Gladys has always been a collector. From the time Marie was a child, she could recall her mother Gladys collecting books and academic journals. Gladys prided herself on being an educated woman who kept herself current in her field.  But in recent years, it has ballooned now that Gladys is collecting more than just academic journals.


After her husband passed away, Gladys started collecting magazines to “keep her company.” Of course, Marie couldn’t bear to say anything; if that was how her mother was finding comfort in her grief, so be it.  But the magazines kept piling up.  Next, it was newspapers. Gladys insisted that she would “get around to reading them one day,” but that day has never come. There are magazine subscriptions and outdated newspapers piling up faster than she can read them, let alone organize them.


piles and rows of books on shelves, tables and chairs


Books, academic journals, and magazines cover every table, and most other flat surfaces as well.  Since there is no room on the tables, chairs or counters for newspapers, they’ve started piling up on the floor.  The last time Marie visited, there were newspaper piles starting on the stairs to the second floor. Now Marie is getting worried.


Every time Marie visits her mother, she suggests that it’s time to throw out some newspapers. And every time, Gladys gets upset.  At this point, the conversation is practically rehearsed—Marie can predict her mother’s response before she even comments on the latest pile of newspapers blocking another doorway.


The underlying problem is that Marie and Gladys are on totally different pages. Marie sees a problem that needs to be solved and to her, both the problem and the solution seem self-evident. Marie sees a collection that has spiraled out of control to become a level of unsafe clutter, and she sees the easy solution to be throwing it all out.


Gladys, on the other hand, does not see a problem at all. She does not perceive her collection to be ‘clutter’ and she does not feel any need to change it.  She isn’t motivated to solve a problem that she doesn’t acknowledge in the first place.


So every time the conversation arises about throwing out newspapers and magazines, it devolves into a battle. Marie is approaching it from a totally different place and hoping for a different outcome. Marie is on the offensive and wants everything thrown out; Gladys is defensive and wants her home to remain untouched.


Marie needs to shift the conversation away from the newspapers and magazines. She needs to find common ground with her mother that is not focused on keeping versus throwing things out.


Marie’s primary concern is her mother’s safety and wellbeing. She is afraid that with all the clutter piling up, her mother could trip and fall.  Does Gladys agree that safety is also important? Does she acknowledge that newspapers on the floor can be very slippery and are a fall risk?  Can Marie and Gladys together have a conversation about safety and the best way to achieve a safe environment?

Start by collectively defining safety needs.

For example—doorways need to remain clear; main walkways and stairs need to remain unobstructed. If both people agree that clear doorways, hallways, and stairs are critical for safety, the next step is to figure out how to achieve that goal.


If it were only up to Marie, it would be simple. She’d just throw everything out.  She’d bundle up all the newspapers and put them out for recycling and within a few hours, the job would be done.


But Gladys does not feel the same way. She is not interested in throwing out her collection. Her idea of a solution to the safety issue will be very different from Marie’s solution. And since it’s her home, Marie will have to help Gladys navigate a solution that works for her.


Gladys might be willing to relocate the newspapers from the stairs to the bed in the spare bedroom. While the clutter isn’t technically reduced—just relocated—the goal of improving her safety is met. Compromising and meeting Gladys on her terms will be critical if Marie hopes for success in the long term.


Each unsafe pile may mean a new negotiation around where the magazines and newspapers can be safely relocated. It will require endless patience on Marie’s part. And it will be exhausting and possibly overwhelming to Gladys. The magazines and newspapers represent so much more than old news to her, and that is part of the reason the process will be so emotionally charged for both people.


Throughout the process, Marie needs to keep returning to the common goal with her mother—of creating a safe environment for Gladys that reduces her risk of falling.

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