Get a Handle on Clutter Before It Handles You!

It can happen to the best of us: the day’s mail is put on the counter as you’re running out the door and starts to build over the rest of the week. Clothes that no longer fit are stacked in the corner to donate but never make it into the car. Kitchen appliances that need a new part are set on the dining room table but months later that replacement piece still hasn’t been ordered. On top of that we’re doing much less panic cleaning these days, with fewer social functions and guests dropping by. Before you know it, your house is full of clutter.

Clutter can make it difficult to relax, but once it starts piling up on the floors or spilling off countertops it can also make it difficult for you to maneuver through your home and can contribute to a fall.

“It’s not safe for people to be navigating around clutter to get to their bathroom or moving stacks of magazines before they can sit down on their couch,” said Robin Johanson, PT, DPT>, from Samaritan Rebound Physical Therapy in Albany. “Things that impede your movement around the house can lead to trips and falls, and in the worst cases, broken bones with a long recovery time.”

How Clutter Contributes to Falls

A study published in Age and Ageing examined what causes falls in older adults and found an accident related to the surrounding environment was the most common.

Environmental hazards like cords, loose rugs or too many stacks of newspapers on the floor are common causes of tripping.

“One of my patients, who is retired and lives alone, fell and strained her back after tripping on the edge of her rug,” said Mr. Johanson. “For several months, we worked together on balance, strength and stability.  After incorporating these activities into her daily life, she feels much better about her safety and mobility at home.”

Sometimes people are afraid of falling and so they stop participating in activities, but that can actually contribute to a quicker physical decline. It is more helpful to take steps to prevent falls in the first place.

Clear Out Clutter

It can be hard to let go of things we think we might need in the future, or that we paid for and never used. However, clutter becomes a problem if it keeps you from doing the things you enjoy, like having space to sit at the table to do a puzzle, room in the garage to do some woodworking or the ability to feel peaceful in your home.

Everyone prefers and tolerates different amounts of stuff, but in general your possessions should fit neatly in the space you have. Your kitchen utensils should all fit in the drawer and books should all fit in the bookcase.

If you’ve decided it’s time to address the clutter, it can help to set some guidelines for yourself as you’re sorting to help you decide what to keep and what to get rid of.

You can decide what makes sense for the space you have, but some examples include:

  • Get rid of magazines that are older than one year or newspapers older than two weeks.
  • Keep only clothing that currently fits your body. Keep only your favorites so that it all fits in your closet.
  • Get rid of items in need of repair that have been sitting for more than a month. If you haven’t needed it badly enough to fix it, you likely don’t need it.
  • Get rid of items that haven’t been used in a year, like kitchen gadgets or exercise equipment.
  • If an item doesn’t currently have a use and no concrete future use, donate it so someone else can use and enjoy it. Items that are used occasionally, like Christmas decorations, can be tidied away until it’s time to pull them out.
  • Don’t save things for other people. Old furniture and baby toys can have an emotional attachment for you, but if your nomadic adult children have only fur-babies then it’s ok to donate these items. You can check with family members before you donate things if you think they might be interested, but gift the item immediately if someone does want it.

Lifestyle Changes to Reduce Your Risk for a Fall

Mr. Johanson reported that some conditions like arthritis, foot disorders, chronic pain, Parkinson’s disease, poor vision or taking more than four medications can put you at greater risk for a fall. These risk factors can’t always be changed, but there are some lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your risk for a fall.

1. Clean up Clutter & Trip Hazards.

  • Ensure walkways and sitting areas are free of clutter.
  • Use double-sided sticky tape to secure the edges of area rugs.
  • Arrange dangling cords from lamps or blinds away from walkways and sitting areas.
  • Fix broken or uneven steps.

2. Wear Sturdy Shoes Around the House.

Slippers or scuffs can cause you to trip more easily and make it harder to regain your balance if you stumble, while socks are just plain slippery. Instead, wear supportive sneakers that lace to your feet when you’re at home. Have a separate pair that are just “house shoes” if you don’t like wearing the same pair of shoes you run errands in around the home.

3. Exercise Daily.

A combination of balance and strength training exercises are the most successful for helping adults over the age of 60 avoid falls, reported Mr. Johanson. Walking and stretching are both good activities, and exercise programs like tai chi and yoga are especially helpful. If you aren’t currently physically active, try these exercises at home:

  • Sit-to-stand – Start with an unupholstered, sturdy chair like a dining chair. Sit down in the chair. Lean slightly forward over your knees and stand up. If you need to use your hands for balance or to push yourself up, place them on the lip of the chair by your thighs. Slowly sit down again. Repeat 10 times. Practice daily until you can stand without using your hands for assistance.
  • Standing balance – Stand in front of a table or counter so you can support yourself if necessary. Stand with your feet hip distance apart. Hold this position for 30 seconds without swaying. Practice twice a day.

    When you can stand with feet apart, try standing with feet together and hold for 30 seconds. Once you have mastered feet together, practice standing on one foot at a time for 30 seconds each.

  • Toe stands – Stand in front of a table or counter so you can support yourself if necessary. Push up onto your toes and hold for 10 seconds. Lower your heels and repeat 10 times.

If you’ve already experienced a fall, incorporating these changes can help prevent another one.

“Improving your strength makes a big difference in being able to stay active as you age, even if your goal is just daily living activities,” said Mr. Johanson. “Your home is a place where you should feel safe and comfortable and be able to move with confidence.”

Get help building strength and improving balance with near you.

If you need help with home modifications like grab bars or adaptive equipment, talk to your primary care provider about a visit with an occupational therapist.

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