Sep 01, 2008

Cleaning Out The House: Dealing With Dad's Weird Stuff

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Recently, the New York Times published an article, at once fascinating and chilling -- at least for those of us with parents who "collect" things. Imagine having to go through your deceased father's house to cull out what's valuable and what's not --especially when your father was a noted collector of historical relics, kept few or no records, and had amassed a collection of more than 3,000 objects, including the purported remains of the severed penis of Napoleon Bonaparte!

Says his daughter, Evan Lattimer, about the job of researching and cataloging the objects: "I sleep about three to five hours a night. This is all I do."

Most of us, of course, don't have quite that task in front of us, but most of us, sooner or later, will have to deal with the lifetime of things left behind by our parents, or assist them in downsizing when they decide to move to a smaller home or to an assisted living facility.

The AARP, in one of its most requested articles, Conquering Clutter, gets to the root of why this can be such a painful and difficult process: the objects aren't just clutter. In fact, "the items that had been used the least were the hardest to throw out, symbolizing as they did not fond memory but never-tapped potential. They were... artifacts of unused life." 

Here are some handy tips to help a parent (or anyone, really) get rid of some of that stuff now.

  • Get them to imagine how sad they would feel if they got rid of that old whatever-it-is -- they might discover they don't care as much as they thought.
  • Create a record/archive of the things that matter; a photograph might be enough to save the memories.
  • Give things to charity, like the Salvation Army -- do good and get a tax deduction.
  • Start small. Don't take on the whole house -- start with one room, or even one corner.
  • Get support -- find a friend who can help support you through the process.

Here's another option: get help. There's a whole army of professional organizers who can help aging parents, or those left behind and charged with cleaning up their homes and settling their estates. Estate Organizers, for an hourly fee, can help families organize financial and legal records, find and value assets, create family archives, get rid of the stuff that doesn't matter, and distribute the stuff that does.

It might be one of the best investments you'll ever make. Says Estate Organizer Jeanne K. Smith, "Most people don't have a clue what they're in for when they're named executor, that they're going to have to give up a better part of a year."

Better get ready now!