All That Stuff

All that stuff

“Who doesn’t have a basement, attic, closet, or storage unit filled with stuff too good to throw away? Or, more accurately, stuff you think is too good to throw away,” says Alison Stewart in Junk: Digging Through America’s Love Affair with Stuff, the culmination of her three-year investigation into our society’s obsession with stuff.

Stewart journeys through basements, attics, closets, and garages in an attempt to understand why otherwise intelligent people hang on to seemingly worthless things like old Christmas bows and chipped knick-knacks and clothes they will never wear. You may have mementoes and family heirlooms but stashed away with all those items is also a lot of junk. She came to understand that “the key element of true junk is worthlessness.”

Traveling the country as she interviews an interesting variety of people involved in every aspect of junk, she begins her book with a drive through a 250-mile-long series of yard sales along a stretch of US Route 4ll that meanders from Alabama to Georgia to Tennessee. The description of tables of people’s junk for sale was so discouraging I would have stopped the research here. But Stewart always shows respect for the people and their junk, no matter how worthless or sad.

Steward investigates the many businesses that have sprung up as a result of our need for junk. She rides along with junk removal teams such as Junk Busters USA, Trash Daddy, Annie Haul, and Junk Vets, all local companies that work much like the more well-known 1-800-Got Junk. And she describes the founding of The Container Store, a business that came into being to supply us with storage containers for our stuff, and of NAPO, the National Association of Professional Organizers, a career that came about to help us deal with our stuff.

Stuff has become entertainment, too. Stewart goes backstage to a taping of Antiques Roadshow, a show that “explores the relationship between an individual, an object and value,” and she talks about the more compelling junk-based television shows like Pawn Stars, American Pickers, and the somewhat exploitative Hoarders.

There is hope.

Stewart also shows how inventive people have been in reversing the trend of having too much stuff. She interviews the founder of FreeCycle, an online community of people who would rather give away than throw away their no-longer-needed possessions. She spends time at a Repair Café, where volunteers with fix-it skills restore broken appliances, toys, clothing, and other items. She visits junk recyclers, one of which has started a retail operation called Regeneration Station.

She talks a little about upcycling, the concept of taking a used item and creating a new use for it, like refinishing old shutters and making them into a bed headboard. And she mentions the tiny house movement, a community of people who choose to live in homes that are very small as a way to lower their personal consumption and preserve national resources.

And, at the end of this enlightening book, quotes from some enlightened people.

Adrienne Glasser, a therapist, recommends mindfulness. “The definition of mindfulness is remembering to come back to the present moment. This process is very helpful to increase awareness of habitual patterns because we begin to see how we get stuck.”

Dr. David Tolin, a professor of psychology at Yale University School of Medicine and author of books and articles about disorganization, talks about being mindful as you make a decision. “We sometimes refer to it as ‘being your own boss.’ You know, can I be my own boss rather than letting my thoughts and feelings be the boss here.”

And my personal favorite, from one of the crew members of Junk Vets, after cleaning out a house, “Once you turn fifty you should just have to start giving away things.”

My main takeaway from this book is to start giving stuff away.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Five (More) Lessons Learned in Downsizing

DownsizingOpenBo

Don’t seal those boxes too soon! Leaving them open as long as possible allows “keepers” the time they need to change their minds, and get rid of more stuff as the job progresses.

When circumstances forced me into a sudden and unexpected move out of my home last spring, and into a major downsizing, I knew it was going to be quite the experience.

I also knew there were going to be new lessons learned to share with our audience, and I was right. My first two blog posts dealing with this “wild ride” took place in the first few weeks afterward. (You can read about them here and here.)

Now, almost a year later, I’m returning to some of the notes I took then. And here are a few of the things that stand out:

  1. Shred ahead!  “Shred documents every January. Better yet, go paperless!” is one of the notes I scrawled in those furiously frantic days when, on top of everything else I needed to do, I filled several large recycling barrels full of shredded financial documents, determined not to move them once again, this time into a storage locker, while I prepared for an international move. January is a good time to do this, since that’s when you will have the end-of-year statements (all that you really need to keep for tax purposes, etc.) readily at hand. But whenever you do it, it just know that the more you do it ahead of time, the less time you’ll have to spend sitting at a shredder when you make your next move. There’s some helpful guidance for proactively getting rid of paper in this post by my coauthor. Many communities now have free document shredding events, especially in the spring. And really, going paperless is a very good idea. (You can usually choose to get some of your financial documents the old-fashioned way, and let the rest just stay online. You know: the ones you’re never gonna read anyway…) It’s good for the earth, it’s good for you, it’s good preparation for your next move.
  2. Don’t seal the boxes too soon! There is a natural urge, especially for the people who are helping you pack for the move, to seal boxes. Sealed boxes signal progress–something EVERYONE wants in the middle of a move–AND they are much easier to move around and stack when they’re sealed. The problem is, sealed boxes make it hard to change your mind, and the ability to change your mind–at least for me, often!– during this process can be important. In my case, the ability to continue to sell/give away/donate tends to increase more and more as the process accelerates…and in terms of the ultimate goal of ending up with less stuff, this is pretty important. So if you’re a “keeper,” don’t let those efficient types helping you rush the process–tell them the boxes have to stay open as long as possible. In the end it will mean fewer boxes to move.
  3. Consider leaving collectibles to the collectors. I remember one anecdote we heard when we were first writing our book. You could call it an anecdote illustrating the Antiques Roadshow mentality. “We’re sittin’ on a fortune here!” I remember hearing repeated by a daughter who was dismayed at not being able to get her parents to get rid of anything because “this might be worth something someday.” When I found myself saying the same thing about some object or other to my son in the middle of packing for my last move, he said, politely, but firmly, “Mom. We’re not collectors. Leave that to the collectors.” And you know what, he was right! Collectors spend a lot of time learning about what “is worth something” and what is not. For the most part, it may make sense to “leave all that to them,” although there are some notable exceptions to this, as discussed in this post by my coauthor. But, especially for little things, and especially in the case of things that may eventually have value, but at the current time do not, at least consider it! In my last move, among the things I had been holding onto for many years that I actually got (a little) money for were, the matchbox collection I had acquired in my 20’s, and a very interesting, shiny gold, heavy metal object whose purpose was completely obscure to me (turns out to have been some kind of resister, perhaps for some kind of spacecraft? Maybe?) The person who bought these two items at one of my yard sales was happy  to have them, and I appreciated the fact that he was going to take care of them from now on. His enthusiasm justified (at least in my mind) having kept them all those years. And if he turns out to have been able to make a lot of money from selling them (which I very much doubt, I don’t think that’s why he bought them), well, anyway, he is welcome to it. He is the one who would have the knowledge and would have been willing to take the time to do so. did not. Even after more than 30 years!
  4. Consider the cost of moving and/or storage versus the cost of replacement. Some furniture is just not worth keeping: the cost of moving and/or storing it probably doesn’t make sense. So for some people, in some situations, it may make sense to take a good hard look at what you’re going to pay for moving and/or storing: and ask yourself if it wouldn’t make more sense to get rid of it now, one way or another (sell? donate? give away?) and just repurchase similar items on the other end. It’s kind of the idea of “rental” vs. ownership of furniture. And in some cases, it makes a lot of sense!
  5. Lighten up. I already knew this, because that is one of the most important–at least implicit–pieces of advice in our book. But I found new practical applications for this advice. For example: who makes the rule about yard sales having to start very early in the day? And is it absolutely necessary to follow this rule? These are two of the questions I asked myself in my last move. (“Who’s having the sale, anyway?” I said to myself.) I do understand that’s how it’s usually done, and perhaps if making the most money possible is important to you, then that’s the way it needs to be done. But if the main purpose is to clear out your house, minimize the number of things you have to move, and also make a little bit of money, then why do you have to be out of bed dragging things out of the house at the crack of dawn when you were probably up very late the night before, figuring out what to sell and how to much to ask? The answer is: you don’t! YOU’RE the one having the sale. YOU can decide when it starts and ends! Really, you can! You don’t have to kill yourself over this. Remember what almost everyone comes to realize is one of the most important “lessons learned” in the downsizing process, somewhere along the way: “It’s all just stuff.”

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

 

 

 

 

A Passion for Elder Care Leads to a Twitter Chat

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ElderCareChat pix 2_MichelleMichelle Seitzer has been part of the OurParents/SeniorsforLiving team since 2008 and launched #ElderCareChat in 2010. She is a freelance writer whose retirement/elder-care focused content has appeared on USNews.com, ReadersDigest.com, HuffingtonPost.com and AARP.org. She also writes about her international adoption experiences on ParentSociety.com.

To read more about Michelle’s role as a blogger and social media expert and how her interest in elder care evolved into a Twitter chat, check out the article here. You can register for the next #ElderCareChat, at this site.

Michelle graciously accepted our invitation to be interviewed for this post. And I thank her for inviting me to be one of her guest panelists.

~ What exactly is the Elder Care Chat? How would you define it? 

#ElderCareChat is a live Twitter conversation that happens twice monthly, but it is also representative of a larger community, a forum that is represents an ongoing conversation about important elder care issues.

~ How did you get involved with this? Did you create it? How did it start?

I co-created and launched the chat in November 2010 with Denise Brown (known on Twitter as @Caregiving) of Caregiving.com. Initially, I reached out to her to find out what chats existed on the topic of elder care. She said there were none, so we decided to start our own. Six years later, we’re still an active, growing chat.

~ Who is your audience? How many people participate in a chat? What is the reach?

Our audience is very broad. We have seniors, music therapists, family caregivers, activity directors from assisted living, home care agencies, health care consultants, elder law attorneys, Alzheimer’s advocates, universities, senior living providers, senior living marketers, policy makers who focus on elder care issues, nurses, leaders from volunteer organizations, and many others. On average, we have about 40 participants each chat, but the hashtag is used widely all the time, regardless of the live forum time. During a one-hour chat, analytics show we have over a million “impressions” comprised of RTs, tweets sent during the live hour, and views of tweets with the hashtag before, during and after the real-time discussion. Our LinkedIn group has over 700 members.

~ When I participated in the chat, sharing downsizing tips from our book, I was astounded at how fast and furious the responses came in and what great suggestions were passed along. What is the greatest surprise you found in working on the chat? What was the greatest piece of advice you received from one of your participants?

The greatest surprise? How we have been able to sustain consistent growth, interest and attendance for six years. I’m pretty sure that’s a record – longevity-wise – as far as Twitter chats go. I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by the fact that in six years, I can count on one hand the times we’ve had “spambots” invade and impact our chat in a negative way (although we pushed through anyway and kept chatting), and that attendees and participants have always maintained a respectful, compassionate tone through our discussions. We’ve thankfully never had to ask anyone to leave the conversation on account of negative, offensive input, and the self-promotion stays at a minimum thanks to our “share links in the last 5 minutes only rule.” Again, for six years of conversations, I think that’s quite an impressive record! I’ve also enjoyed some of our “celebrity” guests, like Dorothy Breininger from the A&E show, Hoarders, and the Chief Accessibility Officer (CAO) from IBM, Frances West, who talked about exciting elder care technology in the pipeline. The greatest piece of advice from a participant? That’s a tough one since we’ve had over 150 conversations over the years, but I would say many of the insights about self-care have stayed with me.

~ What are the most popular topics that you have covered? Which topics are you looking forward to covering in the future? 

Among the most popular topics covered: Alzheimer’s research, technology and aging/caregiving, ideas for creative caregiving, doing self-care and preventing caregiver burnout, and legal issues in elder care. Exciting topics to come? The power of soft therapies: music, art, and storytelling therapy, for example; Elder Wisdom; and the Family Dynamics of Assisted Living.

~ How do you think downsizing, my particular area of interest, affects an elder’s quality of life? Have you found that this topic has come up in other chats you have had?

I think it’s an important part of many elder care conversations, particularly as it logistically and emotionally affects strained sibling relationships and difficult family dynamics in decision-making for an elder, which is a topic that comes up very often.

~ What has been the impact of caregivers gathering together online?

We constantly get feedback from new and long-time attendees about how much the group has helped them – inspiring new ideas, encouraging and informing them in their caregiving journeys (personal and professional), motivating new ventures, connecting them to other thought leaders and organizations/individuals with similar interests.

~ What other things does ourparents.com have to offer?

We offer access to care advisors, through a toll-free number (866) 873-0030, who can guide you through a search for senior care. The site offers an extensive directory of senior living listings, which visitors can search for free. Our blog is full of resource-rich articles about various aspects of senior care, and of course, we offer the #ElderCareChat forum and all its additional resources (the LinkedIn group, the transcripts, the recap posts, etc.).

~ Is there anything else you would like to tell us about the Elder Care Chat?

We’re always looking for topic ideas of relevance and interest to the community, and for guest panelists. You can email me at michelleseitzer.writer@gmail.com or send a DM on Twitter to discuss the next steps.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Hello, My Name Is Doris Sheds Light on Hoarding

 

I was lucky enough to be in the audience last week, on the night “Hello, My Name Is Doris,” opened at the E Street Cinema in Washington D.C. This lovely film, starring Sally Field, is the story of a 60-something woman who has sacrificed much of her own life while serving as caretaker for her mother, who was a hoarder.

While the hoarding part of the story is really just a subplot, coming from a family of what my coauthor and I prefer to call “keepers,” I found one of the many pleasures of watching the film to be the sensitive treatment of this ill-understood disorder. In an interview in Glamour magazine, Field, who consulted with psychiatrists in preparation for playing the role, says, “Doris is not a hoarder on the level that you’ve seen on television shows. There are degrees of these disorders…” And indeed, this is made clear in the film. Certainly the house Doris lives in is beyond merely cluttered: but as the story develops, the implication is that while her mother was probably a bona fide hoarder, Doris is not. In the beginning of the film she is not emotionally ready to clear out the mess accumulated by her mother over a period of years, but by the end of the film she is. She just needs time: time to grieve the loss of her mother, and time to move on to the next part of her life.

Through the character of Doris, the film presents some of the practical and emotional reasons that keepers have difficulty getting rid of things. At one point she says to the therapist her brother has insisted she see, “It’s just that there are so many useful things that people just throw away…” and, though she mumbles the line, obviously a bit embarrassed about her situation, what she says comes out sounding not pathological, but simply as a statement of truth. A scene in which Doris’s brother and sister-in-law come to the house and attempt to shame her, and force her to throw things out before she is ready to do so is a textbook example of how not to help hoarders, or for a less extreme term, packrats. (You can find some suggestions for better ways here.) And in the final scene of the film, Doris takes a lamp she has picked up off the street and brought to her office in the opening scene, and gives it to a coworker, who happily accepts it, as a parting gift. Because, well, the lamp is useful–and also kind of cool-looking, in a retro kind of way.

In a Skype chat with the film’s director, Michael Showalter, the night I attended the film, he admitted that while he had tried to present the phenomenon of hoarding in a more or less realistic light, the housecleaning that Doris does toward the end of the film is achieved more quickly than is realistic, for reasons of dramatic resolution. “I know it’s not that easy to resolve in real life,” he said. He explained that for the purposes of the film, showing that characters can and do change their lives, and that even long-entrenched habits can be changed, was more important. And indeed, though it is very difficult to get hoarders to change, when approached with enough patience and sensitivity, it can be done.

But in some of the lesser degrees of “keeping” behavior, drastic change may not be necessary. In an interview with George Pennachio on ABC 7, Field says she is not a hoarder, that she prefers to think of herself as a collector, but that she has sympathy for Doris. “I have boxes and boxes of things that are memorabilia of my life,” she said. “But so much of it is my kids and grandkids. It’s ridiculous. And they look at it and go ‘Why are you keeping that?” Her answer to them? “I’m just keeping it, OK?”

 

In that matter-of-fact tone, Field puts to rest the notion that there is one, and only one, right way of dealing with the desire to hold onto the objects that evoke treasured memories of our lives. Sometimes the answer to “Why are you keeping that?” may be “Just because…”

And you know what? In some cases, that may be answer enough. It’s too hard for your Mom to get rid of sentimental, or useful, things, so you’re going to have to do it when she’s gone–is that really such a big deal? Is it?

  

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

 

“Out of Clutter, Find Simplicity.”

Einstein photo 2

Out of clutter, find simplicity.

From discord, find harmony.

In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.

~ Albert Einstein

The first line of this quote was used in a newspaper advertisement for a new credit card and I was so intrigued by it that I searched for the entire quote. Of course, Einstein was talking about particles in physics, but the quote is relevant today in the way we live our lives in our homes and in the state of our country right now.

We can only hope that from the discord in our country today we will eventually find harmony. But in our lives at home, we can certainly work from our clutter towards a state of greater simplicity.

Marie Kondo, in Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class On The Art Of Organizing And Tidying Up, her second book, suggests an order to approaching the clutter. She feels the most helpful order for tidying up is:

Clothes

Books

Papers

Miscellany or what she calls Komono

Sentimental items

As you read her book, you come to realize how right she is about this order. She is very astute about the nature of clutter in one’s life.

Kondo asks: What sparks joy for you personally? And what doesn’t? And says the answers to these questions represent a major clue for getting to know yourself as a recipient of the gift of life. I find that a rather profound insight into the way we approach clutter. It’s all about how we approach life.

She says that complaining about tidying up – and this applies to me – is proof that a person still has the energy to carry on. So we should carry on even if we don’t feel like it because we can do it.

Going through your stuff is honing your sensitivity to joy. Tidying is the act of confronting yourself; cleaning is the act of confronting nature. For me, that explains why it’s often easier to clean than to declutter.

And the most important insight for those of us who are “keepers’” of our stuff is about the sentimental items. Kondo says tidying sentimental items means putting the past in order. We write about “keepers” and “throwers” in our book and have more to say about the two approaches to personal items here in a previous post.

Much food for thought in Spark Joy. I recommend the book as a new way to understand why we have so much stuff and for innovative ways to deal with the clutter we have created.

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Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Five Easy Tips for More Green Living

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1.  Bring reusable cloth bags with you when you shop. (The only hard part of this is getting in the habit. But it’s not that hard to do!)

2. Set your computer to print on both sides of the page!!!!  (Why haven’t I thought of this before?!)

3. Take advantage of the fact that many retailers are making it easy for us to recycle hard-to-recycle things.

For example Staples and Office Depot will take batteries and printer cartridges (you can even get store credit back on the cartridges). Best Buy takes old electronics (TVs, computers, etc.) in a blessedly simple process. You bring the stuff to them, they take it off your hands and keep it out of landfill. That’s it! And Whole Foods will take wine corks, batteries and other hard-to-recycle items.

4. Resist the temptation to throw away old shoes. Instead look for ways to donate or recycle them. My coauthor wrote this great post that will help you find places to do it.

5. Stop buying styrofoam cups. They are petroleum-based, linked with a variety of health concerns, and very difficult to recycle.  See more about this here.

As spring cleaning season approaches, we would welcome any other tips you may have, especially about places that make it easy to recycle hard-to-recycle items. Please let us know in a comment!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

The Importance of a Family Photo Album

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My grandmother’s photo albums

A recent question in The Ethicist column in the New York Times asked if there was an ethical obligation for siblings to share the family photo album after the death of a parent. A brother took them with an agreement to duplicate them for the other two siblings. The letter-writer offered to pay the expenses involved. Kwame Anthony Appiah had a complex answer that basically said the one who took the albums should fulfill his promise or give them to the sibling who treasures them more.

The meaning of photo albums is a varied and convoluted as the families who own them. And the importance of the albums remains, long after the family members are no longer with us.

A compelling prescriptive is to use the albums now, to share them with family members. According to an article in Psychology Today (in the context of therapy, but relevant here), a different side of a person comes out when sharing family photos. Remembering visually is different than remembering with words.

In a scholarly article in the Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, one professor says, “Family photography has most often been regarded as a ritualized and deeply ideological bourgeois self-representation.” Ouch! (Perhaps that could be said more accurately of Facebook postings.) Other professors enumerate the positive aspects: One says that photo albums “identify the deeply personal affection” of family members. These albums are “about social and emotional communication,” says another. We like the “idea of the album as a place to symbolically define and order the world.” Most importantly, perhaps, “family photographs link people to people, and people to objects or things in their lives.” They strongly relate to memory and nostalgia.

Marie Kondo, in her Spark Joy: an illustrated master class on the art of organizing and tidying up (a good book; more about it in a future post), describes making a photo album for her parents as part of her research on tidying. “Although my parents had taken their share of photos of important family events…I couldn’t recall them ever stopping to look at these photos with us and reminiscing about the past…” She found that sorting through photos as a family led to a lot of laughter and talk about memories. Maybe that’s more the point of a photo album, more so than finding out whether making an album has an impact on how people tidy up.

With the darker days of winter still with us, now could be a good time to work on your photo albums. Share the photos, reminisce, laugh together. Create memory books for a family event or an album for one family member. Make a photo collage (as suggested in a previous post on photographs). All are budget-conscious activities that are rich in memories.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

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