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What is “death cleaning?”

By, Kate Eller, health enews, a news service from Advocate Health Care

Some people call it purging; some decluttering, and others minimalizing, but in Sweden, they call it death cleaning.

Well, actually they call it dostadning, which is a hybrid of the words for death and cleaning.

The purpose?

Cleaning out your house before you die so others don’t have to after you are gone.

While it may sound morbid to some, to others, it’s a way of not burdening their children or other loved ones.

In her new book called The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, Swedish author and artist Margareta Magnusson describes the process as “more like a relief” than being morbid and says the cleaning brings benefits you can appreciate while you’re still enjoying life – like a clean, uncluttered and streamlined house.

“Generally, people have too many things in their homes,” says Magnusson in a YouTube video posted by the book’s publisher. “I think it’s a good thing to get rid of things you don’t need.”

Magnusson says people should start thinking about death cleaning as soon as they’re old enough to start thinking about their own mortality.

Geriatric Medicine specialist Dr. Willam D. Rhoades, with Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill., agrees with the author’s philosophy on not keeping things you don’t want or use, and says there are multiple benefits to letting go of these extraneous possessions. These include:

  • Decreasing stress levels: Studies have shown that messy houses can increase anxiety and stress and decrease productivity
  • Knowing where everything is: It’s easier to lose important items like bills and medications when there is too much clutter in the home, which also contributes to stress and anxiety
  • Safety: Seniors are much more susceptible to falls and breaking bones; that risk is exacerbated with a house full of stuff
  • Reducing allergies: Having too much stuff also increases the likelihood for allergens and mold in your home
  • The joy of giving: Items you no longer need or use can help younger relatives who are just starting out or can be given to friends who will put items to use. However, be prepared that others may turn down some of your gifts
  • Tax breaks: When you donate your possessions, it can help decrease your tax burden if you itemize those donations
  • Passing on family history: When families are engaged together in reducing possessions, certain items are likely to spark conversations about memories and ancestors, which can promote family bonding and help to pass down family history

Many people are already death cleaning – they just don’t call it that. One increasingly popular way is through downsizing, the process of letting go of possessions and moving from large homes, where children were raised, to smaller homes, condos or apartments, to decrease housing expenses, move closer to grandchildren or warmer weather or transition from the suburbs into the city.

If you want to help your parents with the process of death cleaning, Dr. Rhoades suggests that a more gentle approach than “we want to help you clean out your stuff before you die” will be more likely to get aging parents on board.

He suggests broaching the conversation by highlighting the benefits. For example, “Would you like help organizing your belongings so your house is a more enjoyable and safer place to live?”

“If not initially receptive, you may need to have multiple conversations over time to help parents warm up to the idea,” says Dr. Rhoades. However, he notes, some people may never be receptive. If a loved one’s home is indeed a safety hazard, you may want to call in an expert who specializes in hoarding. The National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO) is a good place to start.

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