The mountain of household clutter piled on the table was the tip of the iceberg.
For years the home owner had lived in a rising sea of clutter that was now swamping her life.
It was at this point professional organiser Judy Thorpe, who specialises in helping people prepare for retirement, stepped in and began to restore order to the chaos.
"She had no idea where to start," recalls Judy. "She was just utterly overwhelmed."
"We began with the dining room table and by the end of two hours, we'd gone through everything on top of it. That clear table really lifted her spirits."
While reclaiming one surface in a home overrun by possessions may have made just a small dent in the mountainous task that lay ahead, it was an important psychological boost for the overwhelmed woman.
"If you can see the bits that you've done, it helps clear your brain," explains Judy. "It's still going to be an onerous task, but you can start to see that you can actually get through it."
The homeowner was given encouragement to keep the momentum going by doing bits a couple of times a week in other areas of her house.
While most of us don't live with the same level of hoarding, decades of accumulated items can be hard to navigate when faced with moving out of the family home.
Judy, who runs Wellington-based Taskmasters, a specialist home organising service including decluttering and downsizing, says as soon as you think about shifting into a smaller property, you should consider what you'll take with you.
"It's best to start early," she advises. "Even if you've just put your name down at a village or you're looking at options, start downsizing so if something comes up and you need to decide straightaway, you've already done some decluttering."
Starting small is key to getting going, especially when faced with sifting through possessions amassed over a whole lifetime.
"Start with one area of a room such as sorting your shoes. Do little chunks for no more than two hours as it gets too tiring."
Judy's method is clearing possessions off a surface or out of a drawer, putting back select treasured items, then disposing or giving away what's left.
"It's much easier to know what you'd like to keep than to look at a whole pile of stuff and think, 'What am I going to do with that? How will I decide?'"
Given the emotional connection many of us have with our things, the best way to tackle your decluttering is to start with the least sentimental possessions.
Advises Judy, "There'll be a sense of relief and achievement because even if it's only a little bit, you've actually started and got rid of stuff."
However, she warns things with strong family connections are best left to last when you are more practised at making these decisions.
"You need to make sure you've got the headspace to do it because it can be very emotional, both happy and sad."
Adds Auckland-based professional organiser Natalie Jane, "Behind the stuff are lots and lots of memories. The things people struggle with the most are sentimental items."
The owner of Be Organised says many of the sentimental items come with stories which are important to share during the decluttering process.
"Once they've told the story, it's easier for them to let go. They can give it that last hoorah and reminisce about the special memory the item has."
Another option is to keep a journal with photos and stories of the most treasured items before they are given away. These can be shared with family through generations.
Natalie says the biggest problem people face is feeling paralysed by their stuff.
"The task becomes all too much that makes it difficult to know where to start," she says.
It's here that a professional organiser or objective family member or friend can make a huge difference.
"The biggest issue my clients struggle with is making decisions. They have difficulty knowing what to keep and what to give away, and that's where I come in and help them make a decision that they are most comfortable with.
"I ask them questions such as, 'Do you love it? Does it add value to your life?' and, 'Do you use it?' If the answer is 'no', then it's time to move it on.
"Our situations change over time. So an older person who is downsizing may currently have all of the dinner sets, the beautiful cutlery and the items that were onced used for hosting big family dinners. Now their situation has changed, they no longer need these things, so a decision has to be made."
How to declutter
1 Start early
If you're even considering shifting, now is the time to begin.
2 Break it down into small chunks
Begin small with a utensil drawer or shelf. Doing 10 minutes a day will add up to big results.
3 Do the easy, less emotional stuff first
"Tackling the easier things first gives you the motivation to continue because you've made a good start," says Judy. "If you can see the bits that you've done, it helps clear your brain to keep going."
4 Ask yourself key questions to help declutter
These include, "When was the last time I used this?" plus, "Do I love it?" and, "Does it add value to my life?"
5 Keep the stuff that makes you really happy
It's important to surround yourself with things that bring you great joy.
6 Focus on what you want to keep, rather than what you want to get rid of
"It's easier to make decisions by removing everything out of a cupboard or wardrobe, then putting back what's to be kept rather than pulling out unwanted items," says Judy.
7 Take photos of the treasured items you are parting with and record their story.
"Behind the stuff are lots of memories," says Natalie. If you're parting with a special possession, she recommends journaling its story and adding a photo to pass on to family.
8 Ask for help
You're likely to be dealing with a whole lifetime's worth of accumulated household and personal items. If you don't know where to start, approach family members, a friend or a professional organiser to help you.