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

Where Do You Start?

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Last week, I participated in a downsizing roundtable for seniors and the question everyone asked was, “Where do you start?” From my experience in writing our book Moving On and our blog, here’s what I’ve learned.

Whether you are moving to a smaller place, straightening up because your apartment is going to be painted, or simply have that feeling that your possessions have taken over, the first question – and sometimes the one that stops you in your tracks – is always how do you get started. Here are some suggestions.

Start now. You can think about this, you can lament having to do it, but at some point you simply have to plunge in – even if “starting” simply means beginning to think about what you want to get rid of and talking to people about the best way to do that. The longer you put it off, the more difficult it will become. If you’re older, the sooner you start, the more you’ll be able to be actively involved in the process of sorting through your things. And whether you’re old or young, that means that the changes you’re about to make will be on your terms, not someone else’s.

Take your time. The best way not become overwhelmed with the process of downsizing is to take your time. Schedule regular sessions, maybe just a half hour at a time, adding a few 2- to 3-hour sessions when needed. Doing too much at once may exhaust you and make you postpone starting another session. Keep your sessions short but make them a regular habit.

Start with the easy things. Begin with the areas that have the least emotional impact for you because it will be easier to part with those things. For some, that might be getting rid of old towels (a welcome donation at most animal shelters). For others it might be that pile of unread magazines or the kitchen utensils in that overstuffed kitchen drawer. Start with whatever area works best for you.

Start small. Don’t try to do too much at one time. If it took you 20 or 30 years to accumulate all that clutter, it will take you more than a couple of weeks to sort through it all. And any job that seems overwhelming can be broken down into smaller parts. If going through your clothes is too big a job to contemplate, divide the clothes into smaller groups: office clothes, casual wear, shoes, coats, accessories, and tackle each group separately.

Communicate. Talk over your plans with your family and friends; let them know that you want to get your home in order. Seek out people who have been through the experience of downsizing to find out what they did right—as well as what they did wrong. After the fact, people often have some insight as to what needs to be saved and what can be tossed. And ask for advice from friends and colleagues who are particularly well organized. The more you talk about getting organized and the more you embrace this as your project, the more likely you will be to get it done.

Get help. Nobody has to do this alone. When you are sorting through personal mementos like family photos or going through your income tax files, you’ll want to work alone. But if you need help deciding which clothes to keep and which to give away, you could ask a friend whose taste you admire to give you a helping hand. And anyone can help with carting things away; you could ask a teenage neighbor for help.

Think beyond. What this means is that for some of us, it’s easier to get rid of things when we know that the items will have a life beyond our needs. There are many places, well-known charities, schools, community groups, and businesses, that accept all kinds of household items from used roller skates to nearly new business suits, from college textbooks to sports equipment.

Enjoy the process. You can decide that this process has its upsides, that it’s not all onerous, and to do that you may have to adjust your attitude somewhat. You can also realize that this is an opportunity to be generous. People we interviewed found great joy in giving things away, whether to friends or to those in need. With the right attitude and an awareness of the needs of others, you can make this a positive experience.

Remember that one drawer emptied of its clutter or a couple of shelves in a closet that are organized and easier to use is a great accomplishment. Give yourself permission to feel good about the first small step you take; that will make it easier for you to go on to the next step. And downsizing is a process of many small steps.

So let’s get started.

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

Getting Help After a Death

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It happens to each of us, sadly, at some point. We have to sort through and dispose of an entire household after losing a loved one.

Where do we start? What’s the best way of dealing with the stuff? Who can we ask to help?

We looked to several fellow bloggers for advice as well as to our own experiences and those of the people we interviewed in our book Moving On. Here’s the best of what we found.

Take your time.

Lisa Montanaro in her post Organizing After the Loss of a Loved One, emphasizes taking one’s time. “After the death of a loved one, some people are tempted to sift through belongings and make decisions quickly. If this feels natural to you, fine (consider checking with a grief counselor before moving too quickly through the process). But most people need more time after a loss to organize a loved one’s possessions.” Some people need only a few months; others take years to sort through everything.

Keep a few special things.

Erin Dolan in her post Uncluttering After the Loss of a Loved One says that uncluttering – getting rid of the clutter and keeping what you value – is a way to keep the best of your loved one with you. She says, “Find the handful of things that you value most and that best honor your memories of [your loved one]…the pieces that make your heart sing.”

Save what’s meaningful to you.

As Jeri Dansky says in her post Not Clutter: The Odd Sentimental Items, “Memorabilia is very personal. Go ahead and save meaningless-to-anyone-else sentimental items – but it does help to be selective and save only the most precious. And don’t worry about getting rid of things that you think should be meaningful, but aren’t.”

Get help.

Tina Segal, founder of The Estate Settlers, has set up an information network and a service to assist an estate executor that helps families during the emotional and trying times following a death in the family. Her company focuses its efforts on the financial side of the estate as well as the “stuff” that’s left behind: the furniture, the cars, the jewelry, as well as the house itself.

The death of a loved one is a trying time in one’s life. Go at your own pace and deal with the items in your own way. And ask for help when you need it. As Lisa Montanaro says, “Give yourself permission to grieve first, heal, and then to organize.”

And her best advice: “Be kind to yourself.”

And one more thing…

Get your own house in order.

Getting your own papers and favorite items in order for your heirs is the best gift you can give them. As we’ve mentioned in previous posts, make sure you have the four important papers updated and kept in a safe place. And make sure to create a list of all the important stuff in your life as a guide for after you’re gone.

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

September Resolutions?

I have always felt that September is a much more reasonable time for contemplating new beginnings than January, in the dead of winter when everyone is exhausted after a whirlwind of holiday parties.  The brisk back-to-work, back-to-school energy always makes me feel energetic too—ready to tackle new projects, learn new things, begin a “new year.”

So as I sat at the side of a lake on a quiet day in late August, contemplating my return to my usual schedule, I had the thought that maybe this would be a good time for some September resolutions—we could call them “New Years Resolutions Lite.”

Instead of making those heavy, daunting New Years resolutions that for so many people evoke cynicism and dread about breaking them before the new year has even begun—why not pick a few manageable, simple downsizing-the-home tasks to complete before that Other New Year begins?

Maybe just choose one task for each month.

These tasks could (and should, I think) be rather modest in scope. A collection of  childhood photos sorted and made into a welcome-home photo album before the first college-bound kid in your family returns for Thanksgiving. Two boxes of old letters from your parents or grandparents, at least opened and reviewed (if not read) before Christmas, so you can share (or preserve) whatever may be worth sharing or preserving with relatives at the family holiday celebration. Those boxes of kids books you’ve been trying to let go of finally delivered to a preschool or school library, where kids can enjoy them (saving just a few, for those grandchildren you hope may be visiting one day). A couple of hours a month devoted to doing the online research you’ve been putting off to find out for once and for all whether some of those odd things around the house are “worth something” (as some members of your family think) or are more appropriate for donation to the local thrift shop (as others have been suggesting).

The tasks you choose to assign yourself for this season could be kept very private—no one but you needs to know what your September Resolutions are.

Who knows? Maybe with lower expectations, and no fanfare, we might actually get something done!

Happy September, everyone!

JH

A Lesson Plan for Organizing

Looking for some inspiration for organizing my things, I decided to interview a professional organizer. Marcia is a former educator turned professional organizer and (full disclosure) a friend of mine.

Her company name, Home Organizer: section by section, describes precisely how Marcia approaches the task of organizing – breaking down the job into smaller and smaller sections.

Marcia’s first concern is respect for the client. While sorting through things with clients, Marcia wants them to feel valued and validated, feelings that can help them continue on with the task. The clients are encouraged to see meaning in their things, meaning that is perhaps not apparent to others.

By being positive, Marcia helps celebrate the person who chose this stuff in the first place. She keeps her antennae up for the things people want to share with her because, in sharing their stories, they are also sharing who they are and what they see as their place in the world. She wants, above all, to have the clients come out of the experience feeling good about themselves.

Using her many years as teacher to help her formulate a plan, Marcia says her first task is to assess the situation. What is the client’s goal? What is their readiness for achieving that goal? From teaching Marcia understands that a person can’t start on anything they are not ready for, skillwise or emotionally. Readiness is the key to learning. Then she shows how the client’s goal is actually doable – section by section. Marcia asks which room the client wants to start with, then which area of that room, then which part of that area, working down to the smallest section. Sorting through one small section helps the client feel a sense of accomplishment quickly.

Just as she did every day as a teacher, Marcia creates a basic lesson plan. She…

– sets a goal.

– models what the client should do, showing them what she would like them to do.

– works together with the client on the task, then asks the client to do the task while she is present.

– asks the client to perform the task without her.

– gives the client something to do by themselves and has the client reflect on that task with her later.

– plans the next session after assessing the previous one.

Marcia’s working style is to have respect for the person and their belongings and respect for their learning style. She likes to make the process of sorting fun and she does this by listening to the stories clients have to tell. She gets people to show their real selves, who they are, through their stuff.

From Marica I learned that with a lesson plan of our own and working with the smallest section possible, we can all become organized.

Marcia’s parting advice was: Organization is freeing up your time for the things you really want to do. That certainly shines a positive light on what many of us have always felt was an onerous task.

LH

Can Sentimentality Actually Help in Downsizing the Home?

A few weeks ago, Salon.com announced an “open call” for essays about spring cleaning. They asked for “personal essays about an object from your past that you can’t bring yourself to toss, even though it no longer has a practical purpose in your life,” and added, “We want stories of how sentimental possessions affect us and about the strange and complex emotions we attach to inanimate objects.”

There was a huge response to this call, and a lot of wonderful essays were written. I wrote one called “The Importance of Keeping Useless Things.” Someone else wrote a very poignant essay about why she had kept 25 dried yellow roses, saved from a marriage that didn’t last, and a man riffed on why his father’s banged-up old golf clubs were important to him.

A couple of comments that my piece generated on Facebook conversations reminded me that sentimentality and getting rid of things do not always have to be at odds with each other. One of my cousins responded to my piece by saying that she was going to begin documenting the stories connected with some of the things she has been keeping, so that people will know why she kept them, why they’re special. I think that’s a great practical result to come out of a pretty sentimental piece.

One of the most helpful things we discovered in writing our book was that although sentimentality about objects usually results in our keeping too many things, if the process is handled right, engaging in those sentimental memories can actually help people arrive at the point where they are ready to get rid of  the objects.

Not surprisingly, it turns out that what is important is not the things themselves, but the memories they evoke. Often, if there is a way to capture the memory and safeguard it for ourselves, and for our children and grandchildren, the objects (though never the memories) become suddenly much less important.

It is one of the reasons why “taking one’s time” is such important requirement for having a happy, productive experience when downsizing the family home. If we can take the time to tell each other stories along the way, or to write them down, maybe even to make sound or video recordings–in short to separate the memories from the objects, keeping one but not necessarily the other–we may be not only having more fun along the way, but preparing ourselves for that moment when we can put a “for sale” sticker—or haul off to the nearest local charity—some of those items that truthfully nobody really wants anymore.

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

Favorite Downsizing Stories: “The Fight Shelf”

One of my favorite stories about emptying the family home was told to us by one of the people we interviewed in the course of writing our book (Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home). Here it is:

When my two sisters and I were breaking up my mother’s house of 40-plus years, we of course came upon things that more than one of us thought we couldn’t live without. After the first few snide comments, we made a “fight shelf” for the disputed items. The “fight shelf” grew into the “fight room,” and by the end of the summer there was quite a stash of memorabilia, none of which had much intrinsic value, but all of which held emotional and political power.

On an early fall morning we went to divvy up the goods, when we were all fresh and cool. We drew straws to determine the order of picks. After each of us had appropriated our first few choices in an orderly fashion, the pickings began to look a little slim. I picked up a very ugly tray and tried to recall who had fought over such a piece of trash. We couldn’t remember!

One by one, we inspected the remaining items, getting more and more amused by what we had once thought was worth fighting over. We ended up laughing uncontrollably. The rest of the contents of the room went to Goodwill, where I hope they found new owners with as much possessive enthusiasm as we had once had.

I like this story for several reasons. For one thing, it illustrates the value of probably the single most important piece of advice we came up with about downsizing the home in writing our book, which is  “Take your time.”

Of course it is not always possible to take as much time as these sisters did. Sometimes it is necessary to empty a house in a very short period of time, and such a long cooling-off period would not be possible for all families in this situation.

But in my experience with my family, we found that whenever the disposition of a particular item threatened to cause hard feelings or resentment–even if the cooling-off period was overnight, or even just a few hours later–backing off, and agreeing to decide “later” was inevitably helpful.

The other thing I love about this story is the way it shows how even very amicable families can descend into petty bickering over things when they are forced to part with sentimental items, especially when that process follows close upon the loss of a loved one, or accompanies other distressing or sad changes in the life of the family.

It also shows that with commitment to maintaining family harmony, lots of patience, and a good sense of humor, those tense moments can be turned into opportunities for becoming closer, and even sharing a few laughs along the way.

So, that’s one of my favorite downsizing  stories. What are some of yours?

JH