Downsizing: Is It Comforting to Have a Partner to Help?

We wrote in our book, Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, and often say in our posts that it’s a good idea to get help when downsizing and decluttering. But what makes a person a good helper and what is the best way to make use of their help?

The person who helps could be your best friend or a sibling but sometimes it’s better to work with someone who has a little distance from the task at hand, someone who knows you but who has a little more perspective on the situation.

A person who helps in whatever way should be kind and nonjudgmental and on a similar wavelength as you are. It’s not helpful to hear “Oh, just get rid of that,” when you’re contemplating something you want to keep, or “You couldn’t possibly get rid of that,” when you’re thinking of letting something go. The person you choose should offer companionship and encouragement, not make decrees. A partner can also help you minimize regrets by allowing you the time to think through your decisions.

Whether you’re a “keeper or a thrower” – and most likely, if you’re reading this post, you are a keeper – you can gain insight from someone whose view is just slightly different than yours.

A helper can be just an extra pair of hands, helping to throw out the trash and take the donated items to their respective places. Or a helper can be a mental or emotional “pair of hands,” someone who helps keep you focused and offers support, and helps keep you from procrastinating. A helper can also help provide a deadline, or at least a schedule. Making appointments, weekly or otherwise, with a friend or helper is creating a schedule for your decluttering.

As you break down the job of decluttering into manageable parts, it helps to match the helper with the task you’re working on.

If you’re sorting through your clothes, for instance, you could ask a friend whose taste you admire, to help you decide what looks good on you and you’ll want to keep from what doesn’t quite fit or is out of date and you can give away.

If you’re sorting through books, you can ask for help from a friend who is a book lover but who is a little less sentimental than you are. Someone who can say of the fiction, “Are you really going to reread this?” or of the nonfiction, “If you need this information, you can always look it up.”

The task of sorting through papers, financial and medical, may be too private to share with a friend but it would be helpful to read about or discuss with friends the length of time you need to keep certain papers and what kinds of filing systems other people use. The goal of paper sorting is to keep only what you have to and to file it in such a way that you can retrieve it when you need it. A friend who’s organized may help you come up with filing categories that work for you.

Having a calendar of events, or someone who can keep you abreast of such events, can help. Before your town’s annual free shredding day, you can get your papers together. In preparation for your town’s tag sale, you can go through your clothes closet. If your local thrift shop has an annual spring event, you can get your giveaway items together to drop them off.

Time also helps. With enough time, you can decide whether an item is something you really want to keep or something you can give away. With time to think about it, I was able to let go of a favorite vase of my mother’s. And sometimes the wisdom of others, even people of different times and different places, can help give you perspective. See posts about that here and here.

At the very least, but also in some ways the very most, a person you’re comfortable spending organizing time with is there for you, not for your stuff and not for decluttering, but for you. Just keeping you company and allowing you space to work and offering moral support is an act of friendship, an almost sacred act. We would all be wise to accept and welcome such support.

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

A Conversation for the Holidays

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The holiday season presents families who are gathering together an excellent opportunity to have a conversation about family plans and what the future holds for the older generation. Or does it?

You can’t make your parents talk about what may be a difficult subject for them – how and where they are going to spend their later years.

You can’t expect your siblings to fall in line with your plans just because you think it’s the right time.

You can’t get rid of clutter or divide up family items, unless everyone is on board with the idea.

What can you do?

Remember that all-important conversation – the one that’s so difficult to initiate – is about what’s best for your parents. It’s at least as hard for your parents to talk about this as it is for you. You’ll want to begin the conversation slowly, and be considerate of their feelings as you go.

  • Start now. Whatever your parents’ age, it’s time for them to start talking about the eventual disposition of their belongings. Encourage them; let them know you’re ready to have this conversation whenever they are.
  • Listen more than you talk. Let your parents do most of the talking. Make the discussion a dialogue, not a lecture.
  • Ask how you can help. Your parents may have their own ideas about how to get the process started, and how they would like you to help. They may, or may not, want your opinions: they may, or may not, want your physical help.
  • Be prepared with your suggestions. If your parents are at a loss as to how to start, have some concrete suggestions for them. Even if they don’t accept your ideas, hearing about them may help them to formulate their own.
  • Ask questions. As you talk about specific items, discuss your parents’ feelings about them, and ask about any special memories they may evoke. You may be surprised at the details of family history that will emerge.

So what can you bring to the family table this season? Wear a big smile, have an open heart, and bring along a copy of our book Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

Happy Holidays!

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

Collecting: The Things We Love…

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“The things we love tell us what we are.” Thomas Merton

“The Keeper” is a fascinating exhibit at the New Museum in New York City that explores our relationship to things and reflects on “the impulse to save both the most precious and the apparently valueless.”

The exhibit is a series of studies spanning the 20th century that tell the stories of various individuals through the objects they chose to save and make us ponder the motivations behind their collections. The centerpiece of the exhibit is Partners (The Teddy Bear Project) by Ydessa Hendeies, a display of over 3,000 family-album photographs of people posing with teddy bears.

Some of the collections are of the result of a chance encounter. The Houses of Peter Fritz, preserved by Oliver Croy and Oliver Elser, is a collection of 387 buildings built by Peter Fritz, an Austrian insurance clerk, that forms a comprehensive inventory of Swiss architectural styles.

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Some collections were saved by artists who were interested in the natural world. Korbinian Aigner, known as “Apfelpfarrer” or apple pastor, was a priest and art teacher in early 20th century Germany who inherited his family farm and began to document the apple and pear varieties on the farm. He continued recording to the end of his life, even documenting the species he cultivated while at Dachau.

Wilson Bentley (1865-1931) was the son of Vermont farmers who grew up in an area that received up to six feet of snow a year. From childhood on Bentley kept a daily log of the weather and made drawings of snowflakes. He photographed more than 5,000 snowflakes. Such focus, such single-mindedness from both these artists.

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And sometimes a collection is just so personal. Howard Fried, a California-based Conceptual artist, displays the wardrobe of his mother Hannelore Baron, who died in 2002. It provokes the viewer to ask: Is this collecting, is it hoarding, is it art?

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In a follow-up article to a review of the exhibit in The New York Times, readers were asked to explain their collections. Perry Casalino of Chicago found an album of photographic postcards of old Chicago in a building that was to be torn down and that started him on an eBay hunt for more, which led to collaboration with other collectors and eventually a database of the scanned images that is used by authors and historic preservation groups.

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Why do we collect?

Psychologists point out many reasons for collecting. Some people collect for investment, some for pure joy, some for the quest, some for the satisfaction of classifying and arranging one small part of the larger world, and some people collect to preserve the past.

When does collecting become hoarding?

According to psychologists, collecting becomes hoarding when it interferes with normal daily life. If it doesn’t, then a collection is to be enjoyed.

Do we bequeath a collection?

According to one collector who is selling a collection, to inherit a collection is a burden because the heirs never had the pleasure of the hunt or the satisfaction of the accumulation.

What to make of it all?

According to the exhibit, a collection often attests to the power of images and objects to heal and comfort, and a desire to honor what survives. In our book, Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, we talk about ‘throwers’ who relish the experience of cleaning out and ‘keepers’ who are compelled to preserve special things as well as memories. The collectors shown here are keepers beyond compare, people who were compelled to save things that heal and comfort and honor the past.

What does your collection say about you?

We would like to hear about what you collect – and what it says about you. What do you love? Leave us a message in the comments space below.

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

We Emptied Our Storage Room!

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My grandparents’ commode

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My grandparents’ pitcher and wash basin

We bid a fond farewell to the old bagel factory that sheltered our family treasures (and our junk)—without judgment—for, well, for more years than I care to count.

As I wrote in a previous post, the reason we have a storage room is common one: We needed space to put things after we emptied my father-in-law’s apartment and yet again after we emptied my childhood home. We added to it by moving in things that we didn’t need at the time but weren’t sure what to do with. An old story, but a familiar one.

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One of my father-in-law’s paintings

The results of our purge.

We donated and donated and donated. Clothes and toys and cartons and cartons of books went to charity. We sold a few things. We gave away as many items as we could. Some of the china went to my daughter’s apartment. We still have some work to do: finding a photography student who could use my husband’s equipment and looking for a museum that might be interested in the antique pitcher and basin.

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My daughter’s toy truck

Lessons learned.

Out of sight, out of mind. We found many things that we didn’t remember putting into storage. An inventory would have helped.

Keep the memories, toss the stuff. Our mantra is so true. I don’t need my father’s books, voracious reader that he was, to help me think of him, or my father-in-law’s paintings, a prolific artist, to remind me of him.

There will always be regrets. A minor one so far: We sold the toy truck for much less than it was worth.

We stored items for too long. We kept things we didn’t really need or want. Why did we keep the room for so long? Perhaps procrastination played a part. And perhaps we found it difficult to deal with the hold that memories have on us.

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A wonderful sight–the empty room

The takeaway.

The big lesson, always, is that people are more important than things. As we say in our book, people who successfully downsize, declutter, or empty a house (or a storage room) come to the realization that the most valuable thing in the house is the life that has been lived there. Everything else is just stuff.

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

Just Say No

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Recently I was asked to give another one of my talks on downsizing and decluttering but this time the person hiring me asked that I not only talk about getting rid of stuff but also about not accumulating stuff in the first place.

Interesting thought. We have discussed this topic somewhat in our blog posts but have not really looked into it in great depth. Here are some tips I came up with.

What’s even easier than sorting through your stuff? Not bringing it into your house in the first place.

1. Don’t even touch it.

Studies have shown that handling an item makes it more appealing. Psychologists conducted an experiment: some people were handed a mug as they entered the room for a meeting; for others the mug was on the table. Those who touched the mug, were handed the mug, were much more likely to take it home with them than were those whose mug was on the table. So if you don’t touch it you will be more likely not to bring it home.

2. Don’t bring it into the house.

What can you not bring in? Junk mail: toss it in the trash as soon as you pick up the mail. Takeout menus or anything else someone hands you in the street or you take from the restaurant. Programs from the theater or concerts can stay in the theater. Pens or pencils given at a conference can stay on the table. Papers handed out at a meeting can remain on your seat. Just because it’s free doesn’t mean you have to take it.

3. Don’t overbuy.

We all love Costco and BJ’s but do we really need to purchase a package of six shirts when we really only need one or a month’s supply of cereal if only two people in the family like cereal for breakfast? No, we don’t. Buy what you need, not what you think you might need in an emergency. Of course, if your family loves cereal, buying in quantity is good. But if your household is one or two people, buying in quantity can be wasteful.

4. Plan your purchases.

Before you go shopping, for food or for clothing, check your closets and cupboards. See what you have that you can use to make supper – you might just need a green vegetable to add to the leftover chicken and rice, for example. Check your closets for clothes to wear to work. You might be able to create new combinations by wearing a new shirt with pants or skirts you already own. Buy only what you really need. For clothing, think about the one in/one out rule: for each new piece you buy, you get rid of one you’re not wearing.

5. Limit the items that tend to accumulate.

Most of us have things we hold on to. I accumulate shopping bags. They’re too good to throw out and I’m always carrying something – that’s my justification, anyway. So I have a closet that’s overflowing with shopping bags that fall out of the closet every time I open it, and they certainly do when my husband opens it. I have a friend who buys kitchen magnets everywhere she goes. How many does she really need? Put a limit on the number you save, of anything, say 10, and toss the rest.

6. Give gifts that are consumable or gifts of experiences.

Give gifts of food that the recipient likes to eat: good chocolate, wine, home-baked banana bread. Or a certificate for your signature beef stew or cassoulet, made to order on a date they choose. Who doesn’t love food made with love. Or give gifts of experiences, outings like a camping trip or dinner at a nice restaurant, a horseback ride, a massage, a museum membership, bike rental, a yoga class, music lessons, or a workshop in their field of interest. My mother often gave gifts of books or magazine subscriptions. My coauthor wrote a lovely post about gifts that won’t cause clutter; you can read it here.

7. Think about how much easier it will be to clean.

Less stuff around the house means less stuff to clean. And that should be reason enough not to bring things into the house!

8. Think about other things you can do with the money and your time.

If you don’t buy things indiscriminately, you will save money and you’ll save the time you used to spend shopping. Think about what you could do with the money: save for a longed-for trip, a particular event, or a special evening out. With the time saved, you could learn a new skill or read all those books you’ve wanted to read but never had the time for before. And then you could donate the books and clear out the shelves on your bookcase!

9. Show respect for the planet.

Less stuff in the house means less stuff put into the garbage. Less garbage taken to the landfills means a happier, healthier planet for all of us. See a post here about donating rather than putting things in the trash.

10. Practice gratitude.

Be happy and thankful for what you have. Someone will always have more than you do. You could always have more than you do. But studies have shown that being thankful for the things we have, for the friends and family, is mentally freeing, makes us calmer and more loving, and leads to a more peaceful life.

Less sometimes is more. Less stuff often leads to a more meaningful life.

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

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

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