Today we share this lovely meditation written by a friend, author of the blog “The Sober Heart: More About Life, Love, Recovery,” who has recently been through the downsizing process. We think many of you will draw inspiration and/or comfort from her words.

Originally posted on The Sober Heart:


Today my genial and graceful moving man came to pick up the last of the boxed possessions that I have jettisoned in the past six months in an effort to downsize my life.

In recovery we talk a lot about “right sizing” ourselves. Grandiose dreams and expectations, whether realized or ruined, are not a part of sober behavior. Chasing rocket fantasies tends to make us want to get higher any way we can. So I am trying to make my life more manageable by reducing the number of things I must tend on a daily basis.

As I write this my sinfully adorable dog, Kirby, has parked himself on my shoulder, reminding me that I only need to care for one precious creature to be joyously fulfilled.

Here is what I learned in the process of emptying half a dozen overflowing closets, a dozen giant bookshelves, eight rooms of furnishings…

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Reaching Beyond The Clutter

marcia_clutter free

We are so pleased to have Marcia Muskat (, a personal organizer and founder and owner of ‘section by section,’ a home organizing business, as our guest blogger this week. Marcia shares with us lessons she’s learned from working with older people.

As a personal organizer who has worked mainly with older people, I have found that seniors have a particularly hard time separating themselves from their belongings. But cleaning out does not have to mean losing what they value most. And while satisfaction with life, especially in our golden years, is very much about looking back with pride, it is also about living well now. Seniors I have worked with, who have embraced the process of separating the essentials from the expendables, find that they can accomplish more with less.

Excessive accumulations that threaten health, safety and quality of life add an extra urgency to my role as a personal organizer. Case in point is a client of mine. A reporter for a big city newspaper, she tackled challenges in domains usually reserved, in her day, for driven men with strong resumes. Today, a young 80-something, she easily navigates the stairs in her fifth-floor walk-up apartment (kudos to her muscle memory) while carrying groceries in a sturdy knapsack. An ardent literary and art fan, she makes her way downtown to the renowned Strand Book Store or uptown to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But at home, she has lost her bearings.

She has outlived family and friends, neighbors and doctors. She sits captive in her only available chair among a dusty, toxic avalanche of professional news clippings, art books, brochures and the like.  And while she will be the first to tell you that she would love to live in a comfortable, safe and productive home, she agonizes over even more loss, especially the things that are so critical to her personal identity and integrity: the loss of her papers and books. Each bit of memorabilia feels like a piece of herself.

But my client, always a high achiever, is not to be underestimated. The more she trusts that our organizing process protects her valuables, the more she is able to part with what’s not important, and the more apartment space she gets back to do more of the things she has wanted to do. With her newly cleaned off desktop and more walkable floor space, she can now entertain her dreams of critiquing a local art exhibit, adopting a cat and staying relevant to her life today.

What Lessons Have We Learned?

house in b-w

Having emptied our own family homes of decades’ worth of accumulated stuff, we are well aware of how much work it entails and what an emotional roller coaster it can be.

After having had a chance to sit back and ponder the experience, we are very glad our parents saved all the family stuff they did, but we also know in our hearts that the most valuable thing in the house was the lives that have been lived there.

Working with multiple generations to empty a much-loved home does present issues, however. How one deals with those issues differs with each family and with each family member.

How do we assess the process? Was it a job well done? Were there issues that were resolved? Or was the process fraught with problems? What did we learn from downsizing?

Here’s a checklist of questions to ask ourselves.

  • Are our parents content with their new living arrangements? Do they feel surrounded by a few favorite things? Were they happy, or at least able to come to terms with, what they let go of?
  • Are we still on speaking terms with all of our siblings? If we are, then we can feel, rightly, that it was a job well done. If not, what can we do to mend fences?
  • What have we taught our children as we worked through the process of emptying our parents’ home? About the process of downsizing? About working with others? About the importance of possessions? And about the importance of family?
  • What are we doing about our own accumulated stuff to make things easier for our children when we are no longer around to help them?
  • What have we learned about the value of stuff? Has it made us grateful for what we have and, more importantly, for our families?

Things to ponder. What would you add to the list?

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

The Paper Chase: Decluttering

paper cartoon

Having too much paper is a common complaint. It’s something that we all have too much of.

I have a pile of papers next to my computer that needs to be sorted and I decided it would be helpful to take a look at this paper in a somewhat different way: by hierarchy, subject matter, and filing system.

We all impose a hierarchy on paper, often without realizing it. When we buy groceries with cash, the receipt goes in the trash. When we use a credit card, we save the receipt until the end of the month to reconcile it with the credit card statement. When we sort mail, the junk mail goes in the trash but the bills get top priority. How can I create a hierarchy for the items in my pile of papers?

It may sound like a no-brainer that we need to divide our paper by subject matter to make the pile more approachable and the sorting more doable. Yes, it’s easier to sort through and prioritize the papers, if we separate them by subject: health, financial, credit cards, insurance. How many categories and subcategories do I need?

Filing systems are good. But everyone’s brain, their memory, the intuitive way we understand things, works differently. A system that works for a professional organizer might not be right for me, my system might not work for you, your system might not work for your sister. How do I create a system that works for me (so I’ll be more likely to actually use it)?

Here are a few articles that offer help for paper clutter.

Curb Paper Clutter at Home This article has a very helpful way of going about curbing the buildup of paper clutter in your home, depending on whether you are a “filer” or a “piler.”

How To: 4 Steps to Less Paper Clutter Here organizing expert Carol Keller shares her four-step plan for having less paper: analyze, sort and purge, classify and label, create a regular decluttering routine.

10 Best Tips for Organizing Paper Clutter This article has some good suggestions for how to approach the problem proactively by choosing to go paperless for bills, and getting yourself off the junk mail lists.

What Documents to Keep, What You Can Toss This is a helpful list of what household papers to keep and for how long and, most importantly, when you can toss them.

The takeaway:

* Get rid of as much paper as possible (don’t bring it into your home at all, toss before you enter, go paperless).

* Create a system for keeping the papers that works for you.

* Declutter regularly.

* Revisit your system, as needed.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Letting Go of Some Favorite Things


As I began to write this post I thought of it as another in our occasional series “Getting Rid of…” but with a twist. But then I realized it’s more than that. It’s not about finding places to donate usable items we no longer need, rather it’s a look at the process I went through to get to the point where I could get rid of things that were important to me. And the items seemed dear to me partly because they helped define who I am.

I was prompted to embark on this bit of soul searching by an essay I had read about one woman’s journey to let go of mementos from a failed marriage, or more accurately, mementos from the good times in a relationship that ended with a split. At first, I thought she held onto things that brought her pain and that seemed counterintuitive to me. Then I realized that she held onto things that reminded her of the good parts of the relationship but when she looked at them, lived with them over the years, they brought her, not joy, but sorrow. And she decided that she needed to move on from those feelings.

My exploration was less dramatic that the essay-writer’s journey but significant to me. Here’s what I got rid of.

My collection of Playbills. I have always loved going to the theater, starting when I was a teenager, and I go as often as I can, more often to off-Broadway than to Broadway shows because the tickets are more affordable. When I was in my early twenties, I saw an apartment where the bathroom was papered with Playbill covers. It was a small guest bathroom but, still, I was so impressed that someone had been to see so many plays. I never papered my walls with Playbills; I kept them on a shelf. A couple of years ago, when they started to overrun the shelf, I put them in shopping bags, a first step, perhaps, to moving them out.

Why were the Playbills so important to me? I’ve always been a reader – there are family stories about my reading at the age of four, I have several degrees in English literature, I’ve worked in publishing for most of my career, and I love reading books and going to plays. Having tangible evidence of my love of literature helps define the reader and playgoer part of me.

I came to the realization that I have the memories (or maybe not so much now as I age since sometimes I have to ask a friend to remind me what a particular play was about!) but could get rid of the items. So I sent the Playbills on to paper recycling…to serve, one hopes, some better purpose.

The response cards and envelopes from my wedding. I’ve been married a long time and for years I have kept a sturdy box from the printer filled with the extra response cards and the matching small envelopes addressed to me. I’m not sure why we had so many extras and I’m not sure why I kept them, except it felt somehow sacrilegious to just discard them.

Certainly the wedding was a seminal event in my life and the marriage helped define me as a wife, and later as a mother. The marriage has been a good one, or to paraphrase Jim Dale’s comment in his one-man show, we often have opposing points of view but end up seeing eye to eye. Do these seemingly useless items enhance the relationship in any way? Someone, a good organizer and declutterer I’m sure, once said that all you need to keep as a memento is one invitation, complete with all its parts if you like. So the cards and envelopes went out to paper recycling…perhaps to become the recycled paper that a current, environmentally aware bride will choose for her invitations.

Old videotapes. I have several shelves of old videotapes of movies and children’s shows, films my children enjoyed or videotapes of popular movies they were given as birthday gifts. (Although it may seem odd given today’s media, a videotape of a favorite movie or an old classic was an enjoyable gift when my kids were young.)

Even though the tapes do not speak to me in any particular way, the fact that I kept them helps define me as a clutterer because clutter is, as someone once defined it, postponed decisions. So I sorted through the tapes. I donated still good ones to a local thrift shop, sent damaged ones to electronic recycling, and put aside the tapes of my children’s performances, plays, and concerts to be converted to DVDs…a task that is now high up on my to-do list.

All of these things brought back happy memories for me. And I know that I can remember the pleasures without having the objects to look at, which is another way of expressing the mantra of our book and blog: “Keeping the memories, getting rid of the stuff…”

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Aging in Place: An Interview with Rachel Adelson, author of “Staying Power”


Rachel Adelson, M.A., is a science writer specializing in aging and health, and the author of Staying Power: Age-Proof Your Home for Comfort, Safety and Style (Sage Tree Publishing). She has covered everything from brain health and neurological disorders to human-computer interaction. In the midst of a downsizing move herself, Rachel recently made time to answer a few questions about “aging in place” for us.

What got you interested in the topic of aging in place, and what made you want to write a book about it? 

You don’t have to be old or contemplating your own aging or mortality to be interested in this subject.  I went back to grad school to study aging for two reasons:  First, it’s a fascinating subject, embracing everything about the human experience.  You can find your own piece of it and make a difference.  Second, the rapid expansion of the older demographic is going to influence our world in profound ways. I thought it would be exciting to be a part of that. I settled on “aging at home” because I had enjoyed learning about human factors and universal design earlier in my career and saw the obvious connection—and the obvious need.  And it’s fun to figure out “toys” that can help people; there’s a real problem-solving aspect that makes use of the medical knowledge.

What is the most interesting, or most helpful thing you learned in the process of writing your book? What do people need to know about aging in place?

People tend to think big about adaptations for aging – elevators, ramps – and get put off by the cost, complexity and appearance, so they stop right there. But with help from the experts, I discovered a wealth of simple, small, common-sense and affordable changes (some of which fit right in with your regular décor) that can aid accessibility and accommodate a wide variety of age-related changes. Most people can start small and adapt over time; should they need a ramp or a stair climber, they’ll know it. But for many people, simpler things—like contrasting friction tape and good lighting–can prevent a disabling fall and the need for more drastic change.

What are some of the medical or physical conditions that people THINK require moving out of the home, but don’t necessarily?

This is a good question, because the best ideas should directly respond to a resident’s changing needs.  If you are strong and agile, why would you need an elevator? However, if your vision is weak, you should address that issue instead.  I structured my book around the most common changes of aging–physical, sensory, mental–so that readers can focus on their own unique needs.  All the way through the life span, we’re not one-size-fits-all.

That said, stairs are such a big issue.  When people develop arthritis in the knees or the hips, they start to dread going up and down.  But even there, a main-floor dining room might become a bedroom, a pantry can become a washroom, and so on.  Or you can put in a stair climber.

With vision changes, often people would rather be in a familiar setting where they know the layout and placement.

And nearly any home can be modified to reduce the energy demands on a person, though as someone’s world shrinks, it gets harder to maintain a big space.  Reduced maintenance and increased clutter can lead to safety problems (a cluttered space is harder to clean and clear).

If everything else is in place, you can compare costs and convenience, who might be helping you and in what capacity, and so on. Some people would rather move from their homes; some would rather stay.  And sometimes it’s not about the house per se, it’s more about transportation to and from the house—for residents and for helpers.  Given that the bulk of older people live in the suburbs, transportation is a major issue, too.

Would you say that aging in place is a growing trend? What’s new on the horizon? 

Aging in place is a new term for what people have done since there were human settlements.  I believe the term sprang up only as a reaction to the mid-20th-century promotion of special, age-segregated housing for older people.  With people living longer and living better in the first phase of old age, there is less of a pressing need to move away. Also, living for 20 to 30 years in a “retirement community” doesn’t have the same appeal as it did when you expected, shall we say, a shorter stay.

Past that, it’s hard to say what’s on the horizon.  We’ve never had this many people live this long before, and a lot will depend on how the combination of finances, housing, health care, technology, transportation and social services plays out.  All we know is that the models of the past won’t work…but then, they rarely do.

What is the most challenging thing about getting a house ready for aging in place? The most rewarding?

The most challenging thing is that we’re all moving targets.  We may be fine one day and get a funky diagnosis or get injured the next. Setting up the home isn’t a one-time deal; it’s an ongoing project of adaptation over time.  That’s a mindset, an ongoing education.

That said, most of us have a nesting instinct.  Adapting our homes to meet our needs is just the continuation of that feathering, and “setting up shop” to keep ourselves safe, healthy, and happy can be very rewarding. People hate the idea of losing their independence; my book was written to help them overcome that often-equal hatred of grab bars, so that they can remain independent.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.



“A Gift to your Family: 10 Tips to Clear Clutter”

Our deepest thanks to Nanci Hellmich for her article in USA Today that highlights advice from our new, updated e-book. This was posted online on May 13, 2014 with an informative video with Nanci and appears in the print edition today, May 14, 2014.



Clearing out the clutter — from old tax returns to clothes you don’t wear to keepsakes that are no longer meaningful to you — can be a wonderful gift to yourself and your family, organizing experts say.

Linda Hetzer, co-author of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home with Janet Hulstrand, has talked to hundreds of people about paring down what they own…Read more




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