Voices of Experience: Clear the Way Home with Susan Gardner

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Dora turned to me and said, "I can't walk through our living room anymore without stepping on stacks of papers." I was immediately concerned about my friend's safety. Dora is in her spry eighties. But these stacks of paper could arrange her quick death! The National Council on Aging's statistics tell us that falls are the leading cause of fatal injury among older adults. One-third of older Americans will fall this year, and a non-fatal fall can still drastically alter one's quality of life. Dora was in danger.

A few questions and I found that these stacks of papers belonged to one of Dora's kinfolk who lived with her, and who was ignoring requests for change. Susan Gardner, a certified professional organizer, came to mind. A preacher's kid who became a Methodist minister, she hails from "everywhere in Middle Tennessee!" In 2010, she realized she had a new passion: helping others organize, resulting in improved safety and peace of mind.

Gardner had begun healing from a trauma, and in that healing she said, "I had some new things open, including less procrastination and more ability to follow through on organizing. As my own inner clutter calmed, the outer clutter followed. I've always been disorganized, experienced my own chronic disorganization, but my life just started falling into place in a different way."

She tackled her desk, a site of chronic disorder and soon, she said, "It became more efficient and more pleasant to use. Eventually, I could be ready for company in four hours instead of four days at my home." Armed with experience, passion, professional training, and certification, Gardner transitioned into a new career and opened her business, Clearing the Way Home.

At one of Gardner's workshops, I learned that clutter is the result of delayed decisions, especially with objects of sentimental value. Gardner remembered, "One person was so ready to make a change, but she was stymied by trying to hang on to memories. Letting go of her grandmother's item didn't mean letting go of her grandmother."

As a personal historian, I've learned that helping a family make a memory photo book is one way to ease those actual items out. Gardner is assisting another family who is debating what to do with a decrepit sidesaddle, too long in the barn to be useful or valuable. Once underway with organizing, people are concerned about ecologically responsible disposal, and Gardner knows how to recycle, donate, reuse, and sell those items.

She also enjoys nature. For her daughters 25th birthday, mother and daughter are planning a hike through the Grand Canyon. Small backpacking trips are building up to that big adventure. Much like the backpacking adventure on the horizon, curing clutter begins with small steps: talk about your clutter, ask for help, and make a plan. Gardner's workshops include follow-up support groups. One good cleaning is temporary because an un-reformed clutterer can refill that clean space quickly! She advises how to set a specific achievable goal and to change a habit, such as shopping or mail order.

"For older people, a visit from the post to deliver a package can be the day's highlight," says Gardner. She has seen stacks of unopened packages and bags of new clothes, never worn. "We're being sold needs and then products as ways to fill them," she says.

My own clutter falls into the category of wish fulfillment and is often suffered by teachers, former teachers, and Depression-era children. We see potential in every item for reuse or transformation! That fills a storage room at my house and, thanks to Gardner, I'm giving it a new look. After all, I never get to mending because my sewing table is covered in scraps! Change starts at home, and change, my friend Dora and I agreed, starts with the clutterer making that initial decision to ask for help. Meanwhile, just talking about the problem led to a cleared living room floor for her and her roommate, a step in the right direction towards safety.

The National Council on Aging lists fall prevention advice: Keep pathways clear; keep frequently used items close by. Both of these goals are part of de-cluttering. Falls Prevention Awareness Day is Sept. 22 this year, the first day of fall. Fall is a time when Nature sheds her old clothes, making room for a new start next spring. Join Nature's cycle, sharing and using this information with friends and setting a small, specific goal. I'm setting a goal for improved safety and effectiveness on my sewing table.

Deborah Wilbrink is a personal historian with PerfectMemoirs.com and author of "Time to Tell: Your Personal & Family History." She is secretary of the Association of Personal Historians. Contact Deborah at (615) 417-8424 or via e-mail at deb@perfectmemoirs.com. Susan Gardner can be reached at clearingthewayhome.com or (615) 477-9795. The National Council on Aging and the Fall Prevention Center offer additional information on fall prevention.

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