Cleaning House: An Uphill Battle in a Wheelchair
January 28, 2018 1:09 PM   Subscribe

As someone with back pain/endurance issues, low energy ( though helped by ADD) and two working but depressed parents with years of emotional baggage themselves, how do I declutter our house, especially when a lot of what needs clearing either isn't mine, is stuff I have no idea what to do with (old documents and meds), or isn't possible for me to do ( ie moving furniture). So much of it needs to go, the rest of it needs to get organized, and most importantly, what's gone needs to not come back. How do I do this with little to no support? Where do I start, and how do I continue? WOT inside, sorry.

I live with my parents, both in their early sixties, and my brother, 26, who is beginning a new, high-pressure job. Our house isn't something you see on Hoarders ( no visible biohazards and you can step on much of the floorspace- though that's changing), but it's bad enough. **My mom won't let us bring anyone over without tears or a hurried half-effort at making things look okay.**. I've lost friends and recently, a potential pet, over this.
There's just too much STUFF.
-Piles of clothes ( washed) everywhere. SO MANY CLOTHES.
-Papers- SO MUCH PAPER. Books, old tax docs, pictures, doctor's notes, business cards, magazines, bank statements, personal stuff. It's just SO much and short of hoisting everything into a dumpster, I don't know what to do. It isn't my stuff. I don't know what to keep/scan or throw away.
- CDs ( many of them from Europe or quite old)
- Knicknacks, antiques and various odds and ends, some of which are too heavy to deal with on my own.
- Some old appliances sitting in our remodeled kitchen ( microwave and toaster)
- Bags of meds everywhere, kept in case my dad with heart disease, GI and diabetes needs them. Many of these are supplements, many a few years old.

Mom works as a visiting nurse. Dad is in sales. Both are always very tired and never in any mood to do much more than the basics of cleaning: washing dishes, cleaning the bathroom once or twice in six months and vacuuming. Mom does all this. Dad does nothing but try to keep his ailing business afloat between doctors' appointments with increasingly depressing outcomes. I myself have little energy, but I know this is a big part of the reason why.

Things they/we do:

Donate bags of clothes to various orgs a few times a year
Mop/clean floors with some regularity

I have such an urge to pay someone a massive amount of money to just come and force them to sit and sort things and dump most of what's in our house. It's good stuff, but it's stuff. It's hurting us. Trouble is, both I and my mom especially, but all of us to some extent, have a huge issue with anthropomorphizing our stuff, being emotionally attached more generally, or just feeling like it's a shame to throw out something we haven't worn or used.

There's also a big issue of habit. An area ( say the couch) can be spotless but WILL accumulate clutter again, every single time. It never, ever stays clean.

What can I, the disabled and depressed son of two demotivated and depressed parents, and a brother with zero time ( and a similar learned helplessness) do to get our house clean with not enough money or presence of mind?
posted by marsbar77 to Home & Garden (20 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
To clarify: Mom walks all day as part of her job, comes home late, and is seeing an increase in aches and pains lately. Dad just never has any energy- depression and being post-quadruple bypass doesn't help. Neither does a habit of just never cleaning anything himself.
posted by marsbar77 at 1:10 PM on January 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

Does the rest of your family agree that this is an issue and something that they want to change?
Are they willing to have you spearhead this and cooperate to the extent that they can? (Cooperate by agreeing to let things go, taking time to give you information on what needs to be kept, etc)
Is there money to hire someone to help, at least occasionally?
posted by bunderful at 1:29 PM on January 28, 2018

They'll never do it, it's just a question of whether they'll be emotionally able to handle you arranging to have it done.

If you can convince them to let you de-clutter, the way to do it is NOT to pick out things to throw away - as you realize, that is extremely emotionally taxing and impossible to do when you are sentimental. What you do is, you pick out the things that you know you must keep (because they are currently in use or honest-to-God valuable emotionally, eg family photo albums.)

You take those things and put them aside, say in an empty room (you've emptied it for this purpose.) Now you have one room of stuff you need or love; and rest-of a house full of stuff that you will never miss.

Now you rent a dumpster, and get someone else - a friend, or someone you hire - to come through and just put EVERYTHING OUTSIDE THE KEEP ROOM INTO THE DUMPSTER. The dumpster company hauls it away and you never think about it again.
posted by fingersandtoes at 1:29 PM on January 28, 2018 [7 favorites]

If you have financial resources, I would 100% recommend hiring a professional organizer. When I moved out of our family home after caring for my Mom with dementia for many years, working full time, being obese and unknowingly becoming diabetic, oh yeah and being on a union negotiating team—I had no energy and clearing out a house full of 40 years of family memory/history was incredibly overwhelming. Fortunately I was able to hire a team of professional organizers.
The lead woman came to my house one day for an hour or so and walked through. She then gave me an estimate (gulp) it was close to 10K for a 2400 square foot house. Then she came back with a team—they set up a table in the garage where I could sit—we had discussed the big things: books, photos and after my brother and I pulling a few we wanted, they just took the rest away— they gave me advice about the boxes and boxes of old financial records (shred almost all of them) and took those away to be shred. Then we went through everything else super quickly—they’d bring a box of items—I would get a minute to say keep, charity, consign and that would be that. At the end of the day the things to keep would be packed and the rest gone. We got through everything in the house in just a couple of days. It was emotionally tiring but not physically. I also had them unpack and organize everything in my new home.
I know it is exhausting to think about it but believe me it was so worth it. I can not recommend it enough.
posted by agatha_magatha at 1:30 PM on January 28, 2018 [4 favorites]

I was in almost this exact same situation. Too much stuff, and not all of it mine, and it was just everywhere. What I found amazingly helpful was hiring an organizer. They will help you sort through the stuff. They have strategies and tools for bringing order to the chaos. It didn't cost massive amounts of money either. And if you have four adults able to chip in it should be doable. It was the only thing I ever tried to tackle the mess that had any meaningful effect.
posted by bleep at 1:30 PM on January 28, 2018

Mine cost maybe $250~ total for several sessions in a 1 bedroom apartment.
posted by bleep at 1:32 PM on January 28, 2018

I’m sorry you are going through this, it can be really frustrating. A cluttered house can drain you even more. It sounds overwhelming. When I am confronted with that overwhelm, I break it down into very small pieces. Even something as throwing out 10 items each day (even an empty plastic cup or old bit of trash counts!) starts to make a difference.

Create that habit by setting an alarm each day. When it goes off, grab the easiest 10 items you can, and get them outside the house into the trash. It starts to become a game and gets easier. It can take just a few minutes and becomes fun, especially if you reward yourself. Once you get to the more challenging items, you will already have trained yourself to emotionally disconnect, so those things will be easier as well.

This method has been my single biggest tool to finally get things under control.
posted by Vaike at 1:33 PM on January 28, 2018 [6 favorites]

If you live in a decent-sized town or city and can physically get the things outside, it can be amazing how fast okay-quality "free stuff!" gets snapped up from Craigslist or similar facebook groups. The microwave and toaster strike me as being particularly easy to rehome, but if the CD-owner is willing to part with them, "CDs, must take all"* is the sort of ad I see regularly. Same with "one bag men's casual clothing size large"-type ones with some photos to show general style and condition. If someone else is so motivated as to drive over and get your stuff, it's hardly going to waste, and if nobody bites, well, your next charity store run is already packed and ready to go.

*"But those might be worth money!" someone will inevitably object. They're honestly probably not, but if it makes everyone feel better, checking barcodes on the Internet is a boring and repetitive task yet very low-energy and doesn't require any more commitment than "I'm going to look one up today."
posted by teremala at 1:59 PM on January 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

The method suggested by Vaike is absolutely the best way to go. Get a garbage bag. As you go through the house, fill up the garbage bag and then take it out of the house to the trash. Do it every day for two weeks. You will see a HUGE difference.

The other way to do it is to do the ten items a day into the garbage. That one's REALLY easy, as it only takes a few minutes. You can put the items in the trash OR in the giveaway bag. You WILL see a difference soon, and eventually you won't be able to easily find ten items to ditch.

The last tool is the timer. Set it for only five minutes and just start. You can do anything for five minutes, right? Then reward yourself with ten minutes of something you like to do. Set the timer again and then after ten minutes of fun, do another five minutes of work. As you see progress, you will want to increase your organizing time from five minutes. I would suggest adding time in five minute increments, and keeping your fun time to 10 or 15 minutes. When I have a huge project, I set mine for 30 minutes, rest for 15, go again for 30. I would start with the unused clothing for this one.

The laundry has issues of it's own. First, you really need to make your laundry area functional. The first think you need is plenty of hangers, a rack to hang up clean clothes, an organized area for supplies, and plenty of plastic laundry baskets. At least two for each member of the family. Figure out the system that works for you, there are lots of good articles on line.

The stacks of paper and meds can be sorted while watching tv. Take a big stack of paper and a trash can, throwing away as you go. The biz cards need to go away. They make notebook inserts that can hold them, and when we first started we did keep them in notebooks, BUT the reality is that you will probably never refer back to them. But if your parents don't want to throw them away, that's a good way to get them organized. Again, they can do it while watching tv at night.

As the house gets cleaned out, keep a list of the obstacles you hit, like moving the heavy furniture. If you have a young neighbor that would like to make ten bucks, have him come over and do the heavy lifting. Once you are organized enough, it would only take a few minutes to move some things around.

And lastly, NO house stays organized. It just doesn't work that way. It takes effort every day to keep it that way, and you have to experiment and learn and work to find out what works best for you. But if you can get it set up right, it would only take about half an hour or so every day to keep it the way you want. You can do it!
posted by raisingsand at 2:10 PM on January 28, 2018 [4 favorites]

Reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo- - was helpful to me in terms of breaking my attachment to things I had bought and never used. You can get it as an audiobook, perhaps to play in the car, if your folks might be more likely to listen rather than read it.

FLYLady's Decluttering Tips are good too.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 2:15 PM on January 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

Unfuck your habitat sounds like it would be a great resource for you. There's a book and a free blog, the method changed my life. It's tailored made for people with disabilities or challenging situations, and I think you will find lots of good ideas and help there to get you started.
posted by snowysoul at 2:26 PM on January 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

If you can get your family support, i would try saying "Every day give me 10 things that can leave the house" By the leave the house, I mean garbage, recycle, freecycle, sell. But don't make them figure it out, they give it to you and you sort it and take care of getting it gone (so they don't have the pressure of actually throwing it in the trash. In beginning, accept even 10 sheets of paper - anything that gets it moving. (and times the four of you it will move faster) You are only asking for a couple of minutes. If they get into clearing something out, they will spend longer but even if they don't you'll be making incremental progress.

Seconding freecycle if they have it. You are not throwing things away, you are giving them to a new home who will use and appreciate them. And people will come to your house to pick them up - I usually just leave the items on the front porch.
posted by metahawk at 3:02 PM on January 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

Photos. If you are worried about discarding paper items because you might need the info (e.g. the business cards mentioned above, receipts, whatever), take photos of them. It might also help to take photos of items you or your family have some emotional attachment to, and keep those photos. (Don't print them out, just keep them online/on a computer.) We did that when cleaning out my parents house. I don't think I've ever looked at the photos, but I have them. I do think my mom has looked at them.

Medicine expires, which gives a good excuse to dispose of it. However I think there are generally regulations about disposal. I imagine a pharmacy would take them, or at least have suggestions as to how to dispose of them.

Seconding Marie Condo as well, for a perspective that helps give permission to dispose of items.

Good luck!
posted by 2 cats in the yard at 3:17 PM on January 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

Another tip that helped me (and I did a modified Kondo for my own stuff, but I'm helping to clean out both my grandparents' and parents' houses, so TRUST ME I feel you with how overwhelming this is) is to finally understand that I wasn't going to change anyone else's behavior and to start with the least emotionally-charged stuff first. For example, the meds. Could you fill a box with bottles, like a ten-minute sweep, and then just throw away all the ones with an expiration date past a year? I understand the feeling that they're not yours, but honestly if they're expired you're doing your dad and everyone else a favor. Our local CVS has a drop bin to recycle these, you might call your pharmacy and see if they do too. That way whoever picks up their prescriptions next could drop off a bag.

The other thing that might be helpful is to find a system that works for you (Kondo, Unfuck Your Habitat, Flylady, whichever) and do your own space first. Like, as long as it takes, but clean and organize your room, use the techniques that others have listed here to get rid of extra furniture/clothes/belongings that are in your own space. That way when you start the rest of the house, you have a clean/uncluttered place to retreat to when it starts to get overwhelming.
posted by theweasel at 4:19 PM on January 28, 2018

Good suggestions above, but I haven't seen anyone suggest how to cope if you get a lot of resistance from your family. So I would suggest you start with one room you control, your bedroom, and get that clean. Next, go to the bathroom you use most and clean that up. If you have gotten pushback from family members about throwing away stuff then just get a bunch of small boxes (you need them to be a mangeable size) and you just box up stuff and label it "bathroom" and stick it in the basement or garage. Keep moving through, one room at a time. If the box has mostly one kind of stuff then write that on it "Kitchen - paperwork". You need to clear space before you can organise.

Organising from the inside out really addresses the many different types of emotions that our possessions bring up in us and how they affect people differently. She addressed the emotional side of paring down possessions very well, and suggests workable strategies.
posted by saucysault at 4:20 PM on January 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up absolutely helped me with the anthropomorphizing and emotional attachment to stuff.

I also encourage you to start with a couple of small but functional-every-day areas. Like, your closets and drawers, purge like crazy so everything fits with room to spare and you can see everything you have easily and it doesn't take hours to fold and sort and put away. Just getting my closet and dresser Kon-Mari'd made me SO much more motivated to do the rest of the house, because it was so soothing to see such a clean and functional space every day when I got dressed and undressed. I'd tackle the bathroom next -- I didn't think I had that much extra stuff in the bathroom? But I did, and I purged it ruthlessly. When you've got a couple of clean, functional spaces with actual empty storage where you go in and can find things immediately, it will encourage you to keep going, it will calm you and make you feel like you can tackle this problem, and it will make the other people in your house jealous and possibly more participatory!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:24 PM on January 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

I've really liked How to manage Your Home Without Losing Your mind by the author of this blog. She also has a podcast. I gave a copy to my "almost a hoarder" mother after Christmas, and she's spent the last two weeks getting rid of a mammoth amount of stuff. She can now get in her study for the first time in probably years.

If your parents are anything like mine, they also like to give away things when they know that they will be used. Look for coat drives and blanket drives, and charities that want school supplies or specific household items. It's more work than just donating the lot to a single op shop, but my parents really like giving a specific thing to a specific cause. It confirms that the item was in fact useful, because someone asked for it. Join your local Buy Nothing/freecycle group, people often ask for stuff they need. You can also use it to get rid of stuff.
posted by kjs4 at 8:02 PM on January 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have hoarder-ish tendencies and health issues affecting my energy, so I can certainly relate. I've had a few big purges in my life, and the only way I got through them was to kind of flip a switch in my head so I looked at stuff with a lot less emotion. I just had to shut off my messy human self to some extent and become more cold and logical. That didn't mean I threw out the stuff that spoke to me, but it did mean it had to REALLY speak to me.

If I hadn't read a book in years and wasn't that likely to look at it again, it had to go. I'd look on Ebay/Amazon to see if it was worth trying to sell, and if not I donated it. There were a few articles in old magazines I couldn't bear to part with, so I tore them out, stuffed them in a drawer, and recycled the rest of the magazine. (If I'd had a scanner, I would've just scanned them.) Years later I do miss a handful of those magazines or books, but not many. With old paper from school or work I'd just glance at them, and if I had multiples of the same kind of thing I'd keep the ones that particularly mattered to me and recycle the rest. With old tax stuff or other "important" things I asked myself if it would ever actually matter and if not I shredded it. I took photos of things I wanted to remember but didn't want cluttering up my physical space. I got rid of DVDs if I hadn't returned to them for a long time, telling myself that if I ended up missing it most of that stuff is easy and cheap to replace.

The CDs could be a good place to start. You can digitize them, and that's not going to take physical energy. If it's rare, either get a nice CD display thing and treat it like a real collection, or just digitize it and sell the actual CDs on Ebay. (CDs are a treat to sell. Easy to ship!) Try to go digital with all media as much as possible, so it's not physically taking up space.

If meds are expired, just get rid of them! Assume they're poison now, or won't work. With antiques, try to sell them on Ebay or call some local shops. It's easier to let go of precious things if you're getting paid for it! With the appliances, if they're working you either put them to use, donate or sell them. If they're not working, they're garbage. Trust me, you're not really going to miss a toaster after it's gone.

Kate Moss got in some trouble for saying "nothing tastes as good as thin feels," but try to think of dealing with your stuff like that. Is anything in that mound of old junk better than you'll feel having a clean house?
posted by Ursula Hitler at 11:18 PM on January 28, 2018

If I start to worry about getting rid of something that maybe I might one day need, it helps to remember that if I DO need it, way off in the future, I’ll never ever be able to find it so I might as well just get rid of it. You’re not going to go find that toaster manual in a box somewhere, you’re going to google toaster instructions. Also, remember that having a clean house now is way more valuable that saving crap that you might maybe need. Future me can go buy replacement pipe cleaners when I (probably never) need them.
posted by artychoke at 7:14 AM on January 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

Perhaps it would be helpful to have the conversation and get agreement on categories of what to keep, then proceed with a guideline and not require their input for the actual discarding.

For paper, which require a million little decisions but no one is actually attached to, make a list of what to keep, and show to your parents. Financial docs: Mortgage, banking, credit, taxes for x number of years etc. Get them to think about it. And then throw out whatever is not on the list, with reasonable amendments for discovering things. Its exhausting making decisions as you go. Make the decisions in advance and then leave your parents out of it. Hire someone to help you.
posted by charlielxxv at 10:51 AM on January 29, 2018

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