Oh no!
It looks like you aren't logged in to the Ethel community. Log in to get the best user experience, save your favorite articles and quotes, and follow our authors.
Don't have an Online Account? Subscribe here

The Best Way to Downsize as You Grow Older

How to keep the memories but lose the stuff.

Comment Icon
gif of hand holding a house and dumping out random objects, decluttering, removing mess
Elena Lacey
Comment Icon

This article is by Matt Paxton with Jordan Michael Smith

Adapted from AARP’s Keep the Memories, Lose the Stuff: Declutter, Downsize, and Move Forward with Your Life, by Matt Paxton, star of PBS’s Emmy-nominated Legacy List with Matt Paxton and celebrity clean on Hoarders, with Jordan Michael Smith (Portfolio/Penguin, February 9, 2022). Available at aarp.org/keepthememories or wherever books are sold.

When my dad died, I had no guidance on how to go about decluttering. I just did whatever came to my mind or tackled what was in front of me. Now, with 20+ years in the decluttering business, I have an order I recommend to clients, which I now share with you:

  • Uncover the stories behind the clutter. This is by far the most crucial step that creates a pathway for all the others. It’s the step many other experts miss. A good audience who will treasure your stories and memories is the key. And don’t censor your stories. Tell them how you remember them, good or bad.
  • Define your finish line. Identify what you want your life to look like after you declutter, whether it’s moving across the country, downsizing to a senior living community next door, or simply paring down the items in your existing home.
  • Take the first baby steps. Set a deadline and try what I call the Ten-Minute Sweep. You clean for ten minutes every night, five nights a week. Take the weekends off, if you need to. Emotionally, you can’t expect to part in hours or days with objects you’ve had for years or even decades.
  • Sort through pictures and documents. Newspapers, magazines, books, and junk mail often contribute to clutter. Photos and files of papers can be the most emotionally significant items in your home. You don’t want to miss that one valuable document in a stack of stuff!
  • Decide what to keep and build your Legacy List. Choosing what to hold onto and get rid of will probably be the hardest part of decluttering. That’s why it’s such an important step in process—once you complete it, you’ve already finished the toughest tasks. In addition, you’ll have to know what you’re keeping before you can move on to the next steps, which involve getting rid of stuff.
  • Decide what to give away. Give your kids and other relatives what they want (which may be less than what you’d like to give them), sell valuables, and donate to charity—picking the right charity.
  • Clean up. Whether you’re moving or staying, you’ll want to thoroughly clean the place (unless, of course, you hire someone else to). You’d be surprised how much more stuff reveals itself during this step, and how many more decisions you’ll have to make.
  • Move forward. That, after all, is what really matters.

Find Matt’s book at AARP.org/KeepTheMemories or wherever books are sold. Matt and professional organizer Nikki Boyd will also present free decluttering session where you can get your questions answered on March 25 at AARP Celebrates You! member event.

Editor's Picks
Find money-making endeavors that are personally satisfying.
, July 18, 2024
Here are the ones that top the list.
, July 18, 2024
It's incredibly welcoming, especially for older women travelers.
, July 18, 2024