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Why is letting go of our stuff so hard?
By Iris Valanti


When doing research about downsizing – that is, adults/seniors moving to smaller quarters – the most common articles that came up were actually about how the younger generation, the millennials, are products of their online life, and don’t seem to set much store by owning things.

Your Kids Don’t Want Your Stuff,” the headlines all declared. Today, memories are preserved digitally, and younger people enjoy being more flexible and mobile.

As an adult who is currently selling a large house where I have lived for twenty-five years and moving to a much smaller place, it set me thinking about my relationship with and attachment to stuff, and how I will feel without it. And to thinking about my 88 year old father, a “collector” by nature, and what on earth to do with all his stuff. Going about my own downsizing has given me some perspective on how to encourage him to let go of both excess stuff, and of the expectation that anybody else will love our stuff as much as we have.

So between me and my dad, here’s what I’ve learned about downsizing:

  1. If you are older, do it now. Don’t wait till you move, and don’t leave it all for your kids to deal with.
  2. Start wherever you can start. Perhaps the least sentimental stuff: old sheets, pots and pans you never use, all the creepy stuff in the basement. If you run into anything sentimental, set it aside for now if it bothers you. Do one box a day if that’s the pace that keeps your anxiety down, but do the one box every day.
  3. Invite family and friends in to take whatever they want. This is stuff that will be appreciated. And make sure everybody takes whatever old boxes of theirs you’ve been storing.
  4. Get used to the idea that other people don’t value your stuff the way you do. My dad was a chemistry professor and thinks his old chemistry books are valuable (they’re not – I checked).
  5. Attach your memories to smaller things. I’m parting with my grandma’s dishes, but I will keep her filigree garnet ring.
  6. Accentuate the positive. Revel in the sense of freedom and the weight, literal and figurative, that is leaving your life. Fewer things means less cleaning. Look forward to actually knowing where things are. Tending things uses precious time; think of all the time you will have to go places, or read, or visit friends and family.
  7. If you are helping somebody else downsize, such as your parents, you will need an abundance of patience and loving acceptance. If the dynamic is too stressful, consider finding help. Apparently “senior move management” is a booming business, but having a professional who understands the underlying issues of seniors could relieve a lot of tension and anxiety for everybody.
  8. Understand that the tendency to cling to stuff may not be about the particular stuff at all. My dad’s sphere of influence, his circle of friends and his mobility are all shrinking. Can I blame him for wanting to exercise control over his belongings?

Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Pittsburgh offers senior counseling, home assessments, care management, home care and more. JF&CS is also a partner in the AgeWell Pittsburgh Collaborative. AgeWell helps locate resources (call the AgeWell Resource Hotline at 412-422-0400), and also sponsors lots of enjoyable activities. Visit the JF&CS website (www.jfcspgh.org) for more information.

My own move is different in that I’m excited to be leaving big house maintenance and upkeep behind, and I’m pretty zen about belongings in general, unlike the rest of my family. The article I read about millennials said they prefer having experiences to having stuff. I like that idea for all of us.



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