Going on a sentimental journey

When uncluttering, it’s quite easy to make decisions on items for which we have no feelings or emotional attachment. But when we have feelings associated with physical items, it can be hard for our heart to let them go even though our lack of usable living space tells us we really need to say goodbye.

There are different types of sentimental clutter (clutter referring to items you don’t necessarily want or have need for; not sentimental objects you value and/or regularly use). Some of the most common items are:

  • Things handed down to us from previous generations
  • Gifts received from important people in our lives
  • Souvenirs and memorabilia

These are some of the most difficult items to deal with because the object reminds us of the person or event, so we keep the item to trigger memories.

A short-term emergency measure of dealing with sentimental items is to box them up and store them. This is ideal if there is a sudden death or downsizing in the family. You must, however, eventually deal with these items because they will eventually fill your storage area and will deteriorate if stored indefinitely.

Sorting and organizing sentimental clutter can be very emotional, so only do a little at a time. Finding a friend or family member to help you sort can be beneficial. Make sure you choose someone who is willing to listen to some stories behind the items. This person should also know whether you need a shoulder to cry on or a kick in the pants when it is time to say good-bye to the sentimental clutter.

Ask yourself a few questions:

  • If you had to purchase the item yourself, at full price, would you?
  • If someone you didn’t like gave you the item as a gift, would you still keep it?
  • Does the item invoke happy memories?

If you answered no to any of these questions, consider getting rid of the item.

The following are a few tips to help you get rid of sentimental clutter but keep the memories:

  • Take photos and write stories to capture an item’s significance in your life. You can even tell the story on video and share it with your family. Your children can do this with some of their school projects. Essays, reports and drawings can be scanned and saved in digital format. This will prevent them from getting lost or broken over the years (especially during household moves).
  • Make and display photomontages of your vacations instead of keeping souvenirs. You also can set digital images of your vacations as the screen saver on your computer, if you’re short on wall space.
  • If you’ve inherited a collection of items (pocket watches, salt and pepper shakers, etc.) keep the ones you like best and let the rest go. Offer the other items from the collection to other family members or friends of the family. This holds true for sets of dishes too. You needn’t keep the entire set of china together. For example, if you inherit grandma’s china, one grandchild could have the dessert plates, another could have the platters and another the gravy boat.
  • Display your items so they bring you joy throughout your home. You should limit your items to one or two shelves and keep only items that fit on those shelves. If you can’t display your items, limit them to only one storage bin and keep only the things that fit inside that bin.

Because you have a significant emotional attachment to these sentimental items, it is important to get them out of the house once you’ve made the decision to let them go. If the items are destined for charity, then take them the same day or ask a friend to take them for you (then, return the favor). If the items are to be given to other family members, box them up and tape the box closed. Make arrangements for pick-up or drop-off as soon as you can.

If you’re really feeling bad about an object that is leaving your life, you can have a “funeral” for the item. It helped me out when I really needed it.

Organizing military memorabilia

November 11 is the time when we pause and remember the service men and women who serve their country. Over the course of their military careers, they may have accumulated some items that are personally and historically significant and when organising these items you’ll need to decide what to keep, how to store what you keep, what to part with, and where donations and sales of items you’re getting rid of can be made.

Military memorabilia, often referred to as militaria, can include any and all aspects of military life including:

  • Medals and ribbons
  • Uniforms, including rank insignia, buttons, lapel pins, etc.
  • Hats and helmets
  • Weapons (swords, bayonets, firearms)
  • Inert Ordnance (empty shell casings, etc.)
  • Equipment (compass, binoculars, canteen, etc.)
  • Books and training manuals
  • Photographs
  • Flags
  • Currency (both notes and coins)
  • Documents such as:
    • Identity badges and papers
    • Certificates of completed training
    • Maps
    • Journals
    • Charts
    • Posters
    • Letters and post cards
    • Postage stamps
    • Invitations and programs to official military functions

It is important to understand the significance and importance of items before deciding whether or not to keep and preserve them, donate them, or relegate them to the trash.

You may have the opportunity to work with a veteran to make these decisions. Be aware that certain objects may represent very powerful memories. It is important to respect the veteran’s desire to discuss, or not discuss, the items and the associated memories. Be very patient and understand that you may not be given an explanation of why the veteran wishes to keep a particular object, but respect his/her wishes.

If you do not have the chance to work with the owner of the militaria, there are other ways to determine the value and significance of the artifacts.

The Government and its Armed Forces: Many governments and armed forces have sections of their websites that deal specifically with military history. You will find information about medals and decorations, uniforms, as well as weapons and even vehicles. This is a great place to start for general information.

Veterans Associations: A veterans association may be able to provide you with details about your treasures including how they were used during military service and what those items meant to the serviceman/woman.

Local Historical Societies: Some historical societies have an interest in militaria. They may be able to provide some information about your items and how they related to the history of the local area. For example, your uncle who was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal may have been the only one in his county to receive one.

Online Auctions: EBay is a great place to get an idea of the monetary value of your collection. There are also military-specific online auctions sites, some dedicated to the militaria of specific countries or specific periods in history.

Collectors and Traders Groups: There are many military collector groups around the world. They hold shows and fairs where people can bring in their items for evaluation. Some members of these groups will also provide appraisals via email or videoconference.

Antique Dealers and Appraisers: If you have visited some online auctions and feel that your pieces may be worth quite a bit of money, it is best to pay for a professional appraisal. Search the American Society of Appraisers or a similar society in your country for an appraiser near you and remember to ask for references.

If you decide to keep your military memorabilia, it is important to properly preserve the items. Displaying military memorabilia can be a way to honour the men and women who proudly served their country and to help transfer family history from one generation to the next.

Here are a few examples of the way that military memorabilia can be displayed.

If you’ve decided to part with your militaria, adding letters, journals, and photos to the objects will contribute their relevance and credibility.

While museums may not be able to accept your donations, there are other groups that might be interested such as:

  • Local libraries
  • History or Military Studies departments of colleges and universities
  • Historical societies
  • Community Centres
  • Military Unit, Corps or Regimental museums
  • Veterans groups

Reenactment groups and theatre troupes may be interested in certain items, too. They may not take entire uniforms but the rank insignia, buttons, and pins may be helpful to them in re-creating period costumes.

A Note about Weapons

Many collections of military memorabilia contain weapons such as swords, knives, bayonets, and firearms. These may be antiques but they are still dangerous. Please seek out expert assistance when dealing with weapons and obey all laws and regulations.

Display swords, knives, and bayonets in locked display cases. A professional firearms expert should deactivate firearms prior to them being stored in a locked display cabinet.

If you decide to sell or donate these items, ensure you follow all laws and regulations for sale and transport. Be aware that you may have to pay extra fees for customs clearance and may be required to alert law enforcement officials that you are transporting weapons.

Should you keep a family heirloom or donate it?

A nice result of uncluttering is that you can sometimes find things you’ve been looking for or that you forgot you had, and you’ll get a welcome surprise when you happen upon the items. You might also come across things that have high historical value. They may be items that have great historical significance, a family heirloom, or perhaps an artifact. These items represent “the museum of you” and if they are not properly cared for (a box in the basement or attic will not suffice), they can degrade and lose their value.

You can certainly take on the responsibility of caring for these valuable pieces yourself, but you’ll likely need some help, like the book, Saving Stuff: How to Care For and Preserve Your Collectibles, Heirlooms, and Other Prized Possessions written by Senior Conservator of the Smithsonian, Don Williams. Williams gives detailed, step-by-step instructions about how to keep your prized belongings in good condition.

Of course, before you can start the preservation process, you’ll need to decide which things to keep and which things not to keep. Taking stock of everything you have and making an inventory list is a great starting point. Then, you can use a Pro vs Con list to help you decide which items you’ll maintain yourself and which ones would be best cared for by a museum or special interest group. As you go through this process, think about:

  • How meaningful each item is to you
  • The amount of time and effort required to keep the item(s) in good condition
  • The type of equipment needed to maintain the item(s) in a pristine state

Williams suggests that you also think about whether or not you’ll be able to preserve an item “without changing its character.”

Fundamental to preserving your stuff is keeping it as it should be for as long as possible without changing what it is.

This is an important point, as changing the items will likely affect its value. If the item needs repairing, this means you will probably need to restore it and then follow up with protective measures to prevent any future damage. Depending on each item, the types of things you may need to do to preserve an heirloom might be numerous, taxing, and require specific actions. Unless you have the time to devote to keeping special items protected, you might want to hand over ownership to a museum or historical society. Doing this will help you to potentially honor the family members to whom the items belonged and reclaim your space for items that you use regularly. It can also be a way to keep those items out of harm’s way from the normal hustle and bustle of your home, particularly if you have pets or children.

Should you decide to donate an item to a museum or historical society, consider having it appraised so that you have an accurate understanding of its monetary value. Then, start looking for a specific institution that handles your particular items and what the donation requirements are.

What will be your legacy?

During a presentation at a conference I attended a couple years ago, Illinois-based professional organizer Sue DeRoos made the obvious, yet insightful comment:

Everyone gets organized at some point, they just might not be around for it.

DeRoos’ comment was morbid, but absolutely true. At some point, someone is responsible for sorting, purging, and getting your affairs in order — either you do it while you’re alive, or your loved ones do it after your gone.

I was reminded of Sue’s comment after reading The New York Times online editorial “How to Lose a Legacy” from July 12. The author, Ellen Lupton, uses the op-ed to express her mixed emotions about her possessions, specifically her fears that her things won’t be of value to her daughter after she is gone:

I probably wouldn’t have kept [a set of Wedgwood cornflower blue china inherited from my mother’s mother] if I had bought them in a junk shop 20 years ago. But they were my grandmother’s, so I keep them safe, and take them out a few times a year for family celebrations. As I wash each piece by hand, I wonder, with a pang of melancholy, if my daughter will someday do the same.

I had somewhat of a negative reaction to Lupton’s piece. I stand more firmly in DeRoos’ camp. I think that if you truly love people, you don’t want to burden them with your clutter after you’re gone. You want to make things as simple as possible for them, not bog them down with guilt, piles of stuff, and responsibilities. I hope to ease their grief, not make it worse.

What are your reactions to the DeRoos quote and Lupton’s piece? What are your thoughts about what you plan to leave behind? Yes, it’s morbid to ponder, but we are mortal. What do you want to be your legacy?

Saying farewell to a family home

I once worked with a woman who has kept every single piece of clothing her children wore from birth until they went off to college — including underwear, torn jeans, stained t-shirts, and socks with failed elastic. The clothing is stored in a room in her basement and it lines the walls on custom designed clothing rods. The items are organized by child and then by size. The room looks like a boutique children’s clothing store, except, of course, the clothes are not for sale.

Whenever I read an article about downsizing, my mind always returns to this woman. I wonder what will happen to the early-1980’s infant sailor suits, the haphazardly created Halloween costumes, and the Bedazzled worn-out Keds when my former co-worker leaves her family home for an apartment in a retirement community. Will she take any of her collection with her? Or, will she try to give it away to her children, a new parent, or a charity?

We all have collections like this — albeit probably smaller — that have meaning to us and possibly no one else. Maybe you’ve kept every fortune cookie fortune that has crossed your path or never parted with your favorite childhood action figures? Whatever it is, you care about it and have made space for it in your home. But, when faced with the possibility of moving to a smaller place, you might decide to let it go.

Unfortunately, the reality is that not everyone gets to decide what makes it into a new place when they downsize. Instead of making the decision for yourself, you might be the person making this decision for someone else, such as an injured or ailing parent. If this is the case, you have to make choices about the things other people value — and this can be extremely difficult.

“Of all the people in human history who ever reached the age of 65, half are alive now.” — Fred Pearce in the article “The shock of the old: Welcome to the elderly age” in the April issue of New Scientist.

If you are preparing to downsize (either yourself or for a family member), keep the following thing in mind:

  • Emotions are strong during this time, even when the move is desired. Take the time to carefully sort through everything. Whomever is downsizing needs to be heavily involved in the process and have time to share stories about the items with others.
  • Snap digital photographs of anything you plan to throw out, donate to charity, give away, or recycle that has an emotional connection for you or your loved one. This might be the one time you want to print the photographs and stick them in an album for easy viewing (especially if an older person who doesn’t have a computer will want to look at the pictures).
  • Consider hiring a senior move manager to help with the process. Having a third party involved who isn’t emotionally tied to the situation can help significantly.
  • Measure the new place and know exactly how much stuff can be moved into it. You may need to go through the “taking with me” pile multiple times to ensure that the right amount of stuff will be transported.
  • If family and friends are interested in some of the personal items in the current home, only let the person or persons who are downsizing decide what pieces go to whom. Try your best not to let the person moving spaces be bullied into decisions. When financially valuable items are involved, you can contact an appraiser to provide information so the best decisions are made for the person downsizing.

Downsizing can be a wonderful experience, especially if emotions are respected throughout the entire process. It can be liberating to rid yourself of the responsibilities of caring for so many possessions — even the objects you spent years collecting and treasuring. Take the time and say farewell appropriately to your family home.

Ask Unclutterer: What should I do with old x-ray films?

Reader Piper submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I have a bunch of old X-Rays hanging around. Various broken bones, MRIs and things like that.

I don’t really want to throw them away (I’m not quite sure why) but I don’t know what to do with them either. I know I’m not the only one that keeps these things because I’m moving into an apartment and found a couple of X-Rays from the previous occupant.

Right now, they live in the bottom of a dresser drawer. That doesn’t take up much space, but it seems silly to have a curiosity like that around but hiding in the bottom of a drawer. I thought about putting them on a window as a decoration, but decided that was just too macabre and weird.

What an interesting question!

First, you should know that the Environmental Protection Agency claims that x-ray films do “not appear to be hazardous waste.” This means that if you have them in your house in an envelope, you’re storing them safely. The films themselves don’t retain any toxic levels of radiation. I was actually worried about this for a while, so I was glad to learn that handling them was fine.

Now, just because you aren’t poisoning yourself by having them around, doesn’t necessarily mean that you should keep them. The next time you go to your doctor’s office, bring along your collection of x-ray films. Ask your doctor which of the x-rays are worth keeping, and which ones you can purge. If you have an on-going medical condition, your doctor will probably instruct you to keep all x-ray films of importance to that condition. However, your doctor will probably tell you an x-ray of a broken wrist you had in the third grade won’t be important to keep.

The x-ray films your doctor recommends you keep should be stored in your personal medical file in your home filing cabinet. If you don’t still have the envelope they came in, ask your doctor if you can buy one from her. They usually run about $1 an envelope (if your doctor even chooses to charge you). I don’t recommend displaying or doing anything crafty with these x-ray films since you or someone close to you might need to access them in a medical emergency.

Best case scenario, your doctor will offer to recycle any x-ray films you don’t need to keep. If she doesn’t, call your local hospital and see if they accept old x-ray films. If neither your doctor or local hospital recycle them, check your county’s website to see if they have a recycling program for such items or if a recycling center in your area does. Most old x-rays have silver in them, which means that they’re relatively valuable in the recycling market. I’ve never had any difficulty finding a recycling center that accepts old x-ray films.

If you want to do something more creative and artsy with your old x-ray films, I suggest only using ones that have out-dated information on them. An image of your bones while you were still growing is probably safer to use than an image of your bones as an adult. Or, if you had a pin put in your ankle, an image before you had the pin put into it would be safer to use since it’s not how your ankle currently looks. X-rays are very personal information and you wouldn’t want it to get into the wrong hands and have to fight an insurance fraud case.

Thank you, Piper, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

Reader question: Move or store furniture?

Reader Lisa e-mailed us the following question:

I am moving across the country (probably just for a few years), and would like to take just the essentials. However, I have three large pieces of antique furniture bequeathed by my grandmother that I can definitely see wanting to have in a more permanent house when I move back in the future. So… what do I do with them for the next few years? (Or am I deluding myself — will I ever want them?)

Lisa, your question brings up a number of different issues, so bear with me while I take a few twists and turns to get to a definitive answer.

To start, you seem more uncertain about life than you do about a few pieces of furniture. You use the phrase “probably just for a few years,” which speaks volumes about why this decision is difficult for you. Stop thinking about a possible future, and focus on right now. Are you moving across country? Yes. Do you want to take this furniture with you? No.

Since you don’t want to move the furniture across country, you need to decide what to do with it. Is there someone else in your family who could use the furniture now? What would the repercussions be in your family if you sold the furniture to an antique dealer and used the money to set up your new home on the other coast? If someone would be upset that you sold the furniture, are they willing to take it off your hands? (If not, don’t allow yourself to be guilted into keeping it.)

Maybe you love the furniture, and are considering storing it in self-storage? The reality is that you would likely pay $100 a month to put the three pieces of furniture into a storage locker. If you stay on the other coast for three years, then you’ll have spent at least $3,600 in rent for unused furniture. Would you pay that amount to buy this furniture if you saw it in a store? Could you even insure the furniture for that amount? The possibility also exists that you’ll love the other coast and decide to stay out there permanently. If this happens, then you’ll either continue to pay to store the furniture or you’ll have to pay to have it shipped across country. Whatever way you look at it, using a public storage facility will cost you … and it will probably cost you stress and worry in addition to the price tag.

The future is uncertain, but the present isn’t. If I were you, I’d give the pieces to someone in the family who wants them more than you do. You can admire the furniture every time you visit that family member, and know that it is being useful. And, remember, it’s just furniture, it’s not your grandmother.

Depression-era mindset and clutter

My grandmother passed away in 2002. She was old enough to remember being a child in Pittsburgh during the Great Depression. She used to tell stories about her childhood to let us know how lucky we were to have all of the things that we were undoubtedly taking for granted. She remembered sharing what little clothing she had with her two sisters and squeezing her feet into shoes that no longer fit. One year, her Christmas gift consisted of crayons which she received as a joint gift with her sisters. I’m sure those crayons were used in the most judicious manner.

Flash forward to the years when my grandmother used to shove sugar and ketchup packets in her purse when we went to a restaurant and you could understand why she did such things. The abundance with which we are so accustomed is easily taken for granted because we really don’t have a frame of reference for the really tough times. My grandmother was also a “pack rat” (ie. highly cluttered) which we didn’t fully realize until we had to empty her house.

She lived in her last home for over forty years, twenty six of those years she lived by herself. The clearing out of all of the stuff from her home was quite a chore. She kept everything that might one day be useful–for example, she had more than five non-working vacuums.

I understand why she behaved the way she did, and why others like her do the same. But the reality is that in today’s more prosperous economy it can actually cost a person more to hang on to broken things and store sugar packets. Real estate is expensive, and energy use to properly heat and cool a home in such a way as to keep mold and mildew off of belongings is pricey. If you’re keeping items in an off-site rented storage unit, you’re probably spending more in rent over time than you would if you had to repurchase what you’re storing. Erin’s discussion of sunk costs also addresses this issue.

Keep in mind the real expense of holding onto clutter and fight the urge to keep something just because you think one day it might be useful. In many cases, the expense of storage is greater than any cost you may at some point incur.

Saying goodbye to a family home

The Calgary Herald has a helpful article on saying goodbye to the family home. My parent’s are most likely going to be moving out of their home in the next five to seven years. It will no doubt be an emotional and trying time for them. I’ve made a suggestion to them to have a giant yard sale to get rid of a lot of the things that they have accumulated over the years. (It worked well for us when we downsized.) From the article:

Kathy Roberts says there’s no denying saying goodbye to the family home can be tough, but she believes most of the stress that comes with downsizing is due in part to all the stuff people accumulate over the years.

Whether it’s children’s report cards, forgotten birthday presents stuffed in the closet, or old gardening tools and lawnmowers in the garage, Roberts says homes are a nesting ground for clutter.

Taking inventory of one’s belongings is “often a huge (job) because nobody realizes how much they accumulate over time,” says Roberts, who owns and operates Clutter Busters.

Since my parents will be downsizing significantly, they will have to get rid of quite a bit of stuff. If you have parents who are saying goodbye to a home that they have lived in for quite some time, you might want to suggest that they have a yard sale as a good place to start with clearing the clutter.

Many retirement communities now offer transition management services

My grandmother is in her upper 90s and has been living in a retirement community for the past 12 years. The majority of her possessions from her previous home are in my father’s spare bedroom and garage. The boxes and furniture take up so much space that for more than a decade guests have been sleeping on the couch in my dad’s basement and he has been parking his car in his driveway.

I have asked repeatedly why he’s holding on to all of her things since she no longer needs her blender, coffee cups, or toilet scrub brush. I’ve never received an answer, and I’m not certain that he could give me one if I pressed him on it.

The process of moving a loved one into a retirement community or nursing home is an emotional undertaking for all involved. It wasn’t easy for my grandmother, an independent, spitfire of a woman, to give up her home of more than 50 years and move into a retirement community. And, it has been difficult on my dad and his siblings to accept the fact that she needed to move.

Many families are faced with similar situations as aging parents move into retirement communities and nursing homes. The transition is tough for all involved in the process.

Over the past decade, retirement communities and nursing homes across the U.S. have taken notice of the difficulties families face transitioning loved ones into their facilities and are doing what they can to make the process smoother. Many retirement communities now offer transition management services to their residents.

I spoke with a local nursing home administrator about what these services entail. In his facility, there are two, full-time transition managers who work with every new resident. They go into the residents’ family homes and help them clear clutter, sell/donate/give to family items that won’t move with them to their new home, and help the residents choose what they want to bring with them. The process takes weeks and is an emotional but usually positive experience.

If you’re faced with a situation of helping someone move into a retirement community or nursing home, be sure to inquire if the facility offers transition management services. If they do, talk with residents and children of residents to learn about the quality and value of these programs. If the facility doesn’t offer this service, I highly recommend contacting the National Association of Senior Move Managers. NASMM has a referral system to help you find move managers in your community. You also may want to review this resource list for books relating to this delicate subject.

Make it easy for loved ones

Reader Mary wrote in to share here experience with inherited clutter and how her mom made it easy for her. Her advice is too good not to share.

My mom was the ultimate minimalist and she constantly told us not to worry about getting rid of any of her things after her death. It was a precious gift to me (who has tendencies to be a sentimental packrat.) I had no idea that I would feel like I was burying her all over again every time I came upon something that had been hers (and it can be the strangest stuff – one time it was some old gift wrap paper I had bought from a yard sale she held.) I’d hold up the old, now useless item and hear her words – “it’s okay to throw out anything of mine that you can’t use.” I’d feel terrible for a minute, but the weight of the world was gone as soon as that stuff hit the trash can. So give your kids that gift … start telling them now. Her memories live on without all that baggage and weight.

Reader Elizabeth explains the pain of growing up in a hoarding household

Reader Elizabeth sent us the following e-mail and corresponding photographs. Her message was heartbreaking and honest, and she has agreed to let us share it with you:

My parents have a compulsive hoarding problem. I don’t mean that they’re “a little disorganized” or “let the housekeeping get the best of them.” They’ve had this problem since I can remember–and it’s affected me for much the worse.

In high school, there was no free horizontal space in the house–no tables, no desks, no countertops–clear of junk. I had to do my homework on my bed or go to the library. (And, yes, I had the same problem as them, too!)

The photos [which appear below] were taken almost a year ago. In the ensuing time, the house has gotten much, much worse. This is pretty organized for them.

For those of you with children, keep in mind that you aren’t just getting rid of clutter for yourself–your organization has a direct effect on your child, whether or not they can articulate it. If you or your spouse has a problem with hoarding, take care of it sooner rather than later. My mom was the one with the clutter problem and it drove my dad crazy–but he didn’t do anything about it. If he had, even if she hadn’t liked it in the short term, we all might have had a happier life.

If you or someone you love has a problem with hoarding, please seek help. As Elizabeth has so accurately explained, hoarding affects more than just the person with the problem.