Clutter was visible the moment one entered Grandma Wong’s house—she had much clothing, more than 10 umbrellas, and various other electronic appliances lying around. On the altar in her living room, fruits that had been offered days ago as well as incense ash were waiting to be cleared. The wall behind the altar had been darkened by incense smoke. There were also many expired vegetarian food items inside the fridge.
Grandma Wong, aged 79, is one of the many elderly folk living alone in the Redhill estate. Six months ago, she hurt her spine in a fall and became unable to sit or stand for long. She could not continue working and this affected her financially. Grandma Wong approached the Social Service Office for financial aid, and they suggested that she rent out the empty room in her home for income.
However, Grandma Wong’s home is filled to the brim with clutter and needed to be cleaned up before she could start renting out her room. With her current condition, she was unable to do so herself. A friend of hers helped bring her case to the attention of Tzu Chi, and the organization decided to assist her after contacting her to learn more about her situation.
On 24 April 2016, 15 Tzu Chi volunteers arrived at Wong’s flat with cardboard boxes both large and small, some cloth rags, and paint, all ready to repaint her walls and clean up her home.
Giving to Others What One Does Not Need
The 15 volunteers divided themselves into 2 groups with 5 male volunteers temporarily clearing the room of items so that they could repaint the room, while the others helped to sort Grandma Wong’s belongings in the hall and kitchen.
“Grandma, do you still use this? Can we throw it away?”
Though there were numerous items of all sizes lying around, including miscellaneous receipts, volunteers ensured that they got the go ahead from Grandma Wong before anything was to be discarded. Frowning at times and shaking her head during other instances, Grandma Wong seemed loathe to throw away many of her things.
Seeing her reluctance, volunteers changed tack and asked again: “Grandma, can we recycle this or give it away to others?” This made a difference and Grandma Wong, a Buddhist for many years, was happy at the prospect of giving away her things to build positive karmic affinities with others.
Recalling how reserved she used to be, and unwilling to let others know when she needed help, volunteer Wang Li Juan explained that Grandma Wong was wary of strangers after being cheated of money by those who had taken advantage of her kindness.
Though she had known of Tzu Chi for more than 10 years, her first response when Wang asked if she would like to have her house cleaned up by volunteers was whether it would take up too much of their precious time. She was assured by Wang that Tzu Chi volunteers are committed to helping those in need; as long as the cleaning was arranged on weekends, they would be able to turn up. She also told Grandma Wong not to worry about the items that were cleared away as they would be recycled where possible.
Putting Oneself in Another’s Shoes
At noon, when the cleaning up effort was halfway in progress, Wang was helping Grandma Wong to clean the altar. Seeing the fruit offerings, she advised Grandma Wong to buy just one or two of each type of fruits in order to avoid wastage.
Having helped out in many cleanup exercises for elderly folks, Wang had pondered over whether it was frugality or a hoarding mentality that leads to the elderly accumulating large amounts of items inside their homes. She came to the realization that the true needs of a person were few but the wants, many. Therefore, whenever she was involved in a cleanup exercise, she would remind herself that if she needed to shop, she had to ascertain if it was a need or a want.
Volunteer Shen Shun De was hard at work helping to clear items from the room, and though it was a muggy day, he had a smile on his face. “Seeing that Grandma Wong has problems with mobility, we should help. Though I am not young, but I (still) have the energy and ability to move about freely therefore I should assist. Today everyone is very pleased to have been able to help clean up her house.”
He further commented that a person who lives in a house full of clutter will easily give rise to negative feelings; once the house is cleaned up, the occupant similarly feels happier.
Volunteer Lian Mei’er recognized that items which Grandma Wong had decided to keep have to be properly sorted and categorized for ease of finding. Therefore, she took into consideration the lifestyle habits and the frequency of usage of the items during the task.
After four to five hours of work, Lian had sorted out the items into four main categories. Buddhist books and paraphernalia made up a category, of which some were retained for Grandma Wong and others were to be given away to other temples, while certificates and related items relating to hairdressing and makeup formed another category. As Grandma Wong is adept at drawing and calligraphy, brushes and ink stones also formed part of her collection.
At 6.30pm in the evening, the repainting work was finished and Grandma Wong thanked the volunteers happily. She admitted that she used to buy what she liked in the past, yet could not bear to throw away anything. This resulted in the clutter that built up over the years.
With no siblings nor children, Grandma Wong expressed her happiness at having found new friends in Tzu Chi volunteers. They in turn, wished her luck in finding new tenants before they left.