As published in the Savannah Morning News - 28 July 2012
Possession paralysis, surprisingly, is real.
David Ekerdt, a gerontologist with the University of Kansas, was in search of answers. He and his team wanted to know whether the sheer volume of possessions that seniors acquire over decades become an obstacle to late-life downsizing.
Specializing in senior move management and real estate services, I know how physically and cognitively daunting the process can be for my clients. Not only are they trying to assist with packing and sorting, but making the hundreds of small decisions required to sell their home and make a move just wears them out. To better assist my clients, I was especially interested in the outcome of Dr. Ekerdt’s study.
Dr. Ekerdt acknowledged that real estate closings and apartment leases create added deadlines and greater pressure. Coupled with the emotional element of moving, the need to unload possessions in the downsizing process can be particularly difficult for seniors. Nobody had really documented that the need to unload possessions affected seniors’ decisions about moving to more manageable quarters – until now.
Dr. Ekerdt was able to insert several questions into the continuing national Health and Retirement Study in 2010 and gathered data from almost 1,100 community-dwelling adults over age 60. “It confirms all the anecdotal things that lawyers, geriatricians and families tell us: Stuff can be a problem,” he said.
We’re not talking about hoarding, a disorder in which the inability to dispose of even useless objects becomes extreme. This is normal clutter: 60 percent of respondents said they had more possessions than they needed. The proportion didn’t vary by gender or bear much relationship to personality traits, but people who were married (more acquirers per household) and wealthier, with bigger homes, were more likely to feel “over-provisioned,” probably because they simply had more space into which to stuff more stuff.
Many of the folks I talk to claim their stuff has sentimental value and the associated memories make it difficult to part with it. But Dr. Ekerdt and his colleagues, who have conducted 100 interviews in movers’ households, learned that stuff may not even be particularly treasured. “We hear somewhat about special, cherished things, but we hear more about just quantities of generic possessions,” he said. “It’s a problem of volume as much as sentiment.”
I’ve experienced this with seniors who buy in great quantities. I might be packing their 30 rolls of paper towels, a case of liquid hand soap dispensers, loads of duplicate spices, pantry items, etc. I attribute this phenomenon to Depression Era babies, who may have experienced rationing, and may still fear that supplies will run out!
It’s not so important when people can’t park in their garages or close their closet doors. But when Dr. Ekerdt asked respondents how reluctant they felt about moving, considering the effort required to transfer or dispose of their belongings, he found that 48 percent felt “very reluctant” to move and another 30 percent were “somewhat reluctant.” That adds up to more than three-quarters of people over 60 feeling trapped, to some degree, by stuff.
Are people so afraid to leave their stuff that they forgo simplifying their lives and moving to smaller abodes? Do they choose to age in place because they feel trapped in a larger home? In the study, more than a quarter of these older people said their families or friends had urged them to downsize, and of those, half said that family and friends had offered to help.
Almost always, I hear from my clients that their children will want their things - their china, crystal, antiques, photo albums, etc. The truth is, in real life, their children are Baby Boomers who already have their own stuff and are beginning to shed what they have. Unless they are extremely sentimental (which is rare), I do not see Boomers loading up their cars and hauling Mom and Dad’s beloved treasures away. A few boxes of photos, maybe, but not much else.
Disposing of stuff is the hardest part of my job. Dr. Ekerdt found that the proportion of seniors who had methodically disposed of possessions was not high. Only 3 percent said they had sold “many things” in the past year. “People have these ‘Antique Road Show’ dreams, but many of our possessions are not very salable,” Dr. Ekerdt said. Only 14 percent had given many things away to family and friends, and 23 percent had donated to a charity or community groups, probably the simplest way (though still not simple) to get rid of stuff.
In fact, the study showed that lots of people hadn’t gotten rid of anything! Possession Paralysis was alive and well, and very, very real. Their families will not be grateful when a safer or simpler home is needed, especially in response to a health crisis, and the whole job of downsizing and disposal falls to them. Do you really want to leave this burden to your family? REALLY?
Next week in Moving Mom…Are you sure that’s a bedroom? The truth about Gross Living Area. Stay tuned!