My father – soon to celebrate his 94th birthday – recently made the move within his retirement community from independent living to assisted living. Although he initially balked at the idea, he now apparently likes the idea of being surrounded on a daily basis by young, pretty attendants who cater to his every wish. He probably thinks this is what his kids should have been doing all along.
Meanwhile, his kids – by which I mean me, since I live the closest of the three of us – are left to clean out his apartment. The retirement community gives you 90 days to do this. I initially thought this was an excessively long time, but now I am not so sure. Every time I think I am making progress cleaning out closets and drawers, I find more closets and drawers. I am not sure where I got my domestic organizational skills, but it wasn’t from my father.
Herewith, then are five tips for dealing with aging parents – or, more accurately, their stuff.
Cancel their Costco membership. Our parents are likely to be children of the Depression and thus hard-wired into worries about scarcity. Even so, this does not they need 100 rolls of toilet paper and 12 24-packs of double-A batteries. If they must go to Costco, offer to take them on your membership so you can monitor their purchases.
Duplicate and tag their keys. Keys are the most important things in the world and, not coincidentally, the easiest things to lose. My father gave me duplicates of all his keys – including those to the storeroom in his retirement community’s garage, which has even more stuff.
Label and organize photographs. One of the best projects my sister and late mother embarked on was putting all the family photographs into scrapbooks and identifying who everyone was. Once your parents pass away, it’s unlikely you’ll ever be able to identify anyone again, and the photograph will become meaningless. This also gives you the opportunity to shred your dorkiest childhood photos.
Don’t let the problem grow. Offer now to help organize stuff. You’d be surprised how much junk you can find in a two-bedroom apartment. The move to assisted living for my father was prompted by his diminishing cognitive capability (a topic I’ll discuss in more depth in a future column). This manifested itself, stuff-wise, in oddities such as greeting cards. He would frequently ask my sister to get him cards to send to people, forgetting that he had four boxes of such cards stacked in his closet. Those cards at least we can use. But add scratch paper, plastic checkbook covers, paper clips, and – given my father’s proclivities – promotional glassware from every liquor manufacturer in America, and eventually you’ll have a huge reclamation project on your hands.
Detach from where you find significant items from your childhood. This is a corollary to the previous tip. Be aware that your parents may not hold certain items in the same esteem that you do. In that garage storeroom, I found a clay coyote I had made in fourth grade. It was the best art project I ever created, given that I had absolutely no artistic talent, then or now. It was in a box labeled “dust collectors.”
There is an emotional toll of putting an aged parent into assisted living, because you’re contributing to their diminishing independence. But I have to say that it’s nothing compared to the toll of trolling through ninety years of memories and figuring out whether to save them or let them go. Not to mention finding out that your most creative work has been designated a dust collector.