. Sell (eBay or garage sale)

4. Keep (only if needed or really beloved)

5. Can't decide (keep this small and give yourself a firm date to make final decisions or everything you own will go into this category)

Remember: You will need garbage bags, boxes and tags for large objects like furniture. Now all you have to do is decide to do it. It is a mind set, so set your mind, bite the bullet and roll up your sleeves. You will be amazed at how much lighter you feel and how grateful your children will be. And be sure to throw this column away as soon as you're finished with downsizing.