Helping the Elderly Get Organized

Organization is important in everyone’s life, but for the elderly it can be the key to how well they can function independently—and for how long. They need to simplify their lives while keeping their independence and dignity.

However, physical limitations of age or illness, poor memory, attachment to “the way things were,” or simply the inability to ask for help can get in the way of streamlining.

My mother was 87 years old and in reasonably good health, but she was not able to do what she used to do. As she said, “The old gray mare—she ain’t what she used to be.”

Her memory was failing, she couldn’t lift things that were the least bit heavy, and she tired rather quickly. She was in a nice retirement home where there were services available, but the staff there didn’t do everything for the residence.

Simplify the Environment

That’s where I came in. An organizer by profession, I naturally began to help my mother around her home even before she moved to the retirement home. As things in her apartment began to be too much for her to take care of, we began to simplify her environment.

We went through every room, little by little, several hours at a time. We sorted through the contents of every closet, shelf, and drawer—clearing out unused and unwanted items, selling or throwing away things of no use to anyone, and giving usable “stuff” to a local charity.

In the kitchen, some of the pots and pans were too heavy for Mom to lift, even when empty. Things stored in very low or high cabinets, or way in the back of other cabinets, were now impossible to reach. Since she was no longer giving dinner parties, many of the kitchen and dining room items were no longer needed, although many brought back fond memories. During this process we shared many tender moments reminiscing.

The “good stuff” was left with Mom, to be fairly divided later on. And, of course, there were special things that Mom wanted to give to certain people. She took care of that with my help. I boxed up the dishes and other kitchen items and took them to my house, where my sister, myself, and our children could all meet and choose what we wanted to keep without putting Mom through any emotional stress.

Every family will have its own way of sorting and letting go, but it’s important to be sensitive as we try to simplify our parent’s environment to reflect his or her present lifestyle needs. We want this to be a positive change, not a traumatic one.

Elderly People Want to be Independent

Most elderly people want to be independent, and the order we can help bring into their environment helps keep them functional. Visibility and accessibility are the watchwords in organizing for the elderly.

For example, you can replace a crowded jewelry box by clearing a dresser drawer and putting in lined trays with various sized sections for the jewelry. Then everything will be visible when the drawer is opened and that long-forgotten jewelry can be noticed, appreciated, and worn.

In reorganizing cabinets and shelves, use containers that slide forward easily, and put the things used most often in the most accessible spaces. You can put labels where they will be helpful.

Helpful Help

Even though you will be handling many tasks for your parent, respect his or her wishes. You are the helper, so be sure to resist the urge to take over. It can happen easily, without your realizing it—after all, you are used to ordering your own life—but it can be very damaging to your relationship with your parent and to the success of the simplifying process. Your parent may feel like they are losing control of their life or that no one is really interested in what they think or want.

Many people don’t like to ask for help directly, or at all. The helping child needs to be even more observant of the parent’s needs in this case. For example, keep an eye on the parent’s medications to be sure they don’t forget to renew their prescriptions. If you notice spots or stains on your parent’s clothing, you can offer to help with the wash or take things to the cleaners.

You might want to compose a shopping list of the items most regularly used, and make multiple copies of it. Then the parent just needs to check off what is needed. If the shopping is done by others, be sure to list the particulars: brand names, sizes, and the store where purchased.

Dealing With Paper

All of us have difficulty dealing with all the paper in our lives, and this is increasingly the case as we get older. For example, outdated papers, receipts and notices can create confusion when not sorted and tossed regularly. Managing checkbooks and making financial decisions can also become overwhelming. In every instance, the first steps are the same: Eliminate the unnecessary and clarify the problem.

If your parent doesn’t have one already, start a simple portable filing system with only the most essential papers. Be sure to label the folders in bold capital letters so they will be easy to read. Your job may be to keep up on the filing and to make sure all the bills are paid, checkbooks are balanced, other financial matters stay in order, and all the unneeded paper is disposed of regularly.

Most organizing tasks can be done with your parent present and can provide a mutually rewarding opportunity to spend meaningful time together. You can get to know and appreciate one another in new ways. This is not a possibility with everyone.

Be aware that even the good feelings can deteriorate into constant bickering. If your parent gets testy, it may indicate that you have missed earlier signs that they are tired, overwhelmed, saddened or that their sense of dignity and their feelings were hurt in some way or another.

If you are sensitive to changes in either your or your parent’s attitude and respond in a loving way, you may continue to earn your parent’s trust and respect. You will achieve the goal of helping your parent function more independently and comfortably for as long as possible and you will be building a firm foundation for making decisions in the future.

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Florence Feldman

Florence Feldman has lived through a lot of different situations, from finding herself an overwhelmed single mom at 28 to caregiving for her mother with dementia for 6 years to surviving cancer. Florence learned to organize to survive. Along the way, she became a professional organizing consultant, and for more than 30 years has been helping others get unstuck and find freedom. At the ripe young age of 68, she produced an award-winning documentary that has offered encouragement to hundreds of caregivers. Florence has also been speaking for most of her adult life, delighting audiences by dealing with deep and sensitive topics with humor and candor.

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