How to declutter a lifetime of hoarding

Aug 10, 2023
There is a world of difference between collectables that family members would like to inherit versus inheriting a household of old rubbish because mum and dad could not let go of it. Source: Getty

There is an airline boarding pass from 1989 in my desk drawer. I’m keeping it in case I ever take that flight again.

Like most over 60s, I find myself surrounded, if not overwhelmed, by souvenirs of my life. Books I’ve not read in decades, clothes I’ve not worn this century and a battered wooden valve radio from the 1950s. Each item contains a memory but as we enter what are  euphemistically called our “sunset years” we must face the unspoken late life crisis known as ‘decluttering.’

It should be as simple as chucking out the old stuff we will never use again. If only…

It is now that we face the harsh reality that the things we have hoarded for decades are, Like their owner, Well past their use-by date. The simple solution is to declutter. But how do you bring yourself to just throw out items that you have cherished for a lifetime?

Our op shops are full of bric a brac such as old China and crystal, books and DVDs and the reason these items are in the shops is because families do not want them.

It has become a grim reality for the over 60s that our kids do not share our love for old bus tickets, textbooks from high school that we last attended 50 years ago and an assortment of fishing lures that belonged to my late brother, which have been unused for 60 years but I still can’t bring myself to throw them out. Why? Because they remind me of him and in many ways, they are the only physical connection I still have with him.

They sit beside a battered wooden Valve radio which my parents bought in the late 1940s and which I grew up listening to through the 50s and 60s. It’s just an old radio and not very collectible but on this radio I heard history throughout the 1950s and 60s. The Cuban missile crisis, the JFK assassination, the Apollo moon landings, Elvis Presley and The Beatles. Everybody was on this radio so why can’t I just leave it in the past? This is the dilemma faced by so many over 60s now – how do we let go of our past?

How do we convey the importance of such items to our children and is it fair to expect them to take on ownership of old stuff from mum and dad’s youth that they may not relate to?

There is a world of difference between collectables that family members would like to inherit versus inheriting a household of old rubbish because mum and dad could not let go of it.

Inevitably if we downsize from a house to an apartment or nursing home we have to make the painful decision to abandon our collected treasures and take only what is crucial for the years that remain for us.

It can be a painful process. I have a large plastic tub full of LP records but I do not have a record player. There’s something in me that says that I can’t throw those records out yet. One day… but each is a legacy item from my youth.

There is a box that contains a number of reel-to-reel audio tapes. I do not have a tape recorder but I know that on these tapes are recordings of my late parents. These tapes sit with 8-millimetre movies. I do not have a projector but the movies capture family moments from decades ago. So I am in the weird situation of clinging to objects because they remind me of past times but with no real way to actually use them today.

And yet the inevitability of time is catching up with us and at some point very soon we’re going to have to make those unpleasant decisions. What do we keep and what do we throw out?

While keeping old photo albums is given, this seems to be the only nostalgia item that old folk are expected to keep now. It makes sense for you to have a photographic record of your life but I wonder if people realise that you can also have lifetime memories encapsulated in inanimate objects like an old radio?

The irony here is that in our lifetime we make and lose friends and regard this as part of life. So why can we lose touch with people but fixate on keeping dusty inanimate relics of our past life?

Will that airline boarding pass from 1989 in my desk drawer ever be of use again? Of course not. But if the airline ever revives that flight, I’m ready!

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