Cleaning out the Family Home
Photos by Christine A. Smyczynski
As people age, they often lack the desire or stamina to deal with all their stuff, so it just amasses. Then, when they die or end up in a nursing home, their families are left to deal with decades of accumulation. It’s a sad process for the family to clean out the family home, especially when the place holds so many memories.
After my mother passed away nine years ago, my dad I spent a lot of time deciding what to do with all her personal effects. After going through this process, we both agreed that we should start going through some of the other stuff accumulated in the house. Unfortunately, time got away from us and we really didn’t get rid of as much as we could have. Five years later, when he passed away, I not only had to deal with his clothing and such, but with a whole household full of almost sixty years accumulation. Being an only child, the thought of doing this was almost overwhelming.
Nip it in the bud
If possible, before anyone gets ill or dies, encourage your parents to start downsizing. Of course, this may be easier said than done. While some people might just have excess household items that could be easily donated or sold at a garage sale, others may have a “hoarder house,” filled with true garbage that they just don’t want to part with.
When my mother first got sick and was still at home, I offered to help her get rid of some of her stuff, but she didn’t want me going through her things. I think her exact words were, “Wait until I’m dead before you get rid of my stuff.”
My dad was a little more open to me helping after my mom died. For example, he had this really unique desk in his attic that my uncle had handcrafted years ago. My dad had not used it for years, and it was just collecting dust. He was happy to give it to me and once I brought it home he even commented how nice the desk looked in my family room. Now, I could just ask him for things since I’m an only child; if you have siblings you might have to work things out with them first. I have heard many sad stories about siblings fighting over items in their parents’ estates; often ending up not speaking to each other when all is said and done.
If your folks won’t get rid of their clutter, at least try to convince them to have all their vital documents, such as wills, healthcare proxy, deed to house, life insurance policies, etc., in one place, preferably a locked, fireproof box, so that in case of illness or death, the family can have all the important paperwork at their fingertips.
It’s all yours
You’ve inherited your parent’s home and all its contents, or at least the responsibility for it. Now what? This depends on their will, how many siblings you have, and how much time you have. I was fortunate that the house was located in an area being developed commercially, so I was able to sell the property to a developer who was going to use the land to build apartments. This meant that since the house was going to be demolished, I didn’t have to worry about getting the place fixed up to sell as a residence; I just had to clean out the contents.
The first thing I did was to walk through the house and take photos, which gave me a memory as to what the house looked like. Also, I was able to see how much progress I was making when I looked back at the photos and could see how much stuff I had cleared out.
Next, I got rid of the obvious garbage, such as food in the refrigerator and cupboards, toiletry items, newspapers and magazines for recycling, and clothing to charity. Amvets, Vietnam Veterans of American, and the Cancer Society will pick up items at your door. After my mom died, I discovered in the attic closet several dozen of her dresses and other clothing items from the 1930s-1950s. I donated most to the theater department at Buffalo State College and a few others to the Buffalo History Museum.
I found it helpful to go room by room and make a list of what needed to be done in that particular room; that way I was able to break it down into smaller tasks that were easier to handle. I’ve heard that you should start small, such as cleaning out a bathroom or just doing one dresser, so you can see some progress right away.
If there are a lot of items, you live a distance away, or just don’t have the time or energy to do this, you might want to call in a professional organizer; there are a number of them in the Buffalo area. As a freelance writer my time is flexible, and I was able to devote time to the clean out. However, I found that I could only work at this three or four hours at a time before I got overwhelmed. This work can be physically exhausting and emotionally draining.
Paper is the worst
In my experience, the worst clutter to deal with is the paper clutter. My parents tended to do a “stash and dash” when company was coming. They scooped up all the papers lying around, threw them in a box or bag and put them aside to deal with later. But later never came, and they forgot about it. As I cleared the house, I came across dozens of boxes and bags containing useless junk mail mixed with family photos, important paperwork, and even money. I had to go through everything just to make sure I didn’t throw away something valuable.
Maintain the property
Since no one was living in the house, I had to create the illusion that it was occupied for security purposes. I had lights on timers and put up seasonal decorations. I made sure the grass was cut in the summer and snow plowed in winter, since it took almost two years for the sale to close. My dad had a riding mower, so my family cut the lawn ourselves to save money. In winter, I paid the neighbor to snow blow if I wasn’t able to get to the house during a storm.
Donate, sell, or keep
Once the garbage and clothing are gone, you have to decide what to do with what’s left. I brought home several pieces of furniture and bookcases that I could use in my home, along with some nicer glassware and serving pieces. My parents had a lot of photos, all located in various spots throughout the house. I put them in several plastic bins and brought them and family history or other memorabilia home to sort at a later date when I have more time.
I had my four children look through things to see if they wanted anything. My daughter was mainly interested in items like my parent’s good china and glassware, while my sons wanted some of the tools from my dad’s workshop. Three of the four still live at home, so most of this stuff is currently in my basement!
There were several pieces of furniture and other items left that were useful but we just didn’t want. I had a friend who does estate sales come in and run a sale for me to get rid of most of these items. Whatever was left I donated to charity.
Going through the process of cleaning out my parent’s home made me realize that I need to really go through my excess stuff, as well, and either use it or just get rid of it. Why save it if no one really wants it and your family will just toss it after you’re gone? Pass it along to someone that can use it now, rather than have it collect dust in your basement or attic.
Christine A. Smyczynski is a freelance writer and blogger and author of Western New York Explorer’s Guide.