Grandpa with Christmas lights

How to Help Your Parents Clean Up After the Holidays (Without Arguing About It)

Our homes can feel a little cramped in the days after Christmas. Crawlspaces are overwhelmed by unused wrapping paper, guest rooms are stacked with gifts, greeting cards have taken over the living room, and the fridge overflows with leftovers.

And when adult children and young families make the trip home for the holidays, it’s grandma’s house that absorbs all of this clutter. Of course, being the responsible children they are, their first instinct is to pitch in and help with the cleanup.

This is where a source of tension arises in many families.

The instigation is innocent enough. Imagine a well-meaning son, with an armload of unused gift wrap, heading down into the basement to stow it away for next year. Moments later, the family hears him call out: “Dad, do you really need these copies of Popular Mechanics from 1983?”

His father, hearing a little judgment in the question, calls back: “Well, you never know when you need to look something up.”

This is a critical moment.

The son, having mentally prepared for the idea that one day he will have to help care for his father, sees the old magazine stack as a problem that needs fixing. The father, ever-cautious about patronizing remarks and the independence he concedes if he gives into them, is ready to fight for his old magazines.

The holidays have a funny way of exposing these fault lines. Maybe the son is overstuffed from Christmas dinner, and maybe his partner and their children are feeling a little cooped up in a house where the sleeping arrangements are tight and the bathroom is always occupied. And maybe his father has exhausted all of the energy he had stored up to play host, and now he’s looking forward to reading a book quietly by the fire.

Against this backdrop, it would be easy for this single, mostly innocent back-and-forth exchange to escalate.

This article was written to help you and your family avoid such an escalation. Here are three tips to keep in mind during the post-holiday cleanup that should keep everyone from arguing.

Watch the Criticism

As the scene above illustrates, something as innocuous as a stack of magazines can mean very different things to older parents and their adult children. To the older parents, those magazines represent an ability to continue living life on their terms, quirky as those terms might be.

Claire Berman at The Atlantic has a thoughtful and fantastic piece on her experiences (and her friends’ experiences) with children who come by “to check in on mom and dad.”

“My husband and I have taken to checking the due dates of groceries prior to a visit from any of our three sons,” Berman writes. “They’ve even got the grandkids going through my spice cabinet. For them it’s a game, except I don’t feel like playing. Ten years ago, I probably would have joined in the fun. Now I’m more sensitive to being criticized.”

Keep that sensitivity in mind when helping your parents clean up their homes after the holidays. Odds are good that they made similar comments to their own parents once upon a time. Now, they understand why their own parents got defensive when they volunteered to throw away something that seemed worthless to them.

Instead of making quick keep-or-toss decisions, use the opportunity as a chance to bond, says wealth manager Michael Andersen, who has seen plenty of family tensions arise over children misunderstanding the value their parents place on certain possessions.

“Emotions can flare when you are sorting a lifetime of belongings,” Andersen writes. “Listening to your parents’ stories and reminiscing can help you get to know your parents better and know the story of their past from their perspective rather than your own.”

Messy garage

Help Your Parents Identify What Is Real Clutter

That said, it’s fine to instigate a declutter project now, while there are plenty of hands on deck to help. The keys are to ensure you approach this project sympathetically and to get clear approval from your parents.

Once you have the green light, the team at Everplans has an excellent method for sorting through the clutter. They suggest dividing things into a handful of piles:

  1. A “Keep” pile for sentimental items
  2. An “Appraise and Sell” pile for unwanted things that have monetary value
  3. A “Donate” pile for anything unwanted

The “Donate” pile is the easiest, so start there. Professional organizer Candi Ruppert recommends that all of her clients donate or throw away the following:

  • Greeting cards, magazines, and newspapers with no historical significance
  • Old Tupperware, appliances with frayed cords, and cookbooks
  • Flower delivery vases
  • Plastic souvenir cups and empty Cool Whip bowls. Trust me: Your aging parents have these.
  • Your school papers, textbooks, and every drawing you ever did. Keep your diploma. Let the rest of it go.
  • 80% of the stuff stored in the garage
  • Clothing that hasn’t been worn in decades

If your parents hesitate about letting go of any of these items—especially the schoolwork or the old print media—offer to take a photo of those things “for nostalgic viewing later on,” Emma Dickison at caregiver organization Home Helpers writes.

For the “Appraise and Sell” pile, have a look at our post on selling furniture online. The tips there will show you how to get the fairest price for any valuable items you would like to sell.

For the “Keep” pile, the key is to make sure everything has a place, is organized, and is easily accessible. That’s what our third tip is all about.

Organizing with folders

Safely Store What They Want to Keep

If your parents have a basement, they may already be in the habit of storing things down there. But basements clutter quickly, so the post-holiday cleanup is a good time to give this storage space a little structure.

Eileen Roth and Elizabeth Miles, authors of Organizing For Dummies, provide a handy cheat sheet for what belongs in the basement and how best to organize those things:

  • Luggage with smaller pieces in front rather than nested inside larger suitcases
  • Home office supplies on shelves or in clear containers
  • Paperwork, such as tax records and product warranties in boxes, on high shelves to protect them from flooding
  • Hobby and craft supplies in clear containers
  • Holiday and party supplies, like serving bowls and extra dishes, on shelves
  • Bulk food and paper supplies like napkins and paper towels on shelves

While decluttering, you will probably come across treasure troves of photos. If these aren’t organized but tucked away in a box or drawer somewhere, now is a good time to edit and give the most-loved photos a home. Kim Anderson at the Thrifty Little Mom blog has a great system for organizing such photos:

  1. Sort photos by categories that make sense to you: Photos of family, photos of friends, holiday photos, etc.
  2. Toss photos where you don’t recognize the people or the context.
  3. Buy a handful of photo albums—maybe one for each category you’ve created.
  4. Take some time to slot the photos. When everyone is on hand to help, this is a good time to tell family stories.

Finally, if there is anything left in the “Keep” pile that doesn’t fit anywhere in your parents’ home, consider offering to keep it for them. This might include family heirlooms, your dad’s old toolbox, or cherished holiday decorations, Carol Bradley Bursack writes at “Yes, you’ll be adding to your own storage problems, but it should help your parents significantly if they know that their precious keepsakes are being preserved,” she says.

Bursack’s point actually speaks to the needs of seniors who are downsizing in preparation for a move to assisted living. This may not be a top-of-mind concern for your family as you’re cleaning up after the holidays. But if your family has begun to realize that a parent is struggling to age independently at home, have a look at our guide to the five difficult questions families must ask themselves when considering assisted living options.

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