cleaning parent's (abandoned) home

funkillFebruary 20, 2008

Hoping some of you can help!!! This weekend I (and 5 volunteers) are going to my mom's townhouse to clean out her stuff so that it can be sold. My mom, who has dementia, has been in assisted living for almost a year - and has never mentioned a word about her home or any of her belongings. She will go to a nursing home soon.... and, because she was such a poor housekeeper, there is TONS of crap piled high. Some is her stuff, some her parents - most in various states of disrepair or deterioration. Add to that cat puke, insect skeletons and the stench of heavy smoking and it's really *unplesant*.

My goal this weekend is to place unwanted personal items (clothing, nick-nacks, linens, etc) in black trash bags and then pack items that I want into rubbermaid containers.

Do you have any suggestions on what else I need to account for and other items (beside trash bags) to take with us to start this process? I plan to hire professionals to clean and remove the trash.... Thanks for your thoughts - time to roll up my sleeves. I don't think there are many *treasures* to be found as most of the stuff has been picked through by her lovely (NOT) acquaintenances who took advantage prior to my intervention......

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Oh my, what a job to have. Here is what comes to mind:

Work gloves (and extras for volunteers who don't come prepared)
Heavy duty rubber gloves
Lysol spray
Bug spray
Tool kit with hammer, screw drivers, mallet, pliers
Hand cleaner, paper towels
Pizza delivery phone number
Cooler with drinks
Roll of toilet paper
First aid kit

    Bookmark   February 20, 2008 at 4:41PM
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I'm sorry you have to do this. Take rubber gloves, leather gloves, a few face masks that you can buy at the drug store. You'll be kicking up lots of dust. A case of bottled water. Empty boxes will be useful for trash. Not everything works well in a bag. Tape to seal. Marker to label it trash. You don't want someone accidentally putting things in your vehicle when it should go to the dump. Pre-tape a big sheet of paper for a label on the rubbermaid containers so that you can note items in there if need be. Go ahead and bring a broom and dustpan. You may want to clean a little bit as you work so that you aren't shoving tons of dust aside. Decide if you need a separate trash box/bag for the hazardous stuff that usually can't go in the regular trash. Solvents, paints, etc. Maybe a small toolbox with screwdrivers, hammers, etc. You never know what you might need.

I would establish a couple of staging areas. Maybe the bedroom or a dining area. Decide where you are going to start putting the bags of trash in a different location. Things you want to keep in the dining room. This may mean you need to clean out one room first, but I would do that or you will just play shuffle the crap all over the place. Are you going to donate anything? Have a spot for that stuff.

I would try and assign people rooms or spaces to work on. One person could do the bathroom. One could begin clearing out kitchen cabinets. Assign closets to people. Have them quickly look through pockets or items like purses to check for cash or jewelry. If you know of anything you might be trying to save, have those items listed on a piece of paper and tape on the wall in a central location so you don't get asked over and over "do you want this?"

I would have everyone put papers together in a central location so that you can sort them later. You may need some of those items like military papers, life insurance you don't know about, old bank numbers. Have them put photographs aside in one place.

Be prepared for this to take longer than you think it might. Good luck and buy those friends some pizza.


    Bookmark   February 20, 2008 at 5:05PM
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I would also suggest dust masks. Sometimes houses in that condition could trigger allergic reactions.

Good luck

    Bookmark   February 20, 2008 at 5:06PM
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From your description, I think renting a dumpster would be $ well spent. It's so much easier to deal with the trash when you have a huge metal box to dump it into.

    Bookmark   February 20, 2008 at 5:54PM
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Those are some really great ideas - thank you so much. Over the past few years I asked her to let me help get rid of some stuff, but she wouldn't have it.... rather than spend time arguing, I let it go so we could spend time together. I'd just stand by the sliding doors and crack them so I could breath.... I didn't realize how bad her condition was until the last few months --- what a nightmare her world was. Thankfully, she still doesn't recognize that.

I'm having a sinking feeling that it will take longer than a day. But having some help with the first crack by some of my friends sure will be nice. I am thankful for them "stepping up to the plate". It seems we try to get together for lunch every month or so and never seem to get around to it - but they're really being supportive to help me now.

Thanks again for the lists of goods... things I hadn't even considered. It would be great if I could work this one day without needing to take 20 trips to the hardware store!!!

    Bookmark   February 20, 2008 at 7:44PM
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you know, I can certainly understand why your friends would help w/ this.

I know that I would; it would give us something to do together, I'd feel good that I was helping you and your mom, and bcs of th eone-shot nature of the problem, etc., I wouldn't in the least feel taken advantage of, or anything. I wouldn't want to be paid back (well, I'd want you to buy me pizza and root beer, and maybe let me pick the music we play while we work)

When there is a concrete, distinct way we can help our friends, many of us are glad of that.

Good luck!

    Bookmark   February 20, 2008 at 8:55PM
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I second the dumpster idea. You might also want to think about the following

1) a giant "FREE" sign
You'll find some stuff that isn't trash, would be a hassle to get to charity... stick them out at the end of the driveway next to a "FREE" sign and they'll disappear

2) Camera. You'll find some really wacky stuff that you just HAVE to take a picture of!

3) Vacuum cleaner. When you clear those spaces to use as staging areas, you'll probably want to vacuum the floor first.

4) If you're doing charity donations, paper and pencil to note what they are as you bag them. You can tape the paper and pencil to the wall to make it easier for people. This will come in handy for your mother's taxes.

Also, call around and find out your local charities' donation hours. Or schedule a pickup.

5) Craigslist/Freecycle
With the "FREE" stuff, it can help to get a larger audience. If you put an ad up in the "Free" section of craigslist with a note as to your location, things disappear. This also works with Freecycle. Post a picture of the item too, if you can. We disappeared a lot of random stuff--spare sinks or broken garden gazebo, anyone?-- this way.

    Bookmark   February 21, 2008 at 10:05AM
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It's a miserable job. You're lucky to have the helpers, and I'm sure they are happy to do it.

One day? Wow! That's a high-powered team you've assembled!

Be prepared to answer a million little questions, though, about what to do with things. It's awfully hard to tell about someone else's things. When I did my mom's, a huge hank of red hair fell out of a crumpled, disintigrating newspaper from 1935! It was her great-grandma's hair, and why they kept it, I'll never know!

And be sure you look for valuables in odd places (old coat pockets, inside teapots, under drawer liners, taped to the bottoms of drawers), and paperwork that should have been filed a long time ago.

Let us know any surprises you may find, and good luck!


    Bookmark   February 21, 2008 at 10:11AM
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(((HUGS))) I'm constantly decluttering my house because I don't want to leave something like this for my kids.


    Bookmark   February 21, 2008 at 10:30AM
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My friend Charlene had to clean out her parents' apartment after both died within months of each other. She spent a whole weekend. She told me it was the hardest work she ever did. I will not leave a mess for my kids!

    Bookmark   February 21, 2008 at 2:10PM
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This isn't exactly what you asked, but it will assist you with future organizational issues. It's better to prepare now so when the time comes you don't realize there were some things you should not have disposed of during the clean-up.

From your post it sounds as though you are the one who is responsible for your mother's affairs. Depending on the arrangement, you will have legal obligations regarding current and future issues involving your mother's care and her estate.

When she passes, depending on her will (or lack thereof) there will be documents you will want to make sure you preserve (especially if someone isn't happy with their inheritance or wasn't provided for in her will or there are tax issues).

I don't want to sound all "doom and gloom", but I've had many friends who've said "my family would never fight about what mom/dad left" and when the time comes, all those issues from childhood come to the surface and are thrown into the emotional soup along with current job stress, spousal opinions and the like. It's enough to make anyone want to run for the hills, unless you are responsible for the estate, then you are stuck with the mess.

I strongly suggest you speak with an attorney familiar with your mother's affairs to make sure you don't do anything that could have unintended consequences (there could be provisions in her will of leaving items to beneficiaries you do not consider of value and under all other circumstances would toss in the trash). You also to find out what papers you are to keep (cancelled checks, tax returns, financial information, etc.).

If you are able to have your siblings help with the clean-up, you can make sure you don't throw out the cake platter your sister has fond memories of from her birthday parties when she was a little girl and wanted as a keepsake. This will help avoid the "you knew I wanted that WHY did you throw it out" scenario.

Since your mom has dementia, be sure to open EVERYTHING. You will be amazed at where someone who suffers from dementia will put items - especially those of value. There's a chance she has a safe deposit box and if so, you want to try to find the key. I had a friend who found the key to her mom's safe deposit box in a crumpled brown paper sack in the back of a bedroom closet.

Your post mentioned that others have already picked through your mom's things (I am amazed at what some people will do). I would also mention this to the attorney just in case at some point you have to account for an item someone else took...... I would especially make sure her financial documents (if they were stored there) are found - depending on who went through her things, you might want to make sure no one has tried to access her accounts. And also the issue of identity theft.

If you were able to gather all the documents when your mom went into assisted living, you will be ahead of the game.

I wish you luck with your task and hope your mom makes a smooth transition to the nursing home. You are a wonderful daughter for doing this - it isn't an easy thing to do.

    Bookmark   February 21, 2008 at 2:58PM
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Just thought I'd mention the books and papers. Be sure to "fan" all the books since a lot of people hide money in the pages. My son found almost a thousand dollars when helping clean an older persons home. Be sure to check behind the drapes too sometimes they pin expensive jewelry to the backs to prevent burglaries. check all pockets and unzip zippers on those purses. He also bought a golf bag at a thrift store and later after he moved he found a diamond tennis bracelet in the pocket of the bag.

    Bookmark   February 21, 2008 at 10:24PM
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Everyone has given you such good suggestions! Two that I didn't see were: good marking pen & extra vacuum cleaner bags and possibly an extra vacuum cleaner belt.

Good luck with your endeavor! And as for checking for hidden cash and or gems: check the insides of shoes and containers (tins) before tossing them out.

    Bookmark   February 22, 2008 at 1:19PM
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I feel for you.
A few years back we had to clear out my Aunt's house, that had been in the family for 80 years, and not lived in for the last five. It took my partner and I over four months of evenings and weekends, but helped enormously in the process of moving on.

A radio kept me company many evenings, as I poured over the piled up "collectables". I had to check everything, never knowing if a ball of saran wrap stuffed in a paper bag would contain toothpicks and buttons, or a 90 year old diamond ring worth thousands. (Literally, I'm wearing the ring as I type!)
Additional places we found treasures - UNDER furniture (over 100 bearer bonds going back to the thirties),and inside the piano(cash).
Other items that came in handy - a first aid kit with lots of band-aids and antiseptic cream.
Good luck!

    Bookmark   February 22, 2008 at 2:00PM
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I second the idea of fanning books, checking coat pockets, etc. When we cleaned out my grandparents house, we found about $2000 in cash stashed in various odd places all throughout the house.

This is also a time to not be sentimental. If you are think you might be the type to not want to throw things away, you might want to consider the camera idea mentioned above...but for the purpose of taking photos of objects you might otherwise have wanted to save. Remind yourself you really don't want the stuff (clutter) to just want the memory associated with it.

I would also suggest assigning tasks to your friends in rooms/areas of the house where they will not be constantly coming to you to ask if you want to keep something. Bathrooms, kitchen, or other specific areas where you know everything just needs to GO and get cleaned are where the help needs to be.

    Bookmark   February 23, 2008 at 9:01AM
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Clean the bathroom as soon as you get there! You'll need it during the course of the day and you want it to be in a condition that you can use. Next, clean a space where you can set up lunch. Then move on to the rest of it.

Before you go over, make sure that the electricity, water, heat, etc. is turned on. If it's not, you'll need to make plans.

Make sure ALL family members know what you're doing. There are legal repercussions for getting rid of your mother's things. You mention that other people have already cleared out some your mother's valuables. Make sure no one has any opening to accuse you of taking anything. Make sure that everyone is informed and has given their consent to avoid any future problems.

Hmmm... just realized you were planning on doing the work this weekend. These suggestions may be too late.

Well, if you're done already, I hope it went well. Do post again and let us know how it went.

    Bookmark   February 23, 2008 at 8:51PM
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By now you may be all through, but I second the question about whether you are including the contents of the house as part of your mother's financial resources which you might need to help manage her care, so that you can maximize them if possible. Frequently, a lot of that "junk" has surprising monetary value as vintage items (mostly if there are a LOT of items, not necessarily because any one thing is worth zillions)-- but of course, has to be sold in some way, such as through an estate sale, which you can only do once things are cleaned up, which takes more than one visit or trip, etc. Another option is if you had contact with an "antique"/vintage flea market vendor through whom you could sell things on consignment. You would have a better idea of this after you get into the house and see whether there is mostly trash, or still a lot of useful household goods, that you might set all in one area and make a final decision once you've gone through everything. But, you might decide that's not feasible, and therefore getting the house on the market and sold is the only reasonable focus.

    Bookmark   February 24, 2008 at 12:58PM
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Well this may be late as well but if not I suggest taking a paper/document shredder. For obvious reasons of course.
A friend had to clean out her grandmothers home- turns out she threw away the credit cards she thought were useless- they fell into the wrong hands and she had a huge hassle of identity theft to clear up as well.

    Bookmark   February 25, 2008 at 6:49PM
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Done! Thanks for all your suggestions - many of the ideas really helped. And we only needed to make one run to the store - for more bubble wrap.

Unfortunately, I was so overwhelmed by the amount of volunteers and the craze that started when we all arrived that I did not give very good instructions to what to save or put aside. I am certain that some *treasures* were disposed of.... but I'm trying not to get too upset over it. After all, those tiny items would have probably just been transfered to a rubbermaid tote and stored (and forgotten about again) for years...

I am the only relative - except for some far removed cousins. So, thankfully, there's no concerns about inheritances. And I did get all of her financial stuff out of the house a year ago when I accepted guardianship. Most of the papers left in her home were exceptionally old (some phone bills from 1972) and paperwork from school (as she was a teacher). I bet there were items with some personal info disposed of improperly (though I bought a shredder), but again - I'm trying not to worry about that. My volunteer friends probably were not as conscientious as I would have been - but without their help, I wouldn't have gotten through that day!!! We did finish in 5 hours - can you believe that? 9 people, 1 dumpster and $98 worth of breakfast! We did not clean a thing - just ridded the place of her personal belongings. The only things left are large peices of furniture. Everything else was either smoke/nicotine filled or in a state of disrepair (i.e. small appliances). And, being the only relative, I did not have the wherewithall to clean, box and transport much to charities. Between being a single mom and having a full time job, volunteer at the hospital, caring for foster pets and school, I have little time to get donations to appropriate places. My friends convinced me to reduce stress and toss the stuff.

It was an emotional ordeal - sorry that my mom's life was reduced to a dumpster of stuff that was being rained upon as we departed. What a shame. She was in the Miss America pagent, was very talented and educated. Unfortuantely there was *something* wrong and she got into drugs and alcohol. She was befriended (or whatever) by addicts that took advantage of her in every possible way and she ended up with brain damage and friendless by the time she retired. I don't know how she kept it going for as long as she did.... Poster child for the devistation of alcohol....

But thanks again for all your suggestions - some I didn't get until too late. sigh. Now I'm going to start cleaning out my own closets & cabinets!!!

    Bookmark   February 26, 2008 at 8:33AM
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funkill, I'm glad it's behind you now. I've been reading this thread and appreciate you letting us know how it went. I can't imagine how hard it must be for you to have this experience especially when you think of what might have been. Still, your mother is lucky to have you as a daughter.

Don't let the thought of important items being trashed get to you. With the extremely full and rewarding life you are leading, it is great that so many people showed up to help you and you finished in record time. Checking each individual item would have taken up way too much time and in the end you would have probably gotten to the point of not caring about it all and just trashed the rest anyways.

    Bookmark   February 26, 2008 at 11:42AM
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funkill, your helpers were absolutely correct that your stress level is more important than any "treasure." And, really, there probably weren't any if you think that at some point all of this stuff is just stuff. A diamond is just a rock and will still be just a rock long after we are all gone. None of that stuff was in your life before last weekend and the last thing you want to pass on to your own child is a bunch of crap they don't know what to do with.

That you have such a large group of friends willing to pitch in speaks highly of you (and your mom also--she raised a good daughter.)


    Bookmark   February 27, 2008 at 1:58PM
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That's a sad story. I'm sure this task was painful for you but it sounds like it was successful. Good going!

    Bookmark   February 28, 2008 at 5:24PM
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Thanks for posting an update. It is amazing that you got done what you got done in 5 hours! Try not to look at her life reduced to the trinkets in the dumpster. That wasn't her life. Her legacy was YOU.

    Bookmark   February 29, 2008 at 3:54PM
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Sit back and relax now it is over and just be grateful you had so many willing helpers.

    Bookmark   February 29, 2008 at 10:11PM
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I think neesie had such a great sentiment. It isn't any better for us to think someone's life had better value if they left behind "really great stuff" that made for a great estate sale. That would defeat the whole purpose of being able to separate life from stuff.

You would be grieving over her lost potential whether or not she left great stuff. So that's okay to feel that sorrow for your mom, but to realize that while you're not her, you are now part of the good that she brought to the world.

    Bookmark   March 4, 2008 at 3:39PM
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