Today, we bring you a guest post from Rachel Hiles, millennial caregiving expert & blogger at TakingCareofGrandma.com, who shares her experience with grief and loss and finding hope through finding new purposes for old belongings.
Trigger warning: death, grief, fire
When we assume the role of caregiver for our loved ones, we are often charged with the task of decluttering and getting rid of belongings.
Whether you are helping your loved one downsize thanks to a move to a new living situation, or your loved one has passed and you are going through their stuff, getting rid of things is a rite of passage.
Although, especially at first, it can feel like a heavy responsibility, it’s not so much the actual task of rehoming and repurposing things that is challenging. It’s the emotional attachments we have to the items and accepting what letting go of the stuff truly means.
If we are helping a family member downsize because they’re moving in with us or into a community-based setting, it is a huge billboard on our caregiving path that says, “THE END IS NEAR.” Whether or not we have entertained the idea, our loved one is heading toward the end of their life. If it hasn’t occurred to us before, then we begin experiencing “anticipatory grief.” That is, the feeling of loss that has not yet happened.
If we have lost our loved ones, when we let go of our beloved’s earthly treasures, in a way, we are saying goodbye all over again.
I just said goodbye to my own grandma after caring for her for over seven years. Trust me. I’m an expert now 😎
In my case, I had been helping Grandma get rid of things for years. It began when I moved in with her briefly after my uncle died in 2009, I got rid of all of his stuff. I donated his clothes and shoes to a men’s ministry. Her garage was filled with a bunch of HHW – Household Hazardous Waste ☠️☠️☠️- at the time. It kept me up at night, so I looked up the HHW events on RecycleSpot.org and loaded up my car with the dangerous chemicals. I slowly helped her get rid of little bits of clutter, here and there, over time for the next several months.
Fast forward a few years and Grandma was living all by herself for the first time in her entire life. Her house had burned down, and everything was boxed up from the restoration company. All that was left of her life on Gingerbread Lane was stacked up neatly in her veranda room. The boxes didn’t bother her. She hardly noticed them. I’m not certain she cared or even remembered what was in them or if they were even her things. We mostly let them set, although occasionally they piqued my curiosity and we would get a box or two and go through them together.
Once Grandma began needing my help and I was present at her home almost every day, the boxes began irritating me. They were an eyesore. As we started going through them, I noticed that she didn’t remember that any of the things belonged to her. She didn’t remember her house burning down. I did. The downward spiral of events surrounding that fateful fire is a painful memory for me. The boxes became an unnerving reminder.
I made it my mission to sort through the contents of the boxes and find a place for them. Some of the things we found inside those boxes were wonderful discoveries–photos, old postcards, stamp and coin collections, and other miscellaneous mementos. We bagged and boxed up a lot of things for Goodwill. Just like everyone else, I drove around with it in my trunk for a few weeks before it finally drove me crazy enough to drop it off. We also threw away a lot.
With my minimalist tendencies and frequent purging, it was easy for me to say goodbye to things. My grandma, on the other hand, was prone to piles. I remember an assortment of piles in every single room of her house on Gingerbread Lane. Piles of papers, piles of mail, magazines, books, piles, piles, piles.
Early on in my caregiving journey, I learned that having lots of stuff laying around is a huge fall risk. Then, as her Alzheimer’s progressed, I realized having so much “stuff” laying around was overwhelming. I made sure everything that caused her stress was “out of sight” so it could be “out of mind.” Much to her chagrin, I was constantly flitting around her house, putting things in the proper place, discarding anything I saw as superfluous along the way. Since I spent a lot of time there, her house started to mirror mine–neat and bare.
In early 2020, my grandma had a “touch of pneumonia” and ended up in the hospital for a week. It became obvious upon discharge she was no longer able to be alone. Within a matter of a couple of weeks, I almost had a meltdown. I decided to look for a home we could share because neither of our houses were suitable to accommodate both of us, Grandma with her caregivers, and me, with all of my critters. While I searched for the perfect place, COVID was quietly spreading across the globe. When I found this house, whispers of a virus were just starting to rise. We closed on our house just 4 days BEFORE COVID shut everything down here in Missouri.
Since I was a renter, I had to move my stuff immediately. Thanks to a little help from my friends, we moved all of my things in one entire day, and the next day, we moved all of Grandma’s big items and essentials over to the house. Due to the nature of her disease and my caregiving situation, it was in my best interest to put as much where it went as possible when we first moved in, so I set up our home. And then we hunkered down.
Since returning to her old house to collect her items and clean it up for a renter didn’t require me to interact with anyone, over the next couple of months, I went by once or twice a week to grab some of what we had left behind. This task gave me a temporary reprieve from the uncertainty of the pandemic and the stress of my new caregiving/living situation. Since Grandma wasn’t there to debate with, getting rid of a lot of what we left behind was easy. Each time I found a new use for something or threw something in the trash, I felt a little lighter. After all, if I didn’t get rid of it now, I would end up with all this crap, eventually… right?
With the restrictions of the pandemic…. all of the energy required to decorate all of the spaces in our new house, and with the ever-changing demands of caregiving, I haven’t had much opportunity–or desire, for that matter– to look for things to junk up our home.
Over the past few weeks, giving new lives to my grandma’s things has given me incredible joy and filled me with immense gratitude. I ran from room to room, possessed with benevolent cheer like Scrooge on Christmas morning, as I found things I could give away.
Finding a way to let go and new purposes for your loved one’s material possessions is a process. It’s not as easy as I make it look 😉
Here are some tips and considerations for you if you see downsizing due to a loved one’s decline or passing in your future.
- Accept that you do not have to get rid of anything immediately, if you do not want to.
Unless an emergency move is in order or you have to liquidate ASAP, there is no rush to get rid of anything
You might also need to wait for legal purposes, like probate. Yes, that sounds ridiculous, but if a person doesn’t have a will, or there are any questions regarding their estate, it’s best to hang on to most (valuable) things.
- Understand that you may experience some emotional moments.
As I mentioned before, the simple act of getting rid of things in a case like this normally means a loved one is nearing the end of their life. It can be sad. It can unearth painful memories that you worked hard to bury deep down inside. It can make you angry. It can cause you to question God and your very own existence. It can make you worry about the future.
I try to focus on the positive. Clearing clutter and rehoming items can also be liberating and electrifying! I let gratitude, not only for the usefulness I was afforded, but the new life these material goods will receive in the hands of another, remain my focus through this process. It is a way my grandma can continue to be a blessing in the lives of others, perhaps even for years to come.
- Start with people in your own personal network.
Whether you are giving away precious keepsakes or making space for your new life post-caregiving, it may be easiest to start with your family and friends. I gave or saved select items for myself, our loved ones and friends.
Then, I took a moment to think about people in my own life who are on a similar journey. Lord knows, we accumulated a large number of things to help me care for my Grandma. I thought about my own caregiving situation and times we were in need. When my grandma needed a commode so she could safely go to the bathroom in the night after a recent hospital discharge, it was stressful trying to track one down before they were ready to send her out the door. Then I asked myself, am I connected with anyone who is going through something like that?
- Put a little thought and energy into finding a new home for things.
I spent a lot of time amassing games, kits, and random things to create a diversion for my grandma as she progressed down dementia road. I wanted to make sure that they benefited other people with dementia in the future. Once I was feeling up to it, I gathered up all of Grandma’s gowns that had been cut down the back since she was bedbound… all of the puzzles, dementia specific games and tools, medical supplies and adaptive equipment, and anything else I thought might be useful to another living being and put it all in one spot.
Over the weeks that followed, I found places for most of the items. A memory care unit at a local senior living community got the simple puzzles and dementia activities and starry night light. Another nursing facility took all of the beautiful gowns and nice old lady clothes my grandma had, a walker tray, a couple of packages of unopened* briefs, more complicated puzzles as well as some cute home decor items I snuck in.
I have a number of very caregiving-specific or big ticket items left (colostomy supplies, commodes, walkers, wheelchairs, furniture), but I know they can be hard to come by and pretty pricey, so I am being a little bit more scrupulous when it comes to finding them a new home.
- Check the cabinets.
After my grandma passed away, I had a lot of time on my hands. As a self-proclaimed foodie, I knew that could be dangerous. Plus, there’s no way I was eating all of that stuff by myself.
And, let’s be practical. I do not need 3 bottles of Curel lotion, 6 bottles of waterless shampoo, 4 bottles of bathroom cleaner, and a 120-count box of Lipton Decaf Tea.
So, I carried out a mini-purge in the bathroom and the pantry, grabbing unopened bottles, snatching up boxes and jars, checking expiration dates, donating the acceptable goods and non-perishables, and tossing the sketchy stuff.
*Most reputable places will not accept any food items or cleaning, hygiene, or medical supplies that have been opened or used. If it’s sketchy, my advice is to toss it.
- Celebrate each victorious re-placement
Pat yourself on the back for each step you take to get rid of things, especially if you are able to put them to good use. You are making a positive impact on others, the environment, and– you may not realize it–but yourself! The less you carry with you into the future, the easier it will be to move on, come what may.
If you are living in the Kansas City metro, ReUseFull makes this part easy. This app helps you find a place where your loved one’s items can be put to good use. ReUseFull lists local nonprofits so you search by location or by organization type. You can even filter it so you can see only the organizations that pick up donations. Searching by organization type is especially helpful if your loved one had specialized interests and hobbies. I used it to help me find a new home for Grandma’s keyboard.
Best wishes and many blessings to you if you find yourself on a similar path. May your home be fall-risk free and feel cozy and comfortable, not cluttered.
Rachel is a 30-something aspiring local celebrity do-gooder in Kansas City 🌃 She owns her own media & web design business, nth degree 🚀 She is a proud MPA grad from the Bloch School at UMKC 🎓 She was a caregiver to Barbara for 7 years 💗