Decluttering in Retirement (or at Any Age) Frees Space and the Soul

Whether you do it yourself or hire a pro, letting go of unneeded possessions is liberating for you and your heirs.

Death cleaning, a common practice in Sweden, sounds harsh. But the purpose of dostadning is to ease the burden on relatives and friends by getting rid of your stuff now, instead of leaving them to deal with your clutter after you die.

Margareta Magnusson explains the custom in her new book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning (Scribner, $19). An artist who gives her age as between “80 and 100,” Magnusson recommends age 65 as a good age to start. “Maybe you have to downsize your home for some reason, maybe you have become single or perhaps you need to move to a nursing home. These situations tend to affect most of us,” she says.

However, you don’t need to be staring down death to create more breathing room in your life. The practice is liberating at any age, says Virginia Onufer, 52, of Chevy Chase, Md., a writer who works from home. Recently, Onufer, with the help of a professional organizer, cleared her 1,800-square-foot house of 30 tall kitchen bags stuffed with kitchen equipment, Christmas decorations, linens and clothing.

“Acknowledging that outer order contributes to inner calm gives me the commitment to keep going,” Onufer says. With her daughters away at school, she and her husband are contemplating a house move, and they don’t want to bring their unneeded stuff along.

While a professional organizer can be expensive, Onufer says hiring one saved her time and aggravation. Ellen Delap, president of the National Association of Productivity & Organizing Professionals, says that many professional organizers will cart off your items at the end of a session, help you donate and sell items, and “give you a gentle push to get rid of more.” About half of her clients at in Kingwood, Tex., are 50 or older.

Professionals also supply stamina. “Most people can declutter on their own for an hour or two before running out of steam. It involves a lot of decision-making,” Delap says.

Costs vary by region and job, but hourly fees typically range from $75 to $150, says Delap, who charges $225 for three hours. Lisa Mark, of The Time Butler in Los Altos, Calif., charges $125 an hour, and $50 to $75 an hour for her assistants. She says 80% of her clients are 50 or older, and most of those are 55 to 70.

Divide and Conquer Clutter

Typically, decluttering takes at least 10 to 20 hours. Mark estimates that a three-bedroom, 1,600-square-foot house with an average amount of clutter will take five to 10 sessions lasting three to six hours each. Delap, who works in three-hour chunks, says a closet may take two sessions, while a garage may take three or four sessions.

Many organizers start by dividing items by category, starting with big objects such as exercise equipment and furniture to gain momentum. Small sentimental items, such as letters and photos, take a long time to sort through and should be done last.

It helps to envision the end result, such as closets you can open without an avalanche. “There’s a lot of guilt in throwing out unused stuff, but take the lesson from it,” Onufer says. “I threw away a lot of clothing I bought in outlets. Lesson: I want fewer, lovelier things.” She and her daughters each have a clear plastic “memory box” to preserve the most important mementos, such as report cards, art projects and letters.

If you are decluttering by yourself, Mark advises setting a timer for 20 to 30 minutes. Decluttering gets easier every time “because it’s reinforcing, and you realize you don’t miss what’s gone,” says Onufer.

Among the many rewards of decluttering is clearing out mental space. “Clutter is delayed decisions. How does that serve your life goals?” says Mark. After a good session, “a client will often tell me she feels like she lost 100 pounds. There’s a mental weight to clutter. Without it, you can focus on whatever is most meaningful to you.” That aligns well with what the Swedes have already learned about the life-affirming aspects of death cleaning.

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