Tips and resources to help you throughout your caregiving journey

Help your parents declutter and downsize with the KonMari Method

Unless you have been living under a rock, you must have heard of Marie Kondo, the Japanese organizing consultant. She really has exposed, in a kind and gentle way, the thought that more is better and that material possessions buy us happiness. Paradoxical as it might initially seem, some of these possessions do, to use her words, “spark joy.”

Kondo’s books and Netflix series have much to offer that can help and even transform the experience of helping a parent declutter, downsize, or completely clean out their home.

Most daughters and sons I talk to dread these tasks. It takes up so much real estate in their minds that there is an anticipatory dread —it gets talked about years before it has to be done. This dread matters. It matters because it takes away from feeling peaceful NOW. Dread also has an impact on the relationship.

Instead of being completely present for visits in parents’ homes, many adult kids are scanning their parents’ homes, calculating the amount of time and energy it is going to take to clean it out. The drive home is spent judging the parents for hanging on to so much stuff.

It’s just as the (late) comedian, George Carlin observed when he said, “Have you noticed that their stuff is s**t and your s**t is stuff?”  

A parent’s perspective

Parents often become sensitive to comments about their stuff and defensive about how disorganized it is or appears to be. When I talk to some parents, they tell me that they feel judged and disrespected. Visits are sometimes so stressful that they aren’t sorry to see their kids go. Yuck. This doesn’t feel good for anyone. Surely there is a better way!

I think that Kondo’s approach just might be this better way.

There are gems in Kondo’s philosophy and approach that can help with the tidying up and that can help parents and adult children go through this process in a way that fosters respect and connection.

How to downsize (Kondo in a nutshell)

  • Tidy by category and not location
  • Follow this order: clothes, books, papers, miscellaneous, sentimental
  • Touch everything you own and ask yourself if it sparks joy.
  • If it doesn’t spark joy, thank it for its service and send it on its way.
  • Take the remaining (joy-sparking) items and create a place where they can be seen, are easy to grab and put back.

Sometimes people get stuck on the feeling of joy, which can make it hard to decide whether or not to throw something away. That is, they don’t feel it. It really is something that can be recognized when attuned to the body—the tidying up process is a constant practice of dialing into the body. For those who just can’t get into items that ‘spark joy’, they can approach it as items that’ feel good.’

How the KonMari Method fosters respect and connection

  1. No Judgement. There isn’t a speck of judgement about the accumulation of stuff or about the disorganization. No judgement, no shame. When there is shame, the task can be avoided or become a horrible experience. Kondo never asks, “Why the h*%l have you kept those glasses from the gas station? Or ‘do you really need 16 wine glasses?’.  You simply ask yourself, or your mom or dad, if it sparks joy in your heart. If each and every wine glass sparks joy, so be it (though it’s unlikely, isn’t it?).
  2. Thank the Item for its Service.  This is probably the most foreign tip Kondo offers. When it comes to items that do not spark joy, and hence will be shown the door, Kondo advises to thank it for the service it has done and the role it has played in your family’s life. Giving thanks, she says, will reduce and possibly even eliminate any guilt you may feel when you decide not to keep an item in your home. It strikes me also as profoundly respectful to the person who brought it into the home in the first place, or the person who gave the item as a gift. This is the embodiment of gratitude, and gratitude is linked with happiness and wellbeing
  3. Recognize that the Decluttering Process is an Emotional One. What Kondo also brings to the decluttering and downsizing discussion is an explicit recognition that it is an emotional experience. This is why she suggests beginning with clothing, since it’s usually the least emotionally loaded. I say usually because one Netflix episode is on sparking joy after a loss. A woman is tidying up 9 months after her husband died, and his clothes were the most emotionally loaded items in the house. Kondo was quite sensitive to the meaning attached to the clothing.
  4. Focus on What You are Keeping. This is a slight shift in focus from many organizers who focus on what you are going to get rid of, or in that more respectful Kondo description, items that you decide you will no longer have in your home. This focus on what you are keeping also fosters thinking about the future in a positive way.

The vibe of an open and appreciative heart

As you can imagine, Marie Kondo suggests ‘don’t go near sentimental items until the end’ because all the emotions and memories can make this the slowest category. Aside from Kondo’s concrete tip about the order to follow, it may be helpful to just put it right out there on the table. For example, you might say, “Wow Mom and Dad, I am feeling quite emotional about doing this. There are years and years of memories and meaning attached to everything in the house, from kitchen mugs to pieces of furniture.” People often find that just saying out loud the feelings of discomfort actually helps move through them.

I am not denying, for even one moment, how much of a mammoth job it is to declutter or clean out a home. In fact, I am restraining myself not to talk about the state of my own Mom’s home. It seems to me, however, that this time and work can be spent in negativity or it can be spent in the vibe of an open and appreciative heart. There is indeed more in Kondo’s philosophy and approach than might initially meet the eye. Kondo is ultimately concerned about the clutter in our hearts. How could this be anything but good for parents and their adult daughters and sons?

Perhaps the best place to start is with your own stuff. You can develop a deeper appreciation and empathy for how difficult it can be to let go and detach from stuff. It also may give you a fantastic entry point for a conversation with your parents.

Have you tried using the KonMari method? Ready to try it with your parents?

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