An Occupational Therapist’s Guide to Tackling Fall Cleaning

By: Dori Cohen, MS, OTR/L, MSCS, CSRS, Barnabas Health Ambulatory Care Center

Increased clutter and disorganization may lead to safety concerns, such as increased risk of falling, increased fatigue associated with spending energy looking for a specific item, increased stress and frustration, decreased participation in a household task and decreased socialization within the home. As the new season begins, it may be a good time to participate in “fall cleaning.”

Below are some tips to consider when initiating a clutter management project:

  1. Make a plan: Most people start organization projects with a high level of enthusiasm that unfortunately dwindles over time. It is best to develop a concrete written plan prior to physically moving your belongings – this will help streamline your project without wasting any physical energy.
  1. Pace Yourself: During the planning stage, break up a larger project into smaller, more manageable parts. For example, instead of tackling your entire kitchen, which can be quite a daunting task, divide the room up based on its function. You may want to start by addressing sections of the pantry, followed by individual cabinets. Consider organizing various storage spaces within your home first (ie. dressers, cabinets, closets) so that you have the space to put new things. Performing smaller tasks with intermittent rest breaks should help you conserve your energy throughout the duration of the project. Additionally, being able to cross off completed tasks more frequently can be quite rewarding and motivating!
  1. Prioritize Safety: When developing your plan, I strongly recommend starting by evaluating your home environment for any potential fall risks. You can ask yourself, is there a specific part of your home that you tend to trip over (such as a pile of shoes at the entryway of your home or an area rug)? Do you have to maneuver your way around cords and wires on the floor? Do you find yourself losing your balance reaching for everyday items in the kitchen or bathroom?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, this is where you should begin.

  • It is essential to remove any obstacles or clutter that can pose a fall risk- and do it FIRST. This may include any area rugs that do not have a non-skid backing and/or cords that you have to attentively negotiate around to avoid tripping.
  • Develop an organized system for clothing that has previously been worn or that you are in the process of folding/putting away to eliminate any opportunity of it ending up on the floor. Additionally, having a permanent “home where all your shoes live” instead of keeping them throughout your home is beneficial to prevent risk of falls. This strategy also applies to any child or pet toys. Pro Tip: label boxes and bins to make sure everybody in your household is aware of the proper location when they are cleaning.
  • Another way to conserve energy and prevent risks of falls is to keep items that are frequently used (ie. coffee maker, a pot or pan, glass) within reach. Taking the time to reorganize your kitchen cabinets with things that you use most often nearby to avoid excessive bending or reaching for common items will save you a lot of time and energy in the long run. Taking the time to properly assess what you actually do use, may lead you to dispose of less functional items that are taking up space.
  1. Make the Time & Take Breaks: Some of us get so invested in a specific task, that we forget to take a break. Unfortunately over-doing it can lead to over-heating and subsequent high levels of fatigue. According to J. Tamar Kalina’s MS clutter management protocol, it is recommended to allocate 15 minutes on a daily basis to participate in your decluttering project (2014). We assume that everybody can find 15 minutes within their day to participate in this project. Having shorter, more manageable timeframes should help reduce project burnout over time.
  1. Protect your Body: Incorporate the following body mechanics principles when organizing your physical space:
    • Maintain a wide base of support (keep feet at hip distance) to increase your stability
    • Bend at your knees, not at your back.
    • Tighten your stomach muscles to help protect your back from getting hurt
    • When carrying something heavy, keep it close to your body and avoid twisting your body
    • When possible, push the item instead of pulling it
    • Stand close to the object being moved
    • Sit down when possible
    • Ask for help/delegate when needed
  1. Know what your options are: Developing a systematic plan may be very challenging to do, especially if you experience cognitive changes, high levels of fatigue and/or if you are unsure how to “prioritize safety” in your home environment. It may be beneficial to consult an occupational therapist to help you formulate an individualized plan to maximize safety, fatigue management strategies, and organizational tips to facilitate in effective rollout of your plan.

Dori Cohen, MS, OTR/L, MSCS, CSRS


Dori Cohen is an occupational therapist at the Barnabas Health Ambulatory Care Center in Livingston. She works with patients with neurological conditions. Dori is a certified Multiple Sclerosis Specialist (MSCS), Certified Stroke Rehabilitation Specialist (CSRS) and is in the process of obtaining her LSVT Big Certification. Dori completed her BA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and her MS in occupational therapy at New York University. When not in the clinic, Dori enjoys spending time with her two boys (ages 1 and 3), exploring NYC, and crafting.

The Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center Rehabilitation centers are open and ready to help you achieve your goals. With four locations in West Orange, Millburn and Livingston, the experienced and compassionate staff at Cooperman Barnabas Rehabilitation offers adults and children the specialized care they need to resume an active life after surgery, injury or illness. They are committed to providing patients with the most advanced services in a safe, caring and soothing environment. For high-risk patients who are unable to visit in person, telehealth is an option. Patients do not need a prescription for physical therapy services.

For more information, or to schedule an appointment, call 973-322-7500.