“How can I make my parents organize their papers? They gave me power of attorney and named me as executor, but I don’t know where anything is.” I receive phone calls like this several times each year. The caller is usually fearful, frustrated, and worried about the state of the parents’ affairs.
Each time I hear this question, or one like it, I’m reminded of the old lightbulb joke:
Q: How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: Only one, but the lightbulb has to want to change.
The same is true for a disorganized loved one – they have to want to change their situation. But even though we can’t make them change, there are a few things we can do to pave the way for them to request help.
First, a few things to remember:
In short, your parents likely feel some level of embarrassment or vulnerability. To be successful, you will need to be sensitive to their discomfort, and respect their pace. Here is the sequence I recommend to clients who are preparing to assume their parents’ affairs:
It might take a few iterations to build some momentum with your parent. The key is to respect your parent’s preferred pace. In time, your parent may trust you enough to delegate work to you, or let you hire a professional organizer.
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“I’m cleaning out my parents’ home and coming across lots of items with sentimental value, how do I decide what to keep?” A friend asked me this question recently. Like so many of us will do in our middle years, she’s facing the dual challenge of grieving while dispersing all of her parents’ possessions. If she’s also the executor of her parents’ estate, she’ll have bills, paperwork, and the responsibility of staging and selling the home as well. It’s a lot to handle at a fragile time. The key to getting through this is to do it in waves, as you have the time and energy.
Below are some suggestions on how to handle the process.
Remove items associated with your parents’ illness. Unless the death was sudden, there’s likely some assortment of medications and medical equipment. Getting these out of the way first will help you release the more recent painful memories and make space for joyful memories to surface. Check Earth911 for places that will accept these items. Some charities and thrift stores, such as Care & Share Thrift Shoppes in Souderton, PA accept medical equipment.
Locate and have the executor disperse any property according to your parents’ wills. If you can’t find some of the items, make a list and leave it in a prominent location. You’ll likely come across the remaining items as you continue to work through the house.
Give away or donate everyday items that don’t hold any particular sentimental value. Usually a fair amount of clothing, kitchen items, books, knick-knacks, small furniture, linens, and items in deep storage (attic/garage/basement) fall into this category. Continue to keep any individual items that you’re unsure about.
At this point, most of what will be left has a chance of being important to you or your family. If you have the luxury of time, invite your relatives to your parents’ home for a ‘claiming memories day‘. Disperse any remaining items mentioned in the will, and open everything else to be given away as keepsakes. The executor may want to set some parameters for this, such as taking turns. Many families find that storytelling naturally emerges from this process. You’ll probably have a lot of tears and laughter. Don’t rush; it’s a precious part of the healing process.
Can you give yourself a little more time at this point? If so, take a break. You’ve fulfilled the requirements of the will, disposed of unnecessary items, and preserved the most important memories. More often than not, some rest and a return to your normal schedule will restore your resilience, stamina, and creativity.
When you’re ready to return to your parents’ home, it probably won’t feel so emotionally charged or overwhelming. You’ll have the confidence of knowing that you won’t accidentally destroy a precious artifact, stumble across an unpleasant memory, or be overwhelmed with unimportant things. In short, you’ll be dealing with the middle ground of your parents’ possessions.
As you work your way through these remaining items, ask yourself a few questions:
-Do I need this to stage the house?
-If I take it home, would I definitely use it?
-Do I know anyone who could use this?
-What charities did my parents support? Do they accept donations?
You’ll likely end up donating or giving away most of these final items. Keep reminding yourself that you already saved the most important things. As the house empties, you may be sad. That’s healthy. Do the work that is easier for you and harder for your family, and ask them to do the same for you. Be gentle with yourself and each other.
Most importantly, cherish your memories as they are the most important thing you’ll keep.