Older adults may struggle with excess possessions

NEW YORK Thu Mar 6, 2014 2:03pm EST

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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - A lifetime's worth of acquisitions and mementos may bring comfort to older adults, but this "material convoy" can also become more burdensome with age, U.S. researchers say.

Based on a national survey, a new study finds that after age 50, people become less and less likely to sell or donate items they no longer need - possibly because doing so becomes more and more difficult, physically or emotionally.

"Having too many things is an obstacle to (older adults) being able to move to or live somewhere" smaller that better suits them, said lead author David Ekerdt, who is director of the gerontology center at Kansas University in Lawrence.

The problem has spawned a new industry of "senior move managers," but little has been known about why older people tend to hang on to things that no longer fit their lifestyles.

"For the first time, we have data about older people's regards for their possessions," Ekerdt told Reuters Health.

He and a coauthor analyzed data from the Health and Retirement Study, an annual survey of health, social and economic trends among Americans age 50 and older that started in 1992. Twenty-two thousand people filled out the 2010 survey, which included questions about how participants handled belongings.

They included how often people had "cleaned out or reduced the number" of belongings, and how often these possessions were sold, given to friends or family or donated to organizations.

Ekerdt and his colleague found that among people over age 70, about 30 percent of people reported they had done nothing over the past year to give away any belongings. And 80 percent in the same age group said they had sold nothing in the past 12 months.

Yet more than half of the respondents in all age categories believed they had too many belongings. For example, 56 percent of those aged 50 to 59 and 62 percent of those 70 to 79 reported having more things than they needed.

The results are published in the Journals of Gerontology: Series B.

"I was surprised by the finding that so many people say they have more things than they need," Ekerdt said. "You wonder, why is that so? Why don't they get rid of things?"

It's possible some people had divested themselves of excess stuff earlier in life, or before a move to a new home, so they didn't feel pressure to do it later, the authors write. It's also possible that with increasing age, failing health makes it physically harder for some to organize and disperse their goods.

In addition to logistics, emotions stirred by the prospect of parting with items linked to one's own identity and fond memories can make downsizing difficult.

"Sometimes when an adult child steps in to help mom or dad move, they bring emotional baggage. A lot of people are afraid they will lose the memory if they lose the item," said Mary Kay Buysse, executive director of the National Association of Senior Move Managers, who was not involved in the study.

Senior move managers help older people de-clutter and downsize later in life by figuring out which belongings are no longer needed and how best to get rid of these items.

For younger adults, the study serves as a reminder to survey one's own possessions now - not in a few decades, she noted.

"As a culture, we need to look at whether we need all of our stuff," Buysse said.

To avoid regret later on, people of all ages should be thoughtful about what they are giving away or selling.

"Not everything has to go, but not everything should stay," she said.

SOURCE: bit.ly/1olTPj6 Journals of Gerontology: Series B, online February 11, 2014.

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Comments (13)
euro-yank wrote:
More importantly, stop buying so much junk!

Mar 07, 2014 2:12am EST  --  Report as abuse
Julie_Henszey wrote:
Older adults face a great deal of uncertainty as they move into their 80′s and 90′s and they have a smaller sphere of control. The comforts of “home” and all its belongings provide a security blanket. These two facts make the process of working with seniors to downsize a very delicate process.

As a senior move manager myself, I find it’s important to reassure seniors that they have complete control over the downsizing process. I also tell them that there is no right answer and that no one will judge their decision. They get to choose the set of criteria they will use to make decisions about what “goes” and “stays.” I help them make those criteria easy to apply. And then I help a person apply them, over and over and over again, until they’ve covered practically every room in their house.

Clearing out a house with a senior homeowner prior to moving involves vulnerability and a trusted partner. Most of us aren’t a Ginger Rogers, but when it comes to downsizing, our possessions have no less meaning. Would you throw out the shoes worn when dancing with Fred? So thank you, I’ll keep my boots that I wore up Mt. Kilimanjaro! But first they’ll sit in my basement for 40 years, cuz I’m only 48!

Mar 07, 2014 6:35pm EST  --  Report as abuse
I always start with corralling the treasured family mementos, pictures and that which lights up their eyes and heart. The rest of the things can wait. Create trust. Trust will
get the move management quickly into gear.

Grandparents and great-grandparents who lived through the Great Depression, the Holocaust and those that are clinically depressed have created a society of Hoarders. Things and food are considered imaginary comfort, filling the gap between fantasy and real life. They will hold onto everything, kicking and screaming.

Narcism and depression are a huge impediment to a clearing. All their things are vital to them as perceived wealth on a pedestal. I have seen it in my family. I believe that hoarding is in your DNA and increases as you age. Genes, like wrinkles, are hereditary, so watch the habits and patterns in your aging relatives as you might become one of them.

Stuff is their idols and they worship at the alter of things.

I am a freelance “Move Manager,” all ages are welcome.

Mar 07, 2014 11:00pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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