According to the 2014 United States census report, more than 20 percent of America’s population will be age 65 or older by 2030. As these older adults start downsizing or moving to retirement communities and assisted living facilities, the question of what to do with household possessions and cherished keepsakes looms large in many families.
Often, the adult children don’t want these items, while their aging parents dread parting with them. So, in a quandary familiar to many of us, delicate conversations ensue about how to dispose of their parents’ beloved “junk”.
Our changing material culture at work. The accumulation of material goods dates back to the Depression, when times were hard so everyone scrimped and saved everything they could. In the post-World War II economy, returning veterans chose to leave the city to establish homes and status in the suburbs. At that time, wedding gifts were meant to be used and treasured for life. But today’s young adults prefer to acquire household goods that they consider temporary or disposable, from online retailers or stores like Ikea, instead of inheriting them from parents or grandparents. This represents a distinct difference in the way each generation views their possessions. One observant client put it this way: “My parents grew up in the Depression and kept everything. My generation [baby boomers] thinks the one who dies with the most, wins. And my kids—if it doesn’t fit their phone, they don’t want it. So, I’m stuck with everything.”
What are the options? Some heirs just smile and take the goods to keep their parents happy. This is large part of the reason that the self-storage industry is booming, with projected growth at 3.5 percent annually over the next five years. Still, self-storage creates more expenses for the heirs and simply postpones the inevitable disposal of their parents’ cache. Senior move management is another popular option that’s experiencing unprecedented growth. These move managers usually charge an hourly rate of $50 to $125. They help their clients sort through years of accumulated possessions and make decisions about what to dispose of, what to donate, and what to take with them for their new living spaces. Other seniors choose to give their items to charities that are near and dear to their hearts. By donating their possessions, the people who loved these items know that either someone else who really wants them will purchase them, or that a needy individual will be helped by their benevolence.
How can you help make the transition easier? There are a number of strategies that can ease the stress of the “unwanted stuff”:
- Start the conversation sooner rather than later. Don’t wait for a crisis to hit before your start the discussion about downsizing and disposing of your parents’ extra possessions.
- Include your siblings in the conversations. This way, you can avoid possible problems and hard feelings in the future. Deal with everyone’s concerns now so you can take them off the table down the road.
- Introduce the topic gently. Bring it up casually in conversation or over family meals. Strive to make it a routine part of your discussions. This will get your parents thinking about how they would like the things they own to be dispersed of among family, friends, or worthy causes.
- Be sensitive to your parents and their attachment to their possessions. While many of their things may not be important to you, to your your parents they represent happy moments in their lives, significant milestones, and the family they have loved and raised.
- Discover what’s most important and focus on it. As you go through the process of decluttering, help your parents identify their treasures—the few most significant things that mark their most important memories, achievements, or moments in their lives. Helping them create this distinction will allow them to see what’s truly important to keep and what they can more easily discard.
Having these discussions early and often will establish what’s important to your parents while involving the whole family in the process. Often, the most difficult conversations end up being the most rewarding.