Spring, even for places like the Bay Area that offer mild winters, feels like the world waking up, yawningly stretching itself from a cranky slumber. Even though we aren’t in an area where snowmelt reveals blooming crocuses, we feel renewed and refreshed. One of the main signs of spring is cleaning: opening the windows and kicking away the tired dust of a long winter. Spring cleaning is an annual tradition, both literally and metaphorically. It’s a time to start over, to energize yourself for the coming year. For the loved ones of older adults, it’s a great chance to help your aging loved one, and to get a better understanding of their situation.
For caregivers and other relatives of adults who are aging at home, spring cleaning is a way to create a safe space, to re-evaluate the living situation after a long winter spent mostly indoors, and to make sure that that the coming months are as happy and healthy as possible. Here are some spring cleaning tips for older adults that go beyond dusting and vacuuming.
Spring Cleaning Should Have Everyone Involved
When you were a kid, if you were anything like me, the very worst thing was to have your mom clean your room (or the second-worst thing, after doing it yourself). Suddenly, everything was in the wrong place! This is just as disconcerting when we’re an adult. Imagine a spouse saying, “Honey, I straightened up your desk for you,” without gritting your teeth in annoyance. It’s the same for our aging loved ones. There is the temptation to go in briskly and get everything done, to say “these magazines don’t belong here,” or “linens should be in this closet,” rushing through the house in a whirlwind of good intentions. But you also have to think about it from their perspective.
It is important to make sure that the person whose house you are cleaning still feels comfortable. Cleaning is a way to increase independence, to make sure that their home is safe and livable. Organizing things the way you want it to be doesn’t help them. It needs to be collaborative, and should be done with erring as much as possible towards keeping things how they like it. Obviously, safety is a priority, and practicality is important, but use your judgment, and empathy.
When cleaning, the first thing you want to do is declutter. Areas like closets or mudrooms become a magnet for the accumulated shoes and coats and bric-a-brac of the year, and these can become potentially dangerous. Not only does decluttering these areas make your loved one’s home cleaner and make things more accessible, but reducing that accumulated clutter can actually reduce their stress. Make sure to also through stacks of papers, piles of clothes, or anything that is lying around. Find out what needs to stay and what can go. Don’t assume something is not important. After you declutter and get a sense of what needs to be where, then you can get down to the actual cleaning, dusting, vacuuming, polishing, rug-beating, etc.
Spring Cleaning Is a Chance to Improve Health and Safety
Helping an aging loved one with spring cleaning isn’t just about making the mirrors reflect the fairest. It’s also about making sure that the living area is as safe as possible. This includes:
- Maintaining clean walkways in every hall and to every door. Watch out for items jutting out, obstacles that make doors hard to open or close, and floors that might be slippery. Evaluate how easy it is for your loved one to walk where they need to go. Repairs or adjustments might be necessary.
- Cleaning and organizing the medicine cabinet. Make sure there aren’t old or expired medicines, and make sure that the cabinet is arranged in a way that makes it easy for your loved one to grab medications without mistakes or difficulties.
- Checking smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. These are often hard for an older adult to check and replace, but are very important to keep tabs on (for every home).
- Replacing light bulbs. Ceiling bulbs especially are hard for older adults to safely replace, and a well-lit home is crucial to safety. Check every bulb.
- Eliminating tripping hazards. This includes rugs, loose tiles, bunched up carpets, electrical wires, or anything else.
One other step for your spring cleaning is to make sure that all important medical and legal documents are organized, accessible, and safe. Papers are constantly pouring in throughout the year, and going through everything an aging loved one has kept is a good yearly habit. (More frequently is better, but spring cleaning makes for a good reminder.) This keeps everything neat and able to be accessed if needed, and is a good protection against fraud and abuse. In the Bay Area, there are financial services for older adults that help them get their paperwork in order and watch out for their best interests. If you are unsure of what to do with all the documents and bureaucratic necessities that are part of aging, be sure to contact them.
Even before starting to clean, it is a good idea to talk not just to your relative, but to their medical professionals. You can find out if there is anything you haven’t been told about their health: new allergies, reduced eyesight, specific mobility issues, or any other new ailments or areas of concern. This will inform what you watch out for when you clean.
Because remember: spring cleaning is about more than throwing open some windows. It’s about evaluating with fresh eyes. You aren’t just looking for dirt and clutter—you’re looking out for their well-being. This is true if you see your relative every week, and it is especially true if you are making a trip in from somewhere further away, where you don’t get to see them as often. Spring is a time of renewal, and a renewed commitment to making a safe space for your older loved one, so they can age at home with dignity, independence, and happiness.
At Institute on Aging, we work with families to find the best care for our aging loved ones so they can live with dignity and independence in the comfort of their homes. Connect with us today to learn more about our work in the Bay Area.