Archives for Inherited Clutter
A nice result of uncluttering is that you can sometimes find things you’ve been looking for or that you forgot you had, and you’ll get a welcome surprise when you happen upon the items. You might also come across things that have high historical value. They may be items that have great historical significance, a family heirloom, or perhaps an artifact. These items represent “the museum of you” and if they are not properly cared for (a box in the basement or attic will not suffice), they can degrade and lose their value.
You can certainly take on the responsibility of caring for these valuable pieces yourself, but you’ll likely need some help, like the book, Saving Stuff: How to Care For and Preserve Your Collectibles, Heirlooms, and Other Prized Possessions written by Senior Conservator of the Smithsonian, Don Williams. Williams gives detailed, step-by-step instructions about how to keep your prized belongings in good condition.
Of course, before you can start the preservation process, you’ll need to decide which things to keep and which things not to keep. Taking stock of everything you have and making an inventory list is a great starting point. Then, you can use a Pro vs Con list to help you decide which items you’ll maintain yourself and which ones would be best cared for by a museum or special interest group. As you go through this process, think about:
- How meaningful each item is to you
- The amount of time and effort required to keep the item(s) in good condition
- The type of equipment needed to maintain the item(s) in a pristine state
Williams suggests that you also think about whether or not you’ll be able to preserve an item “without changing its character.”
Fundamental to preserving your stuff is keeping it as it should be for as long as possible without changing what it is.
This is an important point, as changing the items will likely affect its value. If the item needs repairing, this means you will probably need to restore it and then follow up with protective measures to prevent any future damage. Depending on each item, the types of things you may need to do to preserve an heirloom might be numerous, taxing, and require specific actions. Unless you have the time to devote to keeping special items protected, you might want to hand over ownership to a museum or historical society. Doing this will help you to potentially honor the family members to whom the items belonged and reclaim your space for items that you use regularly. It can also be a way to keep those items out of harm’s way from the normal hustle and bustle of your home, particularly if you have pets or children.
Should you decide to donate an item to a museum or historical society, consider having it appraised so that you have an accurate understanding of its monetary value. Then, start looking for a specific institution that handles your particular items and what the donation requirements are.
During a presentation at a conference I attended a couple years ago, Illinois-based professional organizer Sue DeRoos made the obvious, yet insightful comment:
Everyone gets organized at some point, they just might not be around for it.
DeRoos’ comment was morbid, but absolutely true. At some point, someone is responsible for sorting, purging, and getting your affairs in order — either you do it while you’re alive, or your loved ones do it after your gone.
I was reminded of Sue’s comment after reading The New York Times online editorial “How to Lose a Legacy” from July 12. The author, Ellen Lupton, uses the op-ed to express her mixed emotions about her possessions, specifically her fears that her things won’t be of value to her daughter after she is gone:
I probably wouldn’t have kept [a set of Wedgwood cornflower blue china inherited from my mother’s mother] if I had bought them in a junk shop 20 years ago. But they were my grandmother’s, so I keep them safe, and take them out a few times a year for family celebrations. As I wash each piece by hand, I wonder, with a pang of melancholy, if my daughter will someday do the same.
I had somewhat of a negative reaction to Lupton’s piece. I stand more firmly in DeRoos’ camp. I think that if you truly love people, you don’t want to burden them with your clutter after you’re gone. You want to make things as simple as possible for them, not bog them down with guilt, piles of stuff, and responsibilities. I hope to ease their grief, not make it worse.
What are your reactions to the DeRoos quote and Lupton’s piece? What are your thoughts about what you plan to leave behind? Yes, it’s morbid to ponder, but we are mortal. What do you want to be your legacy?
I once worked with a woman who has kept every single piece of clothing her children wore from birth until they went off to college — including underwear, torn jeans, stained t-shirts, and socks with failed elastic. The clothing is stored in a room in her basement and it lines the walls on custom designed clothing rods. The items are organized by child and then by size. The room looks like a boutique children’s clothing store, except, of course, the clothes are not for sale.
Whenever I read an article about downsizing, my mind always returns to this woman. I wonder what will happen to the early-1980′s infant sailor suits, the haphazardly created Halloween costumes, and the Bedazzled worn-out Keds when my former co-worker leaves her family home for an apartment in a retirement community. Will she take any of her collection with her? Or, will she try to give it away to her children, a new parent, or a charity?
We all have collections like this — albeit probably smaller — that have meaning to us and possibly no one else. Maybe you’ve kept every fortune cookie fortune that has crossed your path or never parted with your favorite childhood action figures? Whatever it is, you care about it and have made space for it in your home. But, when faced with the possibility of moving to a smaller place, you might decide to let it go.
Unfortunately, the reality is that not everyone gets to decide what makes it into a new place when they downsize. Instead of making the decision for yourself, you might be the person making this decision for someone else, such as an injured or ailing parent. If this is the case, you have to make choices about the things other people value — and this can be extremely difficult.
“Of all the people in human history who ever reached the age of 65, half are alive now.” — Fred Pearce in the article “The shock of the old: Welcome to the elderly age” in the April issue of New Scientist.
If you are preparing to downsize (either yourself or for a family member), keep the following thing in mind:
- Emotions are strong during this time, even when the move is desired. Take the time to carefully sort through everything. Whomever is downsizing needs to be heavily involved in the process and have time to share stories about the items with others.
- Snap digital photographs of anything you plan to throw out, donate to charity, give away, or recycle that has an emotional connection for you or your loved one. This might be the one time you want to print the photographs and stick them in an album for easy viewing (especially if an older person who doesn’t have a computer will want to look at the pictures).
- Consider hiring a senior move manager to help with the process. Having a third party involved who isn’t emotionally tied to the situation can help significantly.
- Measure the new place and know exactly how much stuff can be moved into it. You may need to go through the “taking with me” pile multiple times to ensure that the right amount of stuff will be transported.
- If family and friends are interested in some of the personal items in the current home, only let the person or persons who are downsizing decide what pieces go to whom. Try your best not to let the person moving spaces be bullied into decisions. When financially valuable items are involved, you can contact an appraiser to provide information so the best decisions are made for the person downsizing.
Downsizing can be a wonderful experience, especially if emotions are respected throughout the entire process. It can be liberating to rid yourself of the responsibilities of caring for so many possessions — even the objects you spent years collecting and treasuring. Take the time and say farewell appropriately to your family home.
Reader Piper submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:
I have a bunch of old X-Rays hanging around. Various broken bones, MRIs and things like that.
I don’t really want to throw them away (I’m not quite sure why) but I don’t know what to do with them either. I know I’m not the only one that keeps these things because I’m moving into an apartment and found a couple of X-Rays from the previous occupant.
Right now, they live in the bottom of a dresser drawer. That doesn’t take up much space, but it seems silly to have a curiosity like that around but hiding in the bottom of a drawer. I thought about putting them on a window as a decoration, but decided that was just too macabre and weird.
What an interesting question!
First, you should know that the Environmental Protection Agency claims that x-ray films do “not appear to be hazardous waste.” This means that if you have them in your house in an envelope, you’re storing them safely. The films themselves don’t retain any toxic levels of radiation. I was actually worried about this for a while, so I was glad to learn that handling them was fine.
Now, just because you aren’t poisoning yourself by having them around, doesn’t necessarily mean that you should keep them. The next time you go to your doctor’s office, bring along your collection of x-ray films. Ask your doctor which of the x-rays are worth keeping, and which ones you can purge. If you have an on-going medical condition, your doctor will probably instruct you to keep all x-ray films of importance to that condition. However, your doctor will probably tell you an x-ray of a broken wrist you had in the third grade won’t be important to keep.
The x-ray films your doctor recommends you keep should be stored in your personal medical file in your home filing cabinet. If you don’t still have the envelope they came in, ask your doctor if you can buy one from her. They usually run about $1 an envelope (if your doctor even chooses to charge you). I don’t recommend displaying or doing anything crafty with these x-ray films since you or someone close to you might need to access them in a medical emergency.
Best case scenario, your doctor will offer to recycle any x-ray films you don’t need to keep. If she doesn’t, call your local hospital and see if they accept old x-ray films. If neither your doctor or local hospital recycle them, check your county’s website to see if they have a recycling program for such items or if a recycling center in your area does. Most old x-rays have silver in them, which means that they’re relatively valuable in the recycling market. I’ve never had any difficulty finding a recycling center that accepts old x-ray films.
If you want to do something more creative and artsy with your old x-ray films, I suggest only using ones that have out-dated information on them. An image of your bones while you were still growing is probably safer to use than an image of your bones as an adult. Or, if you had a pin put in your ankle, an image before you had the pin put into it would be safer to use since it’s not how your ankle currently looks. X-rays are very personal information and you wouldn’t want it to get into the wrong hands and have to fight an insurance fraud case.
Thank you, Piper, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.
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Reader Lisa e-mailed us the following question:
I am moving across the country (probably just for a few years), and would like to take just the essentials. However, I have three large pieces of antique furniture bequeathed by my grandmother that I can definitely see wanting to have in a more permanent house when I move back in the future. So… what do I do with them for the next few years? (Or am I deluding myself — will I ever want them?)
Lisa, your question brings up a number of different issues, so bear with me while I take a few twists and turns to get to a definitive answer.
To start, you seem more uncertain about life than you do about a few pieces of furniture. You use the phrase “probably just for a few years,” which speaks volumes about why this decision is difficult for you. Stop thinking about a possible future, and focus on right now. Are you moving across country? Yes. Do you want to take this furniture with you? No.
Since you don’t want to move the furniture across country, you need to decide what to do with it. Is there someone else in your family who could use the furniture now? What would the repercussions be in your family if you sold the furniture to an antique dealer and used the money to set up your new home on the other coast? If someone would be upset that you sold the furniture, are they willing to take it off your hands? (If not, don’t allow yourself to be guilted into keeping it.)
Maybe you love the furniture, and are considering storing it in self-storage? The reality is that you would likely pay $100 a month to put the three pieces of furniture into a storage locker. If you stay on the other coast for three years, then you’ll have spent at least $3,600 in rent for unused furniture. Would you pay that amount to buy this furniture if you saw it in a store? Could you even insure the furniture for that amount? The possibility also exists that you’ll love the other coast and decide to stay out there permanently. If this happens, then you’ll either continue to pay to store the furniture or you’ll have to pay to have it shipped across country. Whatever way you look at it, using a public storage facility will cost you … and it will probably cost you stress and worry in addition to the price tag.
The future is uncertain, but the present isn’t. If I were you, I’d give the pieces to someone in the family who wants them more than you do. You can admire the furniture every time you visit that family member, and know that it is being useful. And, remember, it’s just furniture, it’s not your grandmother.
My grandmother passed away in 2002. She was old enough to remember being a child in Pittsburgh during the Great Depression. She used to tell stories about her childhood to let us know how lucky we were to have all of the things that we were undoubtedly taking for granted. She remembered sharing what little clothing she had with her two sisters and squeezing her feet into shoes that no longer fit. One year, her Christmas gift consisted of crayons which she received as a joint gift with her sisters. I’m sure those crayons were used in the most judicious manner.
Flash forward to the years when my grandmother used to shove sugar and ketchup packets in her purse when we went to a restaurant and you could understand why she did such things. The abundance with which we are so accustomed is easily taken for granted because we really don’t have a frame of reference for the really tough times. My grandmother was also a “pack rat” (ie. highly cluttered) which we didn’t fully realize until we had to empty her house.
She lived in her last home for over forty years, twenty six of those years she lived by herself. The clearing out of all of the stuff from her home was quite a chore. She kept everything that might one day be useful–for example, she had more than five non-working vacuums.
I understand why she behaved the way she did, and why others like her do the same. But the reality is that in today’s more prosperous economy it can actually cost a person more to hang on to broken things and store sugar packets. Real estate is expensive, and energy use to properly heat and cool a home in such a way as to keep mold and mildew off of belongings is pricey. If you’re keeping items in an off-site rented storage unit, you’re probably spending more in rent over time than you would if you had to repurchase what you’re storing. Erin’s discussion of sunk costs also addresses this issue.
Keep in mind the real expense of holding onto clutter and fight the urge to keep something just because you think one day it might be useful. In many cases, the expense of storage is greater than any cost you may at some point incur.
The Calgary Herald has a helpful article on saying goodbye to the family home. My parent’s are most likely going to be moving out of their home in the next five to seven years. It will no doubt be an emotional and trying time for them. I’ve made a suggestion to them to have a giant yard sale to get rid of a lot of the things that they have accumulated over the years. (It worked well for us when we downsized.) From the article:
Kathy Roberts says there’s no denying saying goodbye to the family home can be tough, but she believes most of the stress that comes with downsizing is due in part to all the stuff people accumulate over the years.
Whether it’s children’s report cards, forgotten birthday presents stuffed in the closet, or old gardening tools and lawnmowers in the garage, Roberts says homes are a nesting ground for clutter.
Taking inventory of one’s belongings is “often a huge (job) because nobody realizes how much they accumulate over time,” says Roberts, who owns and operates Clutter Busters.
Since my parents will be downsizing significantly, they will have to get rid of quite a bit of stuff. If you have parents who are saying goodbye to a home that they have lived in for quite some time, you might want to suggest that they have a yard sale as a good place to start with clearing the clutter.
My grandmother is in her upper 90s and has been living in a retirement community for the past 12 years. The majority of her possessions from her previous home are in my father’s spare bedroom and garage. The boxes and furniture take up so much space that for more than a decade guests have been sleeping on the couch in my dad’s basement and he has been parking his car in his driveway.
I have asked repeatedly why he’s holding on to all of her things since she no longer needs her blender, coffee cups, or toilet scrub brush. I’ve never received an answer, and I’m not certain that he could give me one if I pressed him on it.
The process of moving a loved one into a retirement community or nursing home is an emotional undertaking for all involved. It wasn’t easy for my grandmother, an independent, spitfire of a woman, to give up her home of more than 50 years and move into a retirement community. And, it has been difficult on my dad and his siblings to accept the fact that she needed to move.
Many families are faced with similar situations as aging parents move into retirement communities and nursing homes. The transition is tough for all involved in the process.
Over the past decade, retirement communities and nursing homes across the U.S. have taken notice of the difficulties families face transitioning loved ones into their facilities and are doing what they can to make the process smoother. Many retirement communities now offer transition management services to their residents.
I spoke with a local nursing home administrator about what these services entail. In his facility, there are two, full-time transition managers who work with every new resident. They go into the residents’ family homes and help them clear clutter, sell/donate/give to family items that won’t move with them to their new home, and help the residents choose what they want to bring with them. The process takes weeks and is an emotional but usually positive experience.
If you’re faced with a situation of helping someone move into a retirement community or nursing home, be sure to inquire if the facility offers transition management services. If they do, talk with residents and children of residents to learn about the quality and value of these programs. If the facility doesn’t offer this service, I highly recommend contacting the National Association of Senior Move Managers. NASMM has a referral system to help you find move managers in your community. You also may want to review this resource list for books relating to this delicate subject.
Reader Mary wrote in to share here experience with inherited clutter and how her mom made it easy for her. Her advice is too good not to share.
My mom was the ultimate minimalist and she constantly told us not to worry about getting rid of any of her things after her death. It was a precious gift to me (who has tendencies to be a sentimental packrat.) I had no idea that I would feel like I was burying her all over again every time I came upon something that had been hers (and it can be the strangest stuff – one time it was some old gift wrap paper I had bought from a yard sale she held.) I’d hold up the old, now useless item and hear her words – “it’s okay to throw out anything of mine that you can’t use.” I’d feel terrible for a minute, but the weight of the world was gone as soon as that stuff hit the trash can. So give your kids that gift … start telling them now. Her memories live on without all that baggage and weight.
Reader Elizabeth sent us the following e-mail and corresponding photographs. Her message was heartbreaking and honest, and she has agreed to let us share it with you:
My parents have a compulsive hoarding problem. I don’t mean that they’re “a little disorganized” or “let the housekeeping get the best of them.” They’ve had this problem since I can remember–and it’s affected me for much the worse.
In high school, there was no free horizontal space in the house–no tables, no desks, no countertops–clear of junk. I had to do my homework on my bed or go to the library. (And, yes, I had the same problem as them, too!)
The photos [which appear below] were taken almost a year ago. In the ensuing time, the house has gotten much, much worse. This is pretty organized for them.
For those of you with children, keep in mind that you aren’t just getting rid of clutter for yourself–your organization has a direct effect on your child, whether or not they can articulate it. If you or your spouse has a problem with hoarding, take care of it sooner rather than later. My mom was the one with the clutter problem and it drove my dad crazy–but he didn’t do anything about it. If he had, even if she hadn’t liked it in the short term, we all might have had a happier life.
If you or someone you love has a problem with hoarding, please seek help. As Elizabeth has so accurately explained, hoarding affects more than just the person with the problem.
Inherited clutter can be described as objects that legally come into your possession or responsibility after the loss of a loved one or when a family member is transitioned into a retirement community or nursing home. Addressing these objects can be difficult and highly emotional. Provided is a small resource list of printed materials and an organization that may be of benefit to you:
- Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home by Linda Hetzer and Janet Hulstrand
- Family Realities: Helping Aging Parents, Closing the Family Home, Dividing Family Possessions, Putting Affairs in Order by Lucy F. Wold and Ann F. Andersen
- Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate? by M. Stum
- Moving for Seniors: A Step-by-Step Workbook by Barbara H. Morris
- Locate a professional through the National Association of Senior Move Managers
Feel welcome to provide additional resources in the comments.
An AARP Magazine article from earlier this year effectively addresses the topic of transitioning a parent from a family home to a retirement community or nursing facility.
“If it’s your child [helping with the process], it’s twice as irritating,” agrees [Terry] Prince [a Sacramento professional organizer]. “It’s a lot easier when it’s a third party.” Much of her work involves simply listening to her clients talk about their stuff, a ritual that the kids may no longer have the patience for. You also have to avoid the drastic measures that many exasperated family members might take when faced with an overloaded home, a stubborn parent, and a moving deadline—just throwing everything out on the curb. At a time of life when loss of control is a painful reality, forced decluttering can be devastating. “Clients need to make the decisions themselves,” Prince says. If you throw things out for them, “they’re not going to feel happy. They’ll feel violated.”
See the full article from the January/February 2007 issue “Conquering Clutter” written by David Dudley here. The article contains many suggestions and insights on this emotional topic.
Thanks to my mom for pointing us to the article!
Since the 1880s, when a woman in my family has raised her children and finds herself getting along in years she has picked up a small paint brush and signed her full name and birth date to the bottom of her china’s tea cups and saucers. Then, as she sees fit, she distributes the tea cups and matching saucers to her family and friends.
My mother has a collection of seven tea cups and saucers on a shelf in her dining room’s china cabinet. As a child, I would ask about the tea cups and my mother would pull them out and tell me the stories of the people to whom they had belonged. Not all of the tea cups and saucers were signed, those had come from my paternal line where signing the china hadn’t been the tradition. My mother had collected the unsigned pieces from my father’s family members so that when she one day passes on the collection to me that I will have a set including pieces from more than her family.
It seems a bit cluttered to collect seven different tea cups and saucers to store on a shelf of a china cabinet, but in comparison to keeping seven complete sets of china it is quite uncluttered. Also, with the sentimentality of past generations being passed on in tea cups, it means that other, more clutter-prone objects, are eliminated guilt-free from the inheritance process.
Inherited clutter can come in many forms, but usually it is accumulated in one of two ways:
- After the loss of a loved one, or
- When someone is moved into a smaller living space, such as a nursing home.
I have dealt with both situations, and can attest to their emotional strain. When my maternal grandparents suddenly passed away, everyone was stunned and grieving. Sorting through their out-dated coupons, years of saved wrapping paper, and my grandmother’s childhood doll collection was the last thing anyone in the family wanted to do. The next year, we had to move my paternal grandmother into an assisted living center, and the repercussions were just as severe. Lifetimes of possessions seemed to compound the grief, stress, anxiety, sadness, and seemingly endless waves of other emotions for everyone in the family.
In the coming days, I’m going to present a series of posts on the topic of inherited clutter. By no standard will these posts be completely exhaustive of the subject. Additionally, they won’t answer questions about funeral or nursing home arrangements. These posts will simply discuss objects that legally come into your possession or responsibility after one of the two above situations has occurred.
I’m currently doing research for an upcoming series of posts on inherited clutter. Constantly thinking about the passing of loved ones is emotionally draining, however, and I’ve been seeking out frequent diversions from my serious research.
One of my diversions has been to look for creative ways to use old things in new ways. For example, I’ve discovered an artist who takes old costume jewelry that people never wear, modernizes and reworks it, and creates stylish, fashionable, new pieces of jewelry. Since outdated, costume jewelry is the majority of what I inherited when my maternal grandmother passed away, I find this process brilliant.
I wanted to learn more, so I contacted Sara Bradstreet, the artist I discovered who most deeply captivated my attention, for an interview. Thank you, Sara, for talking with me. (The necklace pictured on the right is a broach she trasnformed.)
Unclutterer: What inspired you to become an artist who brings new life to old jewelry?
Sara: I wanted to create art with little waste and satisfy my desire to sniff out the diamond in the rough. With jewelry, there is little waste. I use most elements of the piece. Sometimes, I will buy a not-so-attractive necklace just for the clasp, or a bag of buttons for the few rhinestone buttons at the bottom–even things as random as old silverwear find their way into my collection. I find much beauty and integrity in old things and hate to see beautiful gems in a dumpster.