‘We don’t want our cupboards to be like old people’s cupboards,’ declared a friend of mine, the other day. I instantly visualised what she meant as I and my brother had, at the end of each of my parents’ lives, got to grips with their cupboards. They were both pack rats extraordinaire, their cupboards stuffed with ancient and, to our eyes, many useless things.
My friend and her partner are in their late 60s and thinking about their end of lives. They’re in a kind of preparing-for-it way that will give their children least practical difficulty in managing their (the parents) eventual end.
They’ve taken several steps like getting Power of Attorney, writing wills, leaving medical instructions, sorting out finances, and so on. These are the kind of things covered by standard ‘end of life planning’ checklists available from Age UK, Marie Curie, and others.
However, these checklists don’t cover cupboards, shelves, and other storage spaces! Maybe that’s an omission and they should, because when someone dies there is the practical question of ‘How do I deal with their stuff’. The question also arises if you are helping an older person downsize from the place they’ve lived in for years to a smaller place or care home. Older people may have a lot of stuff, accumulated over years, and it may be in lots of different places – house, car, garage, storage unit, caravan … Take a look at George Carlin’s spiel on ‘Stuff’ and you’ll get the idea on what you might be dealing with.
Focusing on cupboards, there are lots of them, even in a small place with what seems like little storage – bathroom cupboards, kitchen cupboards, bedroom wardrobes, airing cupboards, understairs cupboards, living room cupboards …
If my mother and father are anything to go by, encouraging someone else to clear their cupboards and get rid of stuff, in my experience, leads to resistance. Or maybe I just don’t frame the encouragement in the right way.
It was from my helping them clear cupboards that I noticed the five types of things that people have in their cupboards:
First things that may come in useful someday – stashes of silver foil, bits of string, elastic bands, miscellaneous screws, buttons, paper bags, and such like.
Second, things that have sentimental currency – a lucky charm, a birthday card from someone special (I still have the card my dad sent me on my tenth birthday which was 60 years ago), the outfit worn to some significant event.
Third, more perishable things that are half finished – tins of dried up shoe polish, a jar of bay leaves past the sell by date, the medication for a long cured ailment.
Fourth, things that have been useful but have been superseded by an updated version – a reel to reel tape recorder, a Sinclair ZX 81 computer, a heavy rubber torch with batteries (seal perished on this one).
Fifth, things which are useful and usable and you buy more of ‘just in case’ you run out at the critical moment. We were amused to discover my father’s supply of a large stash of brandy – several boxes of 12 bottles each – in the boot of his car. And his ‘two of everything’ mentality – I guess in case he lost the one in use.
I also noticed that old people’s cupboards (i.e. my parents’) were a mass of unsorted, random items, tossed in higgledy-piggledy. There was no clear organisation of like objects e.g. socks or toiletries. There were no cupboard organisers to help either.
I’m rather hard on all of this disorganised hoarding, accumulating and pack-ratting. My ideal (unachievable) is to be able to live with a bowl and a spoon and nothing more than a small suitcase of stuff. I have a monthly ritual of discarding 9 items. It’s a ritual that started a few years ago with a feng shui challenge of discarding 27 items for 9 days, which I found alarmingly easy and taught me how much I’d accumulated. I then adapted it to the nine items per month I do now. Although I still haven’t ditched the birthday card mentioned earlier, but that may come as over the last few years I’ve discarded a lot, and it’s getting harder to keep on doing it, but I’m still managing.
I’ve been helped by Marie Kondo’s book The Life Changing Habit of Tidying, which I know annoys a lot of people. But I’ve adopted several of her tips – I like the sock one. And I’m constantly telling myself ‘don’t put it down put it away’, as I hate spending ages looking for something I know is somewhere in the house.
My mother thought all this was dotty and couldn’t see why I was obsessed with tidying and getting rid of stuff. Now I think about it, I’ve realised three things:
First, her attitude was understandable. She came from an era – the 1920s depression – and an early life of extreme poverty when anything might have a value and could ‘come in useful’. That almost scavenger or re-use mindset is not to be scoffed at. We’re all getting closer to it again – I just read an article about the huge growth in the reselling of second-hand clothing, and look at the advent of apps link Olio, Freecycle, and Vinted.
Second, although she, and my father, had what could be called ‘old people’s cupboards’ (as they were both over 80), actually the label doesn’t really work. It is not only old people who have disorganised, cluttered, untidy cupboards, full of stuff they could easily discard without discomfort. People of any age can have them.
Third, you can’t encourage people out of the habit of ‘old people’s cupboards’. Whatever their age – they have to make the choice to de-clutter and organise. What looked like useless stuff to me, might hold a precious memory for my mother. I’m learning to suspend judgement on another person’s hold/discard choices. (This frequently comes into play when I think my grandchild’s toy is long outgrown and ripe to be passed on and they don”t).
Although I want to have the minimum of stuff for my children to dispose of when I die, they might miss out on the type of conversations that my brother and I had such fun with as we sorted through our parents’ stuff. We found things like the embroidered tray cloth used in our first family home (I think I’d embroidered it in my school needlework class), the letters we’d sent during our travelling teens, and my mother’s jumbo bag full of single gloves.
Do you think ‘old people’s cupboards’ are something to avoid? Do you think ‘old people’s cupboards’ are specifically different from younger people’s cupboards? Let me know.