Do it while you still can

Two years ago my mother-in-law and her husband decided they needed to downsize because of their age and her health problems. They moved to a house that is walking distance to their church and a short drive to the grocery store, and they got rid of a bunch of stuff. But they didn’t really downsize.

Now, after a health scare, they are talking again about moving into housing designed for seniors—ideally a campus where it would be possible to get a range of services and where they could transition to skilled nursing care when needed.

To help prepare for this eventual move—which will require true downsizing—I asked my mother-in-law to make a to-do list before our recent visit. She is a natural organizer, a realist, and a planner, and I thought she would appreciate our help getting rid of unwanted and unused items.

Want to guess how much we accomplished? If you said “almost zero,” you are correct.

Here are the questions I’m asking myself:

1. If you have limited physical, mental, and emotional energy, isn’t it natural and correct to conserve and use it for maintaining relationships with family and friends and getting through each day (and not use it for the draining process of sorting through and making decisions about possessions)?

2. If you’ve already endured losses on many levels (loss of health, loss of friends, loss of professional and social status, loss of autonomy), is it possible that parting with stuff—even unwanted, unused stuff—feels like one more thing to grieve?

3. Is the idea of simplifying in order to live better irrelevant for someone whose primary need is comfort?

I think the answer to these questions is “yes.”

While the elders in our extended family feel strongly that they should not be a burden to others, some of them waited too long to get rid of stuff—or even to plan for the last part of their lives. It is harder for them to do those things now.

My hope for myself is that simplifying in middle age will allow me to live better starting today (it is) with benefits that continue into old age (ojalà I live that long).

* * *

A friend recently recommended “A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents—and Ourselves,” a memoir and guide book by journalist Jane Gross. The book was published in 2011 and details experiences from several years prior, but Gross’s insights into parent-adult child and adult sibling relationships feel timeless. Gross covers issues related to elder health care and housing in the U.S. that many people find themselves learning about the hard way.










Make it social!

If you’ve played a game with other people, or worked out with a personal trainer, or if you understand human psychology, you already know:  sharing a task with other people—and introducing a little fun competition—makes the task far easier.

How this relates to simplifying
Carole, a mom I’ve known since our kids went to preschool together, read about the Minimalism Game, which involves competing with a friend or family member to get rid of X number of items each day over the course of a month, with X corresponding to the day of the month (i.e. on July 1 you get rid of one item, on July 2 two items…). The point is to get rid of things that aren’t adding value or are even causing stress in your life.

Carole used Facebook to invite several friends and neighbors including me to join her in playing the game this month. She then created a Facebook group for posting pictures and comments.

If you’re like me and think you’re pretty good at decluttering and getting rid of stuff, I can now tell you that it’s different doing it as part of a group.

  • It was social.
    I would do it again just to read the funny comments.
  • There was accountability.
    Once I committed (to my own version of the rules), I didn’t want to quit.
  • There was encouragement.
    If, like Carole, you’ve hauled 45 opened cans of paint to the hazardous waste site—cans from your basement combined with cans from your neighbor’s basement, which were left behind by previous owners—you absolutely deserve a virtual “attagirl.”
  • There were witnesses.
    “See? I have this great thing, and even though it is great I do not use it so I am consigning it/selling it on Craigslist/giving it away.”
  • There were useful tips and connections.
    At least one of my items is going to another member in the group.
  • It was fun!
    There may even be celebratory offline cocktails.

If you try this, please share how it worked for you. The Minimalists—who originally posted the Minimalism Game on their site—would also like to hear from you.

Negotiating the simplifying journey with others

In January I wrote that I was curious to know what some of your challenges have been with simplifying and reducing clutter. Elli, a mother of six from Idaho, described her challenge as living with others who are not as eager to reduce stuff as she is.

There are two posts on Becoming Minimalist that offer thoughtful, practical advice for working through this challenge with another adult (When your spouse doesn’t get it and When you’re a minimalist but your partner isn’t), and a post from Small Notebook offers suggestions for managing little kid toys.

In our house, the adults are in full agreement about the benefits of having less stuff. Could each of us get rid of more things? Absolutely. I have noticed that I sometimes need to look at possessions a few times (over several months or longer) before I can accept that they aren’t adding value to my life, and I think my husband is the same way.

In the case of my son, I have done all the work up to this point to reduce his clutter (consigning or giving away outgrown toys and clothes on a regular basis, dealing with the river of artwork and papers flowing in from kindergarten, and regifting small things made of Chinese plastic to his teacher for her prize box). But he’s old enough now to start learning some of the life skills we all need to manage our belongings. This past week I sat with him while he sorted a monster stack of papers into “recycle” and “display” piles (the “display” pile was discouragingly large). My new rule is that if he wants to keep a school paper or craft, it must go on his bedroom wall (with washi tape, which doesn’t mark). Sometime soon, when we’re both in very sunny moods, we’ll practice sorting his toys into “keep” and “give away” piles. The best solution of course would be to reduce the number of toys that come into his life, but this depends mostly on other people who are loving and well-intentioned and really want to give gifts.

What tips do you have for negotiating the simplifying journey with a spouse or with children?