Lessons From a Retirement Community Clean Up

I've been nudging my parents to let go of unnecessary objects my whole adult life. They usually don’t listen to me, but sometimes they do, like when I redid my Dad’s home office or lent a hand as they downsized from my childhood home to a condo in a retirement community. In this community, my Mom now serves as the Board President of their 200-unit building.

She recognized the potential for mold in their building due to old, untouched, and poorly stored items in the residents' storage units (such as what I discuss in Icky Stuff). Recognizing the prevention needed, she organized two full clean up days, helping residents recycle cardboard boxes and offering sealed bins as replacements. She set it up so residents could take advantage of this opportunity to get rid of items they didn't need. My mom saw the value of this support, as many residents are in their 80’s and 90’s (my Mom is considered quite the youngster as she is still in her 60’s!). She’d been through the overwhelming clearing out of her parents’ and in-laws’ homes, and realized this would be helpful not just to the residents but to their children as well.

I was a proud daughter as she recounted stories from the well-organized clean up. She arranged an extra truck from the community to pick up the discarded cardboard and have it recycled. For furniture, shelves, and other items, a truck from a local charity picked up the donations. All building staff was available to assist. And many reusable, airtight bins were distributed.

When in a storage unit helping a resident, Mom would ask: “What’s in this box?” Typically, the resident would respond that they had no idea. So she’d suggest opening the mysterious container. Then, rummaging through the contents, they’d say, “Why did I keep that?”

Then they got rid of it.

Out of sight, out of mind is a very real problem from which we all suffer, from the macro to the micro.

The top three items uncovered and given away were: gardening tools (peculiar since none of the residents have a garden!), luggage, and extra sets of dishes. My mom was particularly surprised to see tall, full-sized garden tools. 

Mom: “Why do you have this?”

Resident: “It was great and useful so when we moved from the house, I couldn’t imagine parting with it!”

Mom: “Have you used it in the seventeen years you’ve lived here?”

Resident: “No.”

The range of tools was varied, and even included one chainsaw. To give the tools a second life, staff collected these for use on the building’s property.

Dishes included complete china sets, and specialty sets like Passover dishes (used only once a year). Many residents don’t switch dishes anymore or want to go through the bother of bringing these up for special occasions. Cleaning staff members became the lucky recipients and took home the no longer needed dishes. 

Often there were multiple sets of luggage, held onto by owners who hadn’t traveled in decades. As my Mom put it: “There was enough discarded luggage to open up our own store!”

I see a few important lessons here: 

  1. Focusing on the prevention of problems, like mold, has the added benefit of evaluating possessions before someone is no longer capable and allowing them to be enjoyed by the less fortunate or others in one’s community.

  2. Anyone can take it upon themselves to set in motion a change beneficial to everyone in a community.

  3. Because we tend to forget about what’s not in eye’s view, having far less stuff and making the stuff we keep accessible is a necessity.

  4. It’s best to avoid the use of storage units but, if using them, being sure everything is labeled and well-packed.

  5. Use a move, especially in a time of life transition, as a moment to ensure that unneeded items are addressed.

And another important lesson: if you nudge your parents in a particular direction for a couple of decades, they may become champions of your cause.