How to help seniors keep their home clean and decluttered, according to experts - Resources

How to help seniors keep their home clean and decluttered, according to experts

Whether you're spring cleaning or noticed an older loved one is struggling with clutter, here's how to help seniors keep their homes neat.

Clutter can creep up on any of us during a busy week. But for seniors, physical and cognitive changes can make daily cleaning and organizing tasks hard to keep up with despite having time to devote to them. 

“With aging, there is an increased likelihood of having more mobility problems such as arthritis, pain and also vision issues,” says Claudia Wong, a board certified family nurse practitioner based in Santa Monica, California. “This makes it harder to do things such as kneel down and scrub a floor or climb up to the top shelf to organize items. They are also quicker to become fatigued.”

Whether you’re focused on spring cleaning or have noticed that your older loved one is struggling to keep up with cleaning and organization, here’s how experts say you can help seniors keep their home neat and tidy.

The first steps to helping your aging loved one clean their home

Safety is always the first concern when it comes to keeping a clean home for seniors. A messy household can cause tripping hazards, which could lead to cause a devastating downhill trajectory of medical problems, emphasizes Wong. So, step number one? Declutter.

“One of the hardest things to do as we get older is to part with things we think we need to keep,” says Ann Kriebel-Gasparro, who holds her doctor of nursing practice and is a family and gerontological nurse practitioner who provides in-home health care for elderly patients. Over her 26 years working with seniors, she has seen older adults collect things to the point where their homes are overcrowded with clutter making them nearly impossible to clean. 

Here’s where to start to help seniors keep a clean and safe space:

Get rid of hazards 

Items that can trip seniors up include stacks of newspapers, loose cords and unsecured rugs, and these are some of the first things that need to go or be addressed, says Wong.

Professional organizer and family caregiver Carrie Kauffman recommends placing cord organizers beneath all electronics and lamps to keep them contained. 

She also stresses the importance of having slip-resistant pads underneath all rugs. That said, if a rug is truly a tripping hazard, you need to remove it and tell them why, she notes. “Whether it’s threads that are catching a walker or a loose corner that won’t stay down, let them know that it’s not that you don’t want them to have nice things, but you need them to be safe,” says Kauffman.

Dispose of expired food in the fridge and pantry 

When Kauffman visits her aging in-laws, she makes it a point to check the dates on items in the fridge, as well as for freezer burn on items in the freezer. Kauffman recommends doing this with your loved ones so they know what they are losing, especially if your older loved ones like shopping in bulk. 

“I like to remind them: ‘It’s not a sale if you buy it and it goes to waste,’” she says. Ditching expired goods not only ensures they don’t get sick from eating it, but makes the fridge, freezer and pantry easier to clean. 

“To really help seniors downsize, give them a reason why someone else needs it instead.”

— Carrie Kauffman, professional organizer and family caregiver

Donate items that are not being used 

To help seniors feel comfortable parting with extraneous items around the house, Kauffman recommends not speaking in terms of “throwing out” things.

“To really help seniors downsize, give them a reason why someone else needs it instead,” she explains. She suggests choosing a place to donate items that has a personal connection to them. “Whether it’s the veteran charity, a children’s hospital or the church they attend, it’s easier to part with things when we care about who is receiving them.” 

Give old rooms a new purpose 

As immediate family members move out and start families of their own, older adults can be left with spare rooms. “When there is no purpose for a space, it just becomes a place for things to go,” says Tanisha Lyons-Porter, a professional organizer and owner of Natural Born Organizers

To prevent clutter from gathering in vacant corners of the house, Lyons-Porter recommends coming up with new uses for old rooms. “Sit down and dream with them about what they wish they had,” she explains. “What activity would they like to have more space to do? It could be as simple as someone who loves plants turning a spare room into a sunroom full of plants. Then, suddenly, that room has a purpose other than collecting clutter.”

Designate set days for certain cleaning tasks 

“We find routines and schedules incredibly important in all aspects of caregiving life,” says caregiver Danielle DiBlasi, who has been caring for her father full-time for over four years. “Doing these things on set days helps him remember when he needs to do things and provide a general upkeep of his area so we don’t have to do everything on one day.” 

For example, DiBlasi, who runs the site The Stay at Home Daughter, has made Tuesday trash day for emptying the garbage bag from his used diaper pail, Wednesday is recycling day for clearing out all of the newspapers from his room and Monday, they do laundry together. If a senior loved one lives alone, you can still adopt this tip by creating a daily cleaning schedule and putting it on the fridge. 

Hire a monthly cleaning service 

Deep cleaning tasks are often the ones that require more physical effort and energy. As a caregiver, DiBlasi ensures these still get done without relying on her father or needing to do them on her own by having a cleaning person come to her home once a month to do a deep clean of her father’s room and bathroom.

How to help older adults get organized

With less clutter and a focus on items and areas of the house that get the most use, bringing order becomes far easier. Here are simple ways caregivers can help seniors get — and stay — organized.

Repair anything that is broken 

Whether it’s a loose cabinet hinge or a leaky dishwasher, fixing things that are no longer functioning properly is the number one place to start to help seniors get organized, according to Porter-Lyons. “Those little things lead to clutter in very indirect ways,” she says. “We then either add something else to make up for it or use another space to achieve what needs to get done.” 

To help seniors stay on top of addressing repairs, Porter-Lyons suggests printing a list of plumbers, carpenters and other maintenance workers and posting it in plain sight so it’s easily accessible. That way if something breaks, repairs are not put off.

“What activity would they like to have more space to do? Someone who loves plants may want to turn a spare room into a sunroom full of plants. Then, suddenly, that room has a purpose other than collecting clutter.”

—Tanisha Lyons-Porter, owner of natural born organizers

Store medications by user, dose and schedule 

When it comes to organizing medications for seniors, Kauffman encourages people to forgo the medicine cabinet and embrace labels and clear bins. “I label clear bins separately by name,” she says in regards to her mother-in-law and father-in-law who live together. “We also label the top of each medication.” 

For example, one label may read: “Take at 3 a.m. daily.” Group medications by schedule, keeping daily in the front of the bin, weekly behind it and so on. That way, seniors can see at a glance every morning what they need to take.

Prioritize everyday items 

Porter-Lyons believes the biggest mistake that leads to a cluttered space is feeling like you have to have everything that you use — now, tomorrow and possibly later — at the ready and within reach, which means out on countertops and other surfaces throughout your home, explains Porter-Lyons. 

To help seniors get organized, she recommends caregivers start by asking this question: What can’t you get through the day without looking for? 

“Everything else needs to be removed to simplify and keep life easier to maintain,” says Porter-Lyons. This should be done in every room of the house. For example, move only the clothes they wear most often to the front of the closet and only the ingredients they need to make a healthy meal to the counter.

Be sure essential items are visible 

If the person you are caring for has memory issues, keeping essentials easily accessible is even more important, stresses DiBlasi. “If a room is cluttered or items are not always found in the same reliable spot, seniors with memory issues will have a hard time finding necessary items, which will cause them stress,” says DiBlasi. 

In her experience, these are the top items to keep visible:

  • Cell phone. Seniors need to always be able to call someone if they need assistance. 
  • Cell phone chargers. “We keep multiple chargers around the house so he can charge it at any time depending on which room he’s in,” says DiBlasi.
  • A clock with the day of the week on it. Keeping track of days and time can get confusing for seniors so keeping one of these in the bedroom helps.
  • TV remote control. “We have a table next to my dad’s armchair where we always keep this so he doesn’t lose it,” says DiBlasi.

Label pantry and laundry room items 

Noticing her aging loved ones’ vision becoming more compromised, Kauffman took time to label everything in their home — from salt and sugar, to bleach and laundry detergent. Then, she placed items that could get mixed up far apart from each other.

“We added bold labels to be sure they can see the difference, and it really does make a difference,” Kauffman says. “Those large print labels that we put in the pantry are some of the things that my father in-law appreciates the most.”

Streamline linen and bedroom closets 

You might clear out items that seniors aren’t using on a weekly basis. This not only cuts down on the amount of laundry that will need to be done but also ensures it can’t pile up. “Minimalism is the key,” says Kauffman. “They don’t need 15 sets of towels and a closet full of clothes anymore.” 

“Minimalism is the key. They don’t need 15 sets of towels and a closet full of clothes anymore.”

—Carrie Kauffman, professional organizer and family caregiver

Create a portable mail file 

From Medicare to supplemental insurance and healthcare notices, seniors get a lot of important information through the mail. Kauffman suggests creating a folder or file for every senior in the home to store all the mail that comes with their name on it. This ensures important documents stay together and don’t get lost, and makes it easier for caregivers to be sure no important correspondence is missed since they can easily check the file when visiting. 

​​How to know when to help your senior loved one with cleaning and organization

If you’re still unsure if it’s time to step in and help an older loved one with tidying up or decluttering, consider the following red flags shared by DiBlasi:

  • They wear the same outfit multiple days in a row.
  • Their hygiene is noticeably in need of attention.
  • They are telling you they can’t find important items or you notice they are regularly missing must-haves like glasses, hearing aids, etc.
  • They are missing trash day, and trash is accumulating at the house.
  • They are not opening their mail and may have overdue bills.
  • Their lawn is not cared for as well as it once was.

If your loved one is in need of help, it can be challenging to insert yourself. “I recommend having a conversation with them about how they think things are going and asking them how you could best support them,” says DiBlasi.

Start by trying the steps above. “If things don’t change for the better, you will need to be more proactive about providing assistance for them.”

Here a few ways to provide extra assistance:

Hire a housekeeping service 

For older adults who can no longer do all the chores around the house and cannot downsize to a senior assisted living facility, caregivers should look for a reputable housekeeping service, says Kriebel-Gasparro. This will keep clutter at bay and ensure the most frequented parts of the house are being cleaned regularly.

Create a network of support. 

DiBlasi strongly recommends forming a plan with siblings or other caregivers to create a team of people who understands the extra support needed for your aging loved one. Then you can delegate tasks. “Not having a strong plan with other siblings can be the source of a lot of grief with children of seniors needing care,” she notes.

Set up a grocery or meal delivery service 

Most grocery stores now provide home delivery — either through their own apps or an app like Instacart that allows users to order from an array of local retailers. If your aging loved one is no longer able to get out to the store on a weekly basis and has a habit of letting bulk food buys go to waste, consider ordering the foods they eat on a regular basis from their favorite grocer or consider meal delivery services.

What to keep in mind when helping a senior keep their home clean

The experts we spoke with agree that adopting a minimalist living approach is best for helping seniors keep their home clean and organized. The first best step: Get rid of hazardous and unneeded items. Then, focus on creating organizational systems. Both moves will result in a happier, healthier household.