I remember all too clearly that moment when I was searching through my mother's home, desperate to find her driver's license, her marriage certificate and other important documents that I needed in order to help her. I was across the country, in California where my mother lived to help her make the transition from living on her own in a condo to living in a senior living community. Although I made the trip to visit with her frequently, I must admit that I never fully realized just how much stuff she had accumulated over the years.
Eventually, I was able to track down copies of my mom's important life documents, but not without a lot of added stress and legwork during an already complex transition. When I speak to families today about what they can do to start the process of planning for senior care with aging family members, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of taking the time to start organizing, and perhaps even downsizing, a senior's home. Little steps along the way can make a big difference later.
With spring finally here and with many families setting aside time during this season to thoroughly clean and organize their homes, I encourage families to think about how they can work with aging loved ones to "spring clean" as well. Below are a few tips I wanted to share on how to tackle this important task.
1) Discuss mutual goals with family members. Before you start clearing out items from your parent's home, I suggest communicating with them -- and any siblings -- about your desire and reason for helping to de-clutter and organize. I recognize that starting a discussion about senior care can cause apprehension for many seniors and their families, but it's important to help aging love ones feel in control by discussing the goals behind this process, and ensuring them that getting their stuff in order will help them continue to maintain a good quality of life.
2) Organize important documents. Track down and file away important financial, health and other legal documents for seniors. I can assure you that taking the time to do this before an emergency occurs will help save time, money and anxiety. For example, being able to quickly provide paperwork such as a durable power-of-attorney or an advanced-health-care-directive when you unexpectedly visit the hospital with an older parent can help reduce stress and streamline the process in most scenarios.
3) Evaluate living conditions while cleaning. While visiting and helping your parents clean their homes, take the time to evaluate the safety of their living environments. Is the home well-lit, easy to navigate and free of fall risks, such as open extension cords and loose rugs? Are the fire extinguishers, carbon monoxide detectors and smoke detectors functioning? A Place for Mom, the nation's largest senior living referral service, also offers a Senior Safety and Well-Being Checklist that families can use when evaluating the home safety of aging relatives.
4) Clear the clutter. Whether you're helping parents move from a large family home to a smaller apartment or simply trying to clear up space in their home, downsizing can be a particularly wrenching process for aging relatives who may find it overwhelming to think about letting go of items they've gathered over a lifetime. A good rule of thumb to follow is to help aging loved ones choose the items they need and use most often, while starting to think about which friends and relatives may want items or family heirlooms with sentimental value. Consider taking pictures of sentimental items and creating a photo album. This can help ease the emotions of letting go.
5) Enlist help. Don't be afraid to ask trusted friends and family to help clean and de-clutter a loved one's home. Having others around to share memories can make the process less painful and overwhelming. If professional help is needed, contact a senior move manager who can provide seniors and their families help with downsizing their possessions and figuring out what to keep, throw away or donate. The National Association of Senior Move Managers is a good resource to find a local move expert. Also, A Place for Mom has Senior Living Advisors who can share tips with families on how to streamline the move process for seniors and provide resources and information on estate sales, auctions and other options.
There are many events in life that you cannot prepare for, but getting organized to help your parents transition into the next stage of their lives can help minimize the distress that can come with this situation. My hope is that my own experience will encourage families to start getting organized!