Do You Have Too Much Stuff?

Challenges when trying to downsize.

Posted Aug 16, 2018

Generally, most of us have too much stuff. We tend to accumulate goods and keep them. The idea of “spring cleaning,” when we’re supposed to go through our belongings and donate, disperse, or discard items we no longer want or can use, is not as popular as it used to be. Many of us believe we need what we have, or we can’t part with the items. We will do this even when we no longer have room to keep the belongings, and thus, may have to put them in storage. In fact, public storage has become a booming industry that made more than $32.7 billion in 2016 and continues to grow (Minter, 2017).

Some of the reasons that motivate people to hang on to their possessions include:

  • Keeping replacement parts in case an item breaks
  • Being a “collector” of one type or many types of things
  • Believing that the items are or will become monetarily valuable
  • Claiming that the items have sentimental value because they evoke positive memories
  • Claiming that the possessions have or will have a useful purpose in the future (e.g., “I know I’ll need all these model train parts when I retire and have the time to put them together)
  • Finding that it takes too much time and effort to decide what to get rid of

Although people of all ages accumulate far too many belongings to the point that it has become problematic (e.g., can’t find what you need, no room in the apartment, upsets other residents in the home), there often comes a time when an intervention will be needed to reduce the volume. The one group, however, for whom interventions are frequently necessary are older aged individuals.

It has been suggested that the way others should encourage older people to downsize is different from that used for younger aged people. Young people may be told in very clear, unemotional terms how important it is to divest themselves of the overflow of their belongings. In contrast, the language used for older people should be more sensitive with gentle explanations as to how keeping their numerous possessions is problematic. Older aged people as a group tend to more frequently face the need to downsize than younger or middle-aged individuals. Many issues may emerge when they will have to move to a much smaller residence than the one they have now. For example:

  • They are no longer able to manage their home or live on their own
  • There are financial considerations
  • The neighborhood has changed to one that is not positive for the elder (e.g., high crime; too expensive; too congested and noisy; few social services; too distant from everyday needs like supermarket, pharmacy, transportation)
  • Their support system has moved away

Convincing older people to relinquish items they have possessed for years and have grown attached to is a difficult process. We have to bear in mind that the elder may view their possessions as “meaningful” in contrast to others who view the possessions as “stuff which needs to go.” (Smith & Ekerdt, 2011)

Florence, an 81-year-old widow, has been living in the family home for more than 50 years. Her neighborhood has changed, and her children have been urging her for years to move to a smaller place closer to them. Recently, she had to be hospitalized after she tried to retrieve some boxes of clothes when other boxes fell on her and injured her shoulder. Her family decided that she could no longer live alone and in such a cluttered house. They tried to convince her of the importance in downsizing and moving to a smaller place near them. Although they were previously tolerant of her desire to retain her belongings, they are now more emphatic regarding the need for her to relinquish all but her most essential possessions.

The elements described in the above scenario are common for families with older aged relatives. They want to respect their loved one’s wishes and autonomy; however, circumstances may arise which force them to intervene. Often, the precipitating factor is the older relative’s physical safety. To protect the elder, family members may initially encourage and offer to help the older relative’s efforts to downsize. However, they may become frustrated with the lack of the elder’s progress in downsizing. In addition, they may not attribute as high a degree of meaning or importance as the elder does to the accumulated possessions. Unfortunately, this may lead to negative repercussions.

  • Elder feels unsupported, misunderstood, and not respected by the family member
  • Elder experiences sadness, depression; feels lost and unmoored

Aggressively taking away objects from older aged people that have served as meaningful possessions and grounded them can be disorienting and result in varying degrees of cognitive impairment. Consequently, the efforts to have the elder live in a residence that is safe and supportive should not only be delivered with sensitivity and patience, but also include consideration of elders

  • Voicing their own preferences
  • Retaining some of their most meaningful possessions
  • Passing on to family members or others their treasured possessions with positive reinforcement for the legacy
  • Having a known support system readily available
  • Remaining in their safe and decluttered home as long as possible
  • Performing the downsizing in stages with breaks, as opposed to marathon disposal; thus, allowing the elder to adjust to the process (Luborsky, Lysack, & Van Nuil, 2011)

The value that people attribute to their possessions varies across time and circumstances. Some people are highly possessive of objects and likely to attach an emotional valence to them that might not seem meaningful to others. When the number of belongings become realistically problematic—particularly for those who are unable to manage them—others may have to intervene. An “assist” manner for older aged individuals may be more successful than an “assertive” manner which is more effective for young people. Regardless of whether one is a pack-rat or lives a spartan life, psychological, physical, and financial well-being should be the guideline for determining how much “stuff” we should have.

References

Luborsky, M. R., Lysack, C. L., & Van Nuil, J. (2011). Refashioning one's place in time: Stories of household downsizing in later life. Journal of Aging Studies, 25, 243–252. doi:10.1016/j.jaging.2011.03.009

Minter, A. (2017, August 28). Somebody’s making money off of all our junk. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-08-28/the-self-storage-business-is-booming-here-s-why

Smith, G. V. & Ekerdt, D. J. (2011). Confronting the material convoy in later life. Sociological Inquiry, 81, 377–391. doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-682X.2011.00378.x