Memories. In reality, our possessions represent memories. Good, lovely, bad, ugly… everything in our homes represents a memory of an event, a person, something. But not everyone has the same memory about these possessions. After someone passes, if items have not been designated to particular individuals, the sentimentality of one family member may differ significantly from others. This in turn could result in hurt feelings at the least or family fights at the worst.
Generation X (1965-1976) homes already have all the things they want and are trying to downsize and minimize themselves. Millennials (1977-1995) and Generation Z (1996-TBD) seem to prefer a more minimalist style (think IKEA and Target) which means they do not necessarily desire to have the personal belongings of grandparents (the Silent Generation, born before 1945) or parents (the Baby Boomers, 1946-1964). These articles address the generations: the ones with the “stuff” and the ones who do not want the “stuff.”
There is a Swedish tradition called “death cleaning” which has been made popular due to the book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family From a Lifetime of Clutter by Margareta Magnusson. In a nutshell, it is the concept of decluttering while still alive so as not to burden your family with disposing of “stuff” after you die.
A dear elderly friend of mine recently told me of doing just this. Although she didn’t call it “death cleaning”, she is giving her belongings away to her loved ones as the topic comes up. For example, a granddaughter was visiting from out of state and commented that one day she would like a particular set of green glasses belonging to her grandmother. My friend began pulling them down, wrapping, and boxing them up for her granddaughter to take home with her. As her granddaughter protested, my friend told her she would rather know that her granddaughter had them and was enjoying them than for the glasses to sit in a cupboard until she died.
Another day my elderly friend told me about telephone books and auto parts catalogs that she and her late husband had accumulated over time. Although she found the phone books interesting to read, she realized it was foolish to continue to keep them and simply tossed all of them. When I asked her why she was doing all this, she replied she didn’t want her girls to have to deal with it later. However, she did say, while chuckling, she was keeping all the clothes she had collected through the decades. She told her daughters to back a truck up to the house and take them all to the dump after she was gone.
As our family members downsize from a larger home to a smaller one or perhaps to an assisted living community it will be necessary to reduce possessions. This can be a very emotional time for all involved. As we are downsizing my parent’s home it is hard to see their possessions given away. Bagging and donating clothes I know my Mom can no longer wear was very difficult. My brother and I already have established homes. We have been very choosy in what items we have decided to keep while trying to respect Dad’s feelings.
Personal Tip: Use painter’s tape to label items. There are many colors available. As we downsized Mom and Dad’s home we chose 3 different colors. Blue tape designated items that were to be donated. For many of the small items we simply placed them in a box and tagged the box with blue tape. Green was used for any items that could be sold whether in a yard sale, estate sale, auction, or through other methods. Yellow tape allowed us to tag items going to specific people. (The yellow tape we found was for sensitive items which helped in tagging furniture.) Each piece of furniture or box (for small items) going to someone received yellow tape with the person’s name on it. This made it so much easier when each of us came to pick up items and in moving.
As much as possible try to keep from storing belongings in a storage unit. This will only delay the inevitable as well as add an extra bill to be paid each month. Downsizing possessions before a loved one dies is best if at all possible. In doing so your loved ones will be able to keep their most cherished possessions for themselves. In fact, they may want to consider placing particular mementos, letters and the like, which only hold meaning for them, in a special box with instructions that it can simply be destroyed following their death saving the family left behind the burden of sorting through those items.
Items of value which no one would like for themselves could be sold or auctioned to add to the loved one’s funds for their long term healthcare needs.
Photos and albums should be scanned so there is a protected copy of those items. This also makes it easier to share with extended family members. Favorite photos may then be given to whomever desires them.
When downsizing household goods such as furniture, decorative items, kitchen items, and holiday items, think practically. If your loved one will be moving into a smaller home, think about the space available, both usable and storage. Space will be at a premium in most assisted living situations; it is likely the space will be less than 600 square feet. Most assisted living arrangements provide a small kitchenette often with only a microwave and dorm refrigerator. Therefore, keeping pots and pans, casserole dishes, and several sets of plates, glasses, and serving dishes is unnecessary. Assisted Senior Living has a great breakdown of the square footage of independent and assisted living as well as nursing home living space.
As for furniture, dining room sets and multiple bedroom sets will need to be discarded. A three or four bedroom home with a family room, a living room, a dining room, and an eat-in kitchen contains far more furnishings than a one or two bedroom condo (independent living) or assisted living apartment will be able to handle. Even if your family decides to move your loved one in with you into an in-law suite or a granny shack or pod, all their belongings will not be able to move with them.
Small items, collections, and books are another area of possessions to be considered. In our case, we have amassed quite a large library. If we have not disposed of the books before we downsize or die, we are going to instruct our son to choose only the books he desires and donate the rest to a library. The small items he doesn’t want can be given to a charity thrift store. Those who have collected sets of figurines, plates, spoons, etc. may want to consider selling the collection if no one in the family wants them.
Paper is another trouble spot when going through someone’s belongings. We have heard of many families who are simply overwhelmed with the paper items left behind by loved ones. Magazines, catalogs, newspapers, etc. tend to take up residence seemingly without our realizing it. Receipts, instruction booklets, tax returns, old bank statements and bills — all these also tend to collect themselves. It is imperative that these papers be sorted, stored appropriately if needed, or thrown away (preferably shredded for personal and business items) while your loved one is still living. Hopefully, they will be able to shed light on what is important. If they are unwilling to throw anything away, you will at least be able to sort into folders or boxes to easily be thrown away later. Consumer Reports has a terrific article on what items to keep and for how long: How Long to Keep Tax Records and Other Documents. It would be wise to go over this list with your loved ones to help them understand what is important and what is not.
When downsizing, don’t forget the garage and yard equipment. If moving into a retirement community in a home or condo, yard work and maintenance may be provided by the community. In such cases keeping these types of belongings is not necessary. At the most, a few small household or garden tools may be needed. Those moving into an assisted living community will not need to keep any yard equipment as all those services will be provided by the community. For those desiring to piddle about gardening, the community often has areas designated for their residents to garden in and also provide the necessary tools with which to do so.
It is very important to have this most difficult talk about their belongings with your loved ones. Possessions can be a tricky aspect of end of life care. Even trying to take care of these matters before the death of a loved one will prove difficult. Family members will more than likely have hurt feelings as possessions are divided and may be rejected. It is important that everyone respects each other. Some family members (parents, siblings, aunts/uncles, cousins, etc.) may think that others “should” (or “should not”) have something because ________. Be careful not to force items nor to argue with someone who disagrees with you. Some may have no emotional attachment to anything nor have the same memories of an item as you and, therefore, may not desire many, if any, items. That is okay. It is more important to value others than to value the things. Remembering this will help when having to downsize or dispose of possessions.
PS: If the thought of “death cleaning” is a bit too morbid for you, check out Marie Kondo’s Netflix show Tidying Up. She also has a website which can help you “konmari” your space. A simple search will help you find many resources and check lists to teach you the konmari method. The philosophy behind this style of minimizing is to keep only those things which “spark joy.” While some may mock the method or phrase, various principles in the method will help to aid in organizing and reducing “stuff” when downsizing.