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The older we get, the harder it is to downsize and declutter. Memories are strong with the piano your kids took lessons on when they were little, or the suits you (or your father) wore to work ten years ago. You may not be sure when to throw away old bank and credit card statements, medical records, and tax filings.

But what I’ve learned is that as our kids transition into the role of caregivers, helping manage a house full of stuff takes a tremendous amount of time, and creates stress.The legacy that a parent hoped to leave a child instead has the potential to damage their careers, mental well-being, and home lives.

The Cost of the Stuff

Having spent 16 years helping families downsize and declutter estates, I’ve noticed that apart from the grief, sorting through the stuff is the hardest thing families face. In my experience, it’s the single biggest source of stress.

Now, I finally have the data to back me up.

We recently surveyed 1,010 men and women who’d helped settle an estate, or assisted an elderly loved one with relocating or downsizing in the past five years. They told us that decluttering, sorting, and cleaning out the house demanded more of their attention than any other caregiving or estate duty. Furthermore, dealing with “the stuff” required them to make more decisions than paperwork, finances, or even selling the house.

In most instances, that decision-making includes other family members –60 percent of caregivers named “having to deal with family members” as the most stressful aspect of the process.

Careers and Families Suffer

Meanwhile, nine out of ten career-aged caregivers reported having to take time off from their jobs and family to help someone downsize and declutter a house. Of those, about 18 percent said taking time from work was their biggest stressor, with 16 percent citing losing time with family as theirs.

About half of the caregivers we surveyed had to travel long distances to deal with the estate. They took significant time off from work—with 47 percent losing several hours per week, and more than 13 percent needing extended leave. Furthermore, they missed valuable recharge time with their families.

Coupled with a lack of preparation, the stress can quickly build. Almost 70 percent of caregivers told us they were surprised by the responsibilities of managing the estate, or felt completely unprepared. Two out of every ten admitted they had “no clue where to start.”

As a result, for caregivers dealing with excess stuff, the stress of managing an estate can easily become overwhelming. I’ve seen it push marriages onto the rocks, sever sibling relationships, cause problems at work, and even trigger depression.

Downsize and Declutter Now

The bright side of all this is that preemptive downsizing and decluttering, or even a few conversations, can help solve the problem. Here are some ways to help prevent this stress for your family.

  • Try to declutter one room at a time, using my Four Pile Sort Method
  • Ask your family members what items are meaningful to them, and consider passing them on now.
  • If you aren’t ready to give away items yet, mark them to go to their future home.

It’s true that downsizing and decluttering takes time and energy. However, if you invest in cleaning up now, you can save your kids from suffering unnecessary—and potentially damaging—stress in the future.

Get Our Helpful Downsizing Checklist

Matt Paxton headshot

Matt Paxton is an industry expert on extreme cleaning, appearing on TV's HOARDERS for eight seasons. He specializes in estate cleanup and helping families find and identify high-value possessions.


At Legacy Navigator we work with families in transition. We can empty an entire house within days, sorting what items to keep, sell, donate, and discard. Our employees pack and move everything, then prepare the house for sale. Call us for a free consultation.

Our advice is based on our experience cleaning out and settling estates for our clients. Each project is different, and each state's laws are different. We always recommend that you consult personally with experts about your particular situation before making any important decisions.

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