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I love this blog entry by Katie in Brooklyn about the emotional side of senior downsizing. She says “when done properly, the move itself can be a happy time – a time for the senior to reinvent himself and plan for the future.” What begins with overwhelm often turns into a rewarding and life-affirming process.
by Katie Husted | June 4, 2011 | onlytheblogknowsbrooklyn.com
The opening scene of Sex, Lies and Videotape plays in my mind a lot. Andie MacDowell in a therapy session calmly tells her therapist “Garbage. All I’ve been thinking about all week is garbage. I mean, I just can’t stop thinking about it…I’m worried about all the garbage.”
I think about this scene almost every time I take out our trash. But I also think of a slight variation every time I’m with a client. My version is “Stuff. All I’ve been thinking about is stuff. I’m worried about all the stuff.”
We almost all have too much stuff, and seniors tend to have the most. It’s not that seniors are particularly bad at throwing things away or that they shop too much. It’s simply that they’ve had more years to accumulate their stuff, and they tend to stay in the same home for much longer than younger generations, so they don’t have to go through the tedious process of boxing their belongings and forcing themselves to ask if they really need old tennis balls or cracked dishes.
When you pack to move, you challenge yourself to get rid of things. You almost have to – either you’ve got to fit everything into a small U-haul truck, or your mover is charging by the pound, or you just can’t bear the thought of scrounging the neighborhood for more boxes.
I moved a lot in my twenties and a few times in my thirties. I’ve moved across the country, across the city, even across hallways to bigger apartments in the same building. I hope I’m done moving, because I like where my husband and I have settled and I believe it will suit us for years to come. I want to be an octogenarian in our Park Slope apartment, finally with enough time to sit in our garden all summer long. But one thing that scares me is that if we stop moving, we may wind up with too much stuff.
Yesterday I helped a (non-senior) friend move his belongings out of a storage site. We spent a lot of time at the site, which depressed me beyond belief. I think of storage facilities as crutches that allow us to accumulate more than we need. It’s similar to how healthy eaters must feel about fast food restaurants. There are too many of them and they make it too easy to consume. Storage sites tantalize by telling us that we can have more and more stuff. Just upgrade to a larger storage unit when you outgrow your current one!
Most of my clients have lived in their present home for 30 years, minimum. They come to me because they are moving but can’t imagine how they’ll deal with all their stuff. How will they fit into their new apartment? Where do they start with the sorting process? They have no idea what’s in the backs of their closets. They are afraid of the top kitchen cabinets. They can’t remember if they’ve read half the books on their shelves.
The only way to get through it is one item at a time. Senior move managers are excavators, sorting through 70+ years of belongings, looking for treasures. We climb up on stepladders, open dusty cabinets, and pull out the things that haven’t been seen for years. We set dishes out on the bed for our clients to touch and hold. We ask where things came from and listen as they tell us the stories about their stuff. Our seniors sometimes cry with excitement when we find something long thought to be lost, and they often shake their heads in disbelief that they still have things they haven’t used in 20 years.
As we sort, our clients start to shape their futures by deciding what they will keep. An accomplished pianist who played daily for years couldn’t fit her piano in her new apartment, so we donated it for her. Instead she kept a guitar she looked forward to playing regularly. Another client who once cooked every family dinner and baked her own bread had to move into a residence with no private kitchens. She was torn up about this at first, but then realized she’d finally have time to read all the books she had collected. We sold her beautiful cookware but she took all her books with her. Our stuff can define us. I’m a reader, not a cook. I’m a guitar player now.
Our clients seem to go through a similar set of stages. First they don’t want to move at all. They often express resistance by not wanting to part with any of their belongings. Nothing should be given away or sold. Then, as we patiently go over floor plans with them and ask them about their future homes, they start to face reality and understand that it’s not practical to keep it all.
Slowly, as they see the alternatives – bestowing mementos to children, donating furniture and clothes to favorite charities, selling silver and art to offset the cost of the move – they begin to realize that their stuff may be better off without them, and that they may be opening up their worlds a little by shedding a bit of it. At some point they start to have fun. Either they get excited because they realize they’re going to be making some money by selling the mink stoles they haven’t worn in 40 years, or they start to feel good about the family in need who will be eating off their dining room table.
When done properly, the move itself can be a happy time – a time for the senior to reinvent himself and plan for the future. It’s not an easy process, and it requires patience and time, but moving can be incredibly rewarding, for all of us.