The camping equipment was the last straw. As I helped my mom clean out my childhood home (five bedrooms, plus a garage, attic and storage shed — all fully stuffed) I tried hard to be kind about what to do with items that were important to her, but potentially burdensome to me.
I kept the children’s books I knew my kids would enjoy someday. I was delighted to inherit the Pilgrim candles and a cornucopia that had graced our Thanksgiving table for ages. My great grandmother’s silver service — sure, whatever. My mom’s beloved china? Headed to eBay (perhaps without her knowledge).
But the camping equipment she tried to foist on me? No. It was “top of the line” back in the day, but that day had long since passed. It was now old, heavy, probably moldy and utterly unnecessary.
But instead of pointing out that our family already had a tent (and rarely camped anyway), I made the mistake of unleashing criticism on her precious property. And that’s when her rant started: My generation was entitled, didn’t know the value of a dollar, etc. Poof, just like that, our collaborative effort turned contentious.
There’s nothing easy about helping your parents downsize, whether it’s because they are moving to a smaller home or a long-term-care or assisted living facility. That’s because the task at hand really isn’t about what you’re doing with the material goods — it’s how you’re treating the memories attached to them, says Lakelyn Hogan, a gerontologist and caregiver advocate at Home Instead Senior Care, which provides in-home care for the elderly.
To that end, here are the expert tips I wished I’d known before having the “stuff” conversation with my mom. It just might have made our clean-out process all the smoother.
The author with Thanksgiving heirlooms she inherited.
1. Put Yourself in Their Shoes
If most baby boomers seem like they have a lot of stuff, it’s not necessarily because they’re hoarders (despite what you may think). Remember that they grew up during a time when it was popular to decorate homes with stately furniture and collectible items like china and formal serving ware, Hogan says.
Those types of items don’t fit in well with today’s changing aesthetics, less-formal vibe and Marie Kondo-esque minimalism. So understanding that their tendencies are largely due to a difference in taste and societal norms can help make it easier to explain why you don’t want all their castoffs.
Plus, remember that there’s sentimental value to what your parents own. For instance, I realized that everything in the house reminded my mom of a time when she was younger, when her days were filled with adventure and entertaining. Camping gear signified all the years our family would load up the Volkswagen bus and head to Sequoia National Park or the Grand Canyon. Her china reminded her of holidays where everyone was gathered around the table. Now that she could no longer enjoy these things, she wanted me to.
2. Decide What You’re Willing to Take — And Find a Good Home for the Others
The path of least resistance could be just to take whatever your parents try to give you, says Chris Seman, president of Caring Transitions, a senior relocation service. “By accepting the parent’s possessions, the child is, in effect, honoring the parent’s legacy, which can help older adults accept their situation and move forward more readily.”
Much of the time, though, that won’t be feasible — especially if the gifted items come with added expenses like shipping, storage or insurance fees, Seman says. In those instances, focus on the things you do want rather than harp on what you don’t, Hogan suggests. So if you can’t use the dishes but would love the linens, let your parents know.
Then try to find an appropriate home for what you don’t want or can’t take. Make sure you explain why you aren’t really the best home for those items. You could say something like, “I appreciate that you want to give me your spoon collection, but I honestly don’t feel I appreciate its true value,” Seman suggests. “Or [say] that you don’t have a place to display it properly.” A member of a spoon collectors club, however, would be able to give it the proper care.
You also might decide to donate items to charity, like a women’s shelter or a thrift store that raises money for a cause important to your parents. Another option is to have an estate sale or sell the items online, then use the proceeds to pay for something your parents can use in their new home.
3. Always Communicate Respectfully
Throughout the entire moving and downsizing process, treat your parents’ requests with respect and empathy, even if you don’t always agree with them, Seman says. That includes talking about their items carefully and referring to them as collections or possessions, rather than clutter.
“Let your parents know that just because you don’t want their treasured items, it does not in any way reflect the love you have for them,” Hogan says. And, ultimately, she says, adult children may need to be OK with any disappointment and hurt feelings.
One thing that can help ease the transition is creating a photo album that shows the items in use in the past, Hogan suggests. It could be full of photos that already exist, or you can snap a photo of the item before giving it away. That way, even if you’re not physically keeping all that stuff, you’re still preserving the memories associated with them.