Reducing Clutter or Disposing of Possessions

Many of us have had to clean out the living space of someone who has died or who is moving to a nursing home or assisted living facility. I have been involved in that task several times and I know it affects my view of how I want my own living space to be when my children inherit that task. Bill and I don’t want our children to have a huge burden when it comes to disposing of our possessions some day. I have heard many stories from others about what they had to deal with in that final “housecleaning.” A few of us might be rich enough to delegate the entire task to hired hands but most of us have to deal, at least to some degree, with the task ourselves. Some of the stories I have heard about this experience have been thought provoking and have given me some ideas for making the task easier. I am going to explain my reasons for arriving at these ideas but the characters in the “case histories” I cite will remain anonymous. After all, these stories are about friends or relations with whom I do want to remain on good terms.

Case History Number One: Perhaps the most alarming case I remember involved a wonderful couple who decided to begin downsizing many years before they actually gave up their home to move in with a caregiver. They wanted to be fair to their surviving children and ensure that each of them received some treasured keepsakes. That was a noble idea that turned, in my opinion, into a complete catastrophe in the execution stage. Here is my first tip on this subject: if one or more of your children have a hoarding disorder, do not invite your heirs to a get together where they place name stickers on the items they want to receive when you are gone. If you choose to ignore my warning, at least provide lots of stickers and retreat to a safe location before you turn the heirs loose to tag their potential bequests. The running of the bulls in Pamplona was tame compared to the stampede that ensued when this couple’s descendants were invited to move about the home placing their stickers. A compulsive hoarding disorder causes its victims to desire to own every single available item. Not a single piece of furniture, decorative item, or personal possession in the entire house was left untagged when the dust had settled.

Here are some additional tips for people who still choose to issue this type of invitation to their progeny: have referees available to settle any disputes; use name tags with strong adhesive so they can’t be ripped off by competing heirs; provide a first-aid kit for the injured; provide grief counselors for the participants who don’t suffer from a hoarding disorder and were thus too slow to successfully tag anything. It wasn’t as though this particular couple had priceless possessions worth fighting to own. I saw the merchandise before the free-for-all began and there wasn’t a single item there I felt the desire to take home with me, not that I could have in any case since I was not one of the surviving descendants. The possessions were lovely but, by middle age, most of us have developed strong preferences for what we want our own homes to look like and we are already considering the fact that we will need to downsize some time in the near future. To a person with a hoarding disorder, these facts make no difference in the desire to possess all he or she sees.

Case History Number Two: This case involves a sweet little old lady who had already downsized several times, who lived on modest means, and who had among her progeny at least one overly sentimental grandchild. Here is my first tip in this situation: either bar the sentimental child from the home that you are attempting to empty of stuff or rent a very large U-Haul Truck for said child. I’m going to break my own anonymity rule on this one and admit I am speaking of my own mother here. In this case, the overly sentimental person was my daughter who had inherited the sentimentality trait directly from my mother, not from me! I knew we should not have let her come with us to empty my mom’s final living space when I caught her sneaking things I had already thrown away out of the dumpster that served my mother’s apartment. Not only that, but she was fighting off some neighborhood children who had gotten wind of the fact that usable stuff was being disposed of by a wasteful person (me again). What has she done since with the old-fashioned hooded hair dryer, the cute collectibles, the hand-made doilies and the embroidered hankies? On the plus side, this wonderful child, unlike someone with a hoarding problem, had no desire to hang on to the reclaimed items forever. I think she is still using the hair dryer and remembering her grandma every time she does, but she also created the wonderful shadow box shown in the attached picture filled with items that had belonged to my mom, and then she gave it to me. I love having it in my home and, yes, I do feel guilty about having scolded her for raiding the dumpster. So Tip #2 is to find someone slightly more sentimental than me and a little more hard hearted than my daughter to do the final housecleaning. The ideal person will keep a bit more than I did but throw out a tad more than she did.

Case History Number Three: This one definitely gets the anonymous treatment and it does not reflect the actions of any of my relatives (how’s that for a disclaimer?). The worst case I ever heard was told by a horrified friend who is still seeing a therapist to overcome the shock. When it came time to empty her parent’s home, she found sex toys; yes, that’s right; sex toys in their bedroom closet. Who knew one’s parents still had sex after they had achieved the ultimate goal of sex: to give birth to a perfect child? My friend was too embarrassed to tell me just what kind of toys we are talking about, not that I wanted to know. But the news prompted me to search the drawers in my husband’s closet to make certain the old copies of Playboy were gone. So my next tip is to save your children a pile of money spent on their shrink by disposing of any evidence that you have a sex life at the first sign that you are getting old enough or sick enough to croak without warning. You will notice that out of a desire to be tasteful, I am not including any photos with this paragraph.

Results of these Experiences: I have made quite a few changes as a result of these experiences. Bill and I have downsized our living quarters twice in the last 20 years and I am working now on eliminating all clutter. The worst part was the 500+ books I had spread out in various bookcases around the house. Yes, I admit it. I have one area where I have been known to hoard. Until recently I was incapable of disposing of a book. Now that I am the proud owner of a Kindle, I have lowered my standards on the disposal of books. I currently have over 200 books on my Kindle. I still have about 400 hard copies of books in my house. (For those of you who are paying close attention to numbers, you can see I am making progress.) I have now disposed of more than 100 of my hard-copy books; mostly non-fiction technical books with outdated information. Never mind the fact that I am acquiring new books at a rapid pace; those are digital books so they don’t count. By the time my children have to empty my house, the number of hard-copy books may be down to only 200-300. (Sorry, kids, I’m doing the best I can.)

If we don’t count the fact that I have saved every drawing my children ever gave me, every card and letter, every award they have ever won, and every photograph of them ever taken, I am doing very well at this reduction-of-clutter business. Well, of course, that is if you don’t count the garage. We have a two-car garage that has never known the joy of having a car actually parked in it. This sad situation is all my husband’s fault. He feels about tools the same way I feel about books. Bill worked in construction most of his life so there are lots of construction tools as well as handy homeowner tools, gardening tools, antique tools his dad gave him, metal-worker tools he used to build his many inventions, and big shiny tools that just caught his eye when we went to the tool department of any store. The picture I have included with this paragraph is not our actual garage. I don’t have a camera with a wide-enough-angle lens to take a picture of our actual tool collection.

I realized something as I was writing that last paragraph. Bill and I both cling to items we perceive to be the tools of our trade. Since I do a lot of research in my work and since I would be extremely upset if anyone disposed of not only my books, but my computer, my pen collection, or my stash of beautiful clay-coated paper, clearly it is the tools of my trade I can’t stand to part with just as Bill clings to the tools of his trade even though he hasn’t been well enough to go out to the garage in over a year. I also realized, as I was just rereading what I wrote, why I can’t bring myself to start cleaning out the garage either. When I was a teenager, my father was terminally ill with cancer. More than a year after he ceased to be able to work as a machinist, his co-workers, knowing of the financial hardship his illness was causing our family, raffled off the contents of his toolbox (which was still sitting at his workplace). They raised several thousand dollars doing so and then brought the money, all in cash, to my parents.

I remember that day vividly. My father knew his illness was terminal and he would never return to work, but I was watching his face as he realized his coworkers had sold off his tools to bring us the money. He managed to remain gracious in his thanks to them for their thoughtfulness, but the pain he experienced as he realized the final period had been put to his ability to earn a living and support his family was written on his face. He died a few weeks later and I can’t help but think the loss of his tools made it easier for him to let go of life. So I have decided it is a good thing to pursue my desire to reduce the task my children might face some day when cleaning out my house but it is ok to back off on getting rid of the tools of our trades.

I had one more realization as I was writing this post. Maybe a person with a hoarding disorder sees the objects that are hoarded as being as vital to his or her existence as many of us view the tools of our trade. No wonder it is so painful for such a person to part with the objects that surround them. I may need to develop a little more compassion for a person with this condition.

I know this much. Cluttered or not, I won’t empty the garage of my husband’s tools unless he asks me to do so. So my last tip is that if you are emptying a home of possessions for a person who is still alive (going to a nursing home or assisted living, etc.), have a very thorough conversation with that person to determine what items they feel most strongly averse to giving up and try to honor their wishes to the fullest extent. Then take a picture of those items in storage to show the person that their most treasured items are still accessible.

I hope people reading this post have some tips of their own on this subject that they will pass along to the rest of us. I always love learning something new from people who have walked this path before me.

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