Topic 2: How to shed your trickiest clutter so your loved ones don't have to

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Why on earth were they hanging on to this?

It’s a question that usually comes to the mind of anyone who’s sorted through a lifetime of possessions after a much-loved relative has moved into aged care or passed away.

“Crockery, collectible plates, books, buttons, countless reels of cotton and an endless box of greeting cards for all occasions formed just part of the treasures she collected from 1929 to 2017,” Starts at 60 blogger Pat Daley remembers of clearing out her late mother-in-law’s home.

Then, as Pat says, a second question almost always follows: “Going through this process has me now thinking, what will I leave for my children to sort through when the time comes?”.

You may have thought the same, and already shed many of the belongings collected over years. But there are items even the most dedicated declutterer struggles to part with.

If you’re keen to reduce your belongings to lessen the burden on the loved ones you leave behind, but have struggled to let go of a final few pieces, here are some practical ideas for dealing with the items that are most difficult to farewell.

Too-good-to-toss items

Intentionally decluttering in preparation for the end of life may sound morbid, but in Sweden, ‘death cleaning’ is the norm, and considered so helpful that Margareta Magnusson wrote a book imparting the wisdom of ‘dostadning’ for non-Swedes.

During the process, there will be items that you’re reluctant to throw away because they’re still useful and in good condition, or because they’re sentimental items. Rather than forcing these bits and pieces on unwilling recipients, Magnusson recommends throwing a party, and inviting guests take whatever items they fancy.

The party can be a big gathering of friends, neighbours and acquaintances who’re happy to sort through kitchen utensils and little-worn clothes for handy pieces they may need, or an intimate event with your children, in which they choose the most personal keepsakes they’d like to keep to be reminded of you.

Magnusson also keeps what she calls a ‘throw-away box’ that holds items of sentimental value only to her, such as love letters and dried flowers from bouquets. She says she’s told her children that when she dies, they should feel free to throw the box away without looking through it, safe in the knowledge they’re not tossing out family heirlooms.

Must-keep paperwork and photos

Turning an overflowing filing cabinet or photograph box into a neatly organised digital filing system is a relatively simple process, and will save your family from having to sort through 10-year-old receipts to find key paperwork and favourite photos as they mourn your passing.

Digitise your life

Creating digital copies by scanning documents and photographs is easy and hugely reduces the amount of storage space they require. Home scanners are relatively inexpensive, or you can pay-per-scan at Officeworks and similar stores.

If a scanner isn’t easily accessible, you can create digital records of important paperwork and beloved mementoes by snapping pictures with your phone and saving them to a file on your computer.

Select your storage

The next step is to choose a home for these digital assets. Portable hard drives are relatively inexpensive at most electronics goods stores. But if you have a substantial amount to store or are concerned you may misplace the hard drive, look in to network attached storage (NAS) devices that connect to your home internet. They cost upwards of $250 from tech stores.

Another option is cloud storage. Cloud storage involves paying a technology company to store your data securely, so you can access it via the internet. Google Drive, Apple’s iCloud and Amazon Cloud Drive are just three examples, and there are also specialised cloud storage options, such as Flickr for photographs and Evernote for documents.

Once your important documents and photographs are neatly organised online, ensure you entrust a family member or professional adviser with details on how to access them, in

Stem the paper tide

Save yourself the trouble of regular scanning by choosing to receive e-statements and e-bills. That way, you can simply save the emailed document as they arrive to your storage system.

Most financial service and utilities providers offer the option of switching online to paperless communications, so check their website for information on how to make the change. Westpac, for example, has a single webpage that advises customers how to opt for e-statements on multiple accounts. (E-statements not only reduce clutter, they’re secure and better for the environment.)

Pieces of family history

Your adult children may not be interested in stories of your past or their extended family history right now, but that could change. Instead of hanging on to big boxes of mementoes or trying to write your memoirs, however, make permanent records of your memories using one of the easier methods now available.

Choose your apps

There are many apps designed to help you record and share memories. Recount your stories in the Saving Memories Forever app, create a journal with Momento, make a digital scrapbook with Collect or make forever versions of your kids’ and grandkids’ artworks in Artkive or Keepy. Or you can pay a service such as Australia’s Retro Media to do the tech work for you, including digitising your VHS tapes and photo negatives.

Ancestry.com is a well-known site that helps you research and build your family tree, but if you’ve already done the hard work of gathering the information, apps including Familybook, RootsMagic and MyHeritage allow you to display your family tree online. (For a free option, try canva.com, an Australian desktop design site that’s easy to use and offers a no-cost family tree creator.)

To match memories to mementoes, an Aussie mother-and-daughter duo created an app called Keepsake that allows you to take photos of precious items with your phone, then write notes or use our

phone’s microphone to record the significance of the piece.

Use your skills, or outsource the job

Objects that you absolutely cannot let go of can often be turned into useful and beautiful items. If you’re a dab hand on the sewing machine, stitch old baby clothes, pieces of embroidery and other treasured textiles into a quilt. Or combine the textiles with matching photographs (printed on to fabric) and have the pieces made into a quilt using the services of Aussie company Quilting Memories.

Photographs can also be scanned onto canvas as wall art or onto coffee mugs so you have a daily reminder of fun times, while postcards can be collated into booklets that the grandkids will love flipping through.

Shadowboxes are another crafty way to keep together mementoes from experiences or holidays in an attractive home décor item – search YouTube for one of the many tutorials on how to make your own.

If you’d like to create a more detailed story of your life or family history, a more expensive but thorough method is to hire a memoir writer. Australia’s Narrative Publishing, for example, specialises in creating professionally written memoirs. Or use a community marketplace such as Airtasker to advertise for a writer who’ll provide you with a quote for the cost of doing the same.

The right headspace

No one says decluttering later in life is easy – your belongings are the symbols of a lifetime of hard work and loving times – but it is a period of life where you likely know yourself far better than in our earlier years.

So, it’s worth thinking about whether some of the items you find hardest to let go are a representation of your ‘fantasy self’. The sewing machine, for example, you swear you’ll return to whipping up outfits with, the craft items you insist you’re going use, the books you plan to one day slow down enough to read.

Of course, if you still feel that’s a strong possibility, these items should be kept. But if you’re not confident you will use the items, acknowledging that the picture you had of yourself is no longer but the right one could make it easier to let them go.

Another way to mentally prepare for the most difficult decluttering may be to think of the completed task as a representation of your best self – the unselfish, thoughtful, philosophical you that is at peace with your mortality and wishes only good things for your loved ones.

“Some people can’t wrap their heads around death. And these people leave a mess after them,” Magnusson writes in The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. “I’ve death cleaned so many times for others, I’ll be damned if someone has to death clean for me.”

The subtitle of her book – How to Make Your Loved Ones’ Lives Easier and Your Own Life More Pleasant – makes clear, though, that the process of cutting down on possessions is as much about creating more time to enjoy life as it is about preparing for death.

In short, fewer items to dust equals more time for fun. So, buckle up and start dealing with your hardest-to-declutter clutter, and let us know how you go!

Have you had the task of clearing out a loved one’s home? What was the experience like for you? Have you successfully sorted through your own belongings? How did it feel? Did you learn any tricks you can share?

Westpac has been proudly supporting Australians through all of life’s wonderful, agonising, and exhilarating moments since 1817.

Important information: The information provided on this website is of a general nature and for information purposes only. It does not take into account your objectives, financial situation or needs. It is not financial product advice and must not be relied upon as such. Before making any financial decision you should determine whether the information is appropriate in terms of your particular circumstances and seek advice from an independent licensed financial services professional.