Downsizing Dilemmas: Who Gets What

After a recent talk I gave about downsizing, the questions turned toward issues about how to work with siblings in sharing family items, some of the items real treasures. A woman shared a story and asked for advice. The story made me think of other stories I’ve heard or witnessed over the years since writing Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home and I thought I would share a few of them with you today (with all names changed).

Mary and her sister cleaned out the family home after her mother’s death more than 25 years ago. There were many paintings, portraits painted by a relative who was a portrait painter. Two were very large, one each of her parents. At the time, no one seemed to want them. Mary took them, somewhat as a favor and because she didn’t want to let them go, but also because she had the room in her house for them. Other family members took various other family items. In the years since, Mary’s daughters have talked among themselves as to who would get which portrait. One daughter recently bought a house and was hoping to get a portrait to hang in her house now, rather than waiting to inherit it from her mother. Seemingly out of the blue, Mary’s sister called and said her daughter had purchased a house and could Mary give her the portrait of their mother for her new house. Mary said her first reaction was to say that all that had been decided years ago. She and her daughters assumed that the portraits were Mary’s and Mary would decide what to do with them. Mary asked us what we thought she should do.

Betty inherited from her parents a diamond pin that had belonged to her grandmother. It was one of just a few of her grandmother’s possessions because, due to circumstances near of the end of her grandmother’s life, there was nothing else that was kept. Betty, who has two daughters, wears the pin very infrequently and had thought to have it appraised. But she’s afraid that if she finds out that the pin is actually worth a lot of money that she will have to sell it and share the money with her cousin who could use the money. Her cousin doesn’t know of the existence of the pin. Rather than have it appraised, Betty keeps the pin safely tucked away in her jewelry box. She wonders what she should do, what is the right thing to do, in these circumstances.

Connie is one of three sisters and she and one of her sisters helped clean out their father’s house after he died. They took a few items but donated most of them to charity. They kept some items that weren’t spoken for but that they didn’t want to part with. The third sister came to town later and asked for a pair of silver candlesticks that had belonged to their grandparents. Connie liked the candlesticks, but then Connie liked many of the old items in the house. She had taken more than enough for herself and her family. When her sister asked for the candlesticks, Connie hesitated just long enough for her sister to say, okay, you take them. Connie took them but then regretted it. She wanted her sister to have them. So she called her sister and told her that. Her sister said I don’t want them now, you should have given them to me when I asked for them. Connie feels bad but also feels that her sister is acting like a spoiled child. So the candlesticks sit on a shelf in Connie’s living room.

Families are complicated.

Years ago, the New York Times ran an article about two brothers, professional men, who had successfully divided up their father’s estate according to his will. Neither one of them needed the money so it was all done amicably. But then there was their father’s guitar. Rather than read them a bedtime story, their father had sung them a song every night. To the brothers, it represented the essence of their father, his talent, and his love. Both wanted the guitar. The brothers stopped talking, as I recall from the article, and communicated only through their lawyers, as to who would get the guitar.

There must be ways to work successfully on downsizing a family home so that each of the siblings feels they have been heard and seen. We have discussed some of those ways in our book.

But what about the answers to each of the specific cases above? How would you respond? We would love to hear what you would do. Leave us your sage words in a comment in the comment box.

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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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

6 things I learned from 6 years of blogging

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Six years ago next month we introduced ourselves to the world of blogging with this blog, Downsizing The Home: Lessons Learned.

Our journey began when my coauthor and I shared our personal downsizing stories with each other, stories of helping our fathers empty our childhood homes as they prepared for the next stage of their lives. We were surprised at how powerful the emotions connected to family possessions could be and, at the same time, how easy it was to let go of many things.

We decided we wanted to share the information we had gathered with others who were going though the same process, and the result was our book Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home. As we promoted the book, our path led to new media and to this blog.

Six things I learned from blogging:

It’s easier said than done.

It’s much easier to write about downsizing and decluttering than it is to actually downsize and declutter. That may come as a surprise to many of the people who read our blog or listen to us speak. Many times at my talks, someone comments about what a neat house I must have. Not so. But I do own up to it and express to everyone what a struggle it is to keep things organized and to make decisions about what we own and what we are willing to let go of.

People are wonderful!

People have so many interesting and inventive ways to rid themselves of clutter and excess and I’ve learned so much from others. I’ve met such wonderful people, many of them as online voices only, who have shared both strategies and advice, as well as many poignant stories, who have shared thoughtful ways to deal with others who see the clutter – and life – differently than we do, people who have inspired me to write about them and share their lives and their work with you. I have been helped enormously by listening to the voices of others.

Think outside the box.

Or, in this case, outside the book. We came to realize that we could stretch ourselves and go beyond our original focus. Our blog has given us the chance to go further and explore deeper than the scope of our book and to include thoughts about recycling and upcycling, views on how to live with less—and happily so, and a vision of how to treasure what we have, without the need to always have more. Writing posts that explore issues beyond the book has expanded my horizons.

Done is better than perfect.

And here’s a shout-out to all the other mantras that help me keep moving: Just do it. Start now. See beyond. And a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt that I find so helpful, “It takes as much energy to wish as it does to plan.”

Life often does circle back.

The blog started with our book and ultimately comes back to our book but, oh, the places we have been! In some ways, as a writer, the biggest challenge is to make readers aware that our book exists. But having the opportunity to explore so many aspects of life with our readers, beyond the downsizing process we wrote about originally, has been such a privilege for me.

We are a community.

Yes, we are a community, you and I and everyone else in this Internet family constellation. I love hearing your thoughts and stories, in your own blogs and when you leave a comment on our blog. I’m so pleased when you follow us on Twitter and share our tweets, and when you share our Facebook posts. I love hearing from you. We are all in this together – and you have welcomed me into the group.

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

Dr. Gail Steketee Shares Her Insights into Hoarding

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Dr. Gail Steketee is Dean and Professor at the Boston University School of Social Work. Her work on hoarding is a corollary to her work on obsessive compulsive spectrum disorders. She has published over 200 articles and more than a dozen books on these topics. With colleague Dr. Randy Frost, she co-authored the best-selling book Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things (Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt, 2010) and the first edited scholarly volume on hoarding disorder, the Oxford Handbook of Hoarding and Acquiring (Oxford, 2014). With Dr. David Tolin and Dr. Randy Frost, she co-authored Buried in Treasure: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving and Hoarding (Oxford, 2013). Dr. Steketee received the Outstanding Career Achievement Award from the International OCD Foundation in 2013. She a gives frequent lectures and workshops on hoarding and related conditions to professional and public audiences in the United States and abroad. Dr. Steketee graciously accepted our invitation to be interviewed for this post.

~ What led you choose to study the subject of hoarding?

I was working closely with colleague Dr. Randy Frost on research on obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) when he indicated that some of the students in his course on OCD had decided to study hoarding symptoms and had sought information from people contacted through their local paper.  They got scores of responses to an ad for “pack rats.” Gradually it became clear that this was a serious condition that merited our attention as researchers.

~ Do you think there is a continuum of behavior from cluttering to hoarding and, if so, what are the signs people can look for in themselves to help them stop sliding down that slope?

Yes, certainly this spans a range from very mild to very severe and impairing. A red flag is when the person is reluctant to invite people over because they are embarrassed by the clutter in their home.  If it would be hard to find a place for a visitor to sit down comfortably, the problem has probably gone over the edge into the realm of a psychological disorder. But the true hallmark of hoarding is difficulty parting with objects that most people would throw out – this symptom begins early and does not necessarily produce serious clutter for some years.  So it is not simply a matter of the amount of clutter which can accumulate for a variety of reasons.  Rather, the crux of the problem is inability to discard or remove items that are no longer needed.

~ In the introduction to Buried in Treasure: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving and Hoarding, you say “This book is for and about people who have trouble managing their possessions.” What a wonderful description of people who have too much clutter! Is there one thing that you can recommend for people to do to improve their relationship with their stuff?

Know your own goals and values.  What really matters to you in your life?  Be sure to follow those goals and question whether the objects around you are serving those purposes.  If not, it’s time to bite the bullet and learn to part with things that are in the way of attaining what you truly believe in.

~ You have said in Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things that among the top reasons that people hoard are “to avoid wasting things that might have value” and “that the object has emotional meaning.” This is true for people with too much clutter, too. Can you give us your advice for addressing the wish to avoid wasting things?

This is not a simple matter, but in general, concerns about wasting and emotional meaning are really about our identity – who we are.  For fears of wasting, it’s worth asking how big a “sin” is wasting this thing versus the benefit of getting rid of an object that is not serving your main goals and values.  If you want people to visit your home, or if you want to enjoy reading in your living room, talking to your friend over tea in your kitchen, or cooking a meal for your family, is that a more important goal than suffering the guilt of not “wasting” this by discarding it? These are hard choices, to be sure, but essential ones.

~ And advice for dealing with the pull of emotional meaning?

Emotional attachment is similar.  It is worth asking what each of us would save in the 5 minutes before a fire consumed our home. Those items are likely to be the most emotionally important items, and the rest are nice, comforting even, but not essential to our being. Again, this returns to our own values – what is most important in our lives and is that truly represented by objects or does it lie within ourselves and our remembered experiences? But even for truly sentimental items, we can still ask – If we lost the photos of our father who has passed away, does that erase our memory of him and his influence on our lives?

~ What is the best way for people with a friend or family member who has a hoarding problem to approach the situation? What should they do or not do?

There is no simple answer except that an accusatory, critical and hostile tone won’t lead to change and is likely only to provoke anger and refusal to change. Calm, quiet, honest questions about what the loved one needs in order to reduce clutter is a great approach, but still might not yield any movement if the person is not convinced they need to change. If the situation is dangerous – the home is unsanitary, the clutter could easily cause a serious fall or a fire – the family member must seek help from authorities who are familiar with hoarding and can be thoughtful in requiring specific changes for safety’s sake.  The goal here is harm reduction first. If there is no major safety risk but the clutter is unacceptable to the family member, she or he will need to ask for specific actions and reasonable timeframes and indicate the benefits and the consequences of making or not making the change. This process may well require help from a professional, as it is not easy to decide what’s fair and reasonable in such situations.  I highly recommend Tompkins and Hartl’s book Digging Out intended for family members with a loved one who is very reluctant to change hoarding behaviors.

Thank you, Dr. Steketee, for sharing your insights into hoarding with us.

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

An Interview with Nettie Owens, Professional Organizer

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Nettie Owens, Professional Organizer (Photo by BrandIt Images)

Since January is National Get Organized Month (GOMonth), we thought this was a great time to find out a little bit more about the field of professional organizing, and what professional organizers really do. We are delighted that Nettie Owens, founder of Sappari Solutions, who recently celebrated 10 years in the field, accepted our invitation to be interviewed for this post.

How did you decide to become a professional organizer? What was the path that led you to this work?

When I began my business in 2004 the industry was still fairly young. There were a few organizers who had already been around for 15 years of more, but just a few. Organizing TV shows were just coming out on HGTV and TLC.  Those were really my first introduction to professional organizing. Seeing the lead organizers on those shows sparked an interest for me. I thought, “Wow!  That person is just like me! I want to help people in the same way.”  Prior to starting my company I had worked in administrative and project management roles. When I found professional organizing I realized I found what I was meant to do.  It was a great feeling!

What do you think is the most important quality for a professional organizer to have?

Compassion.  Being neat and organized is almost secondary. You have to work well with people.  You have to be able to see the person amidst the clutter. When hiring new organizers I ask a question before they ever set foot in a client’s home. “You walk into a client’s home for the first time, what do you see?” Many people answer they see piles of laundry, books, clutter, mail, etc. The people I hire say they see an overwhelmed person.

You recently earned the Level III Certificate of Study in Chronic Disorganization, ADD and Hoarding from the Institute for Challenging Disorganization (ICD)–and you’re one of only 81 people in the world to have done so, right? You also have a Level I Certificate in Aging from ICD. What is important for people to know about these conditions and how they affect people when it comes to getting organized? And what are some of the special issues connected with aging? 

Chronic Disorganization is isolating and is not a diagnosis of a condition. It is a description of symptoms that could have any wide range of causes. It means that a person has been challenged with organization for a long time, that they have tried organizing solutions and not been successful, that their disorder causes problems in their daily living and that they don’t see a change coming in the future. It is such a frustrating place to be. I want people to know that I have yet to meet a lazy, chronically disorganized person. There is always more to the situation than meets the eye. Often a person is chronically disorganized when conditions such as ADHD, hoarding, depression, anxiety and even PTSD exist. For an aging client, especially one for who organizing has been a lifelong challenge, you meet with additional hurdles such as a loss of structure and support, dwindling finances, possible onset of dementia and other neurological conditions, and possible physical limitations. But there is always a person there–someone with great memories, goals for the future and valid emotions that need to be considered. I will often recommend the book Digging Out, by Michael Tompkins and Tamara L. Hartl. The authors describe how a family can help and how to use the “Harm Reduction Method” to support their loved one.

What are some of the most important questions to ask a professional organizer before hiring her to work with you?

An organizer should be a member of a professional community, such as NAPO or ICD in the US. There are other organizations internationally. You should ask how long he or she has been in business and what his or her specialties are. There is a wide range of talents in this community, and you should find the person that fits your needs. I would also ask for referrals. The organizer’s clients can tell you more about their work style.

What are some of the most common misperceptions about professional organizers?

People often think we come in with trash bags ready to throw out all their stuff. While letting go of the excess can be part of the process, it isn’t the focus of organizing. Organizing is about giving people access to that which is important to them. Plus, we don’t make decisions for our clients about what to keep and what to part with. Another misperception is that we can wave a magic wand and solve the challenges a person is facing. We work with our clients to craft solutions, but it is definitely a process and it takes time.

What is your most important piece of advice for someone who struggles to become organized, but really wants to do it?

I am not sure there is one most important piece of advice but I will give three, if that’s okay. First, recognize your strengths and tie your organizing solutions to these strengths. For instance, if you have a set morning routine, add one step to it that will work towards your organizing goals. Second, and closely related to the first, work in small increments. Consistency over time builds habits that make big changes when added together. Small, consistent steps outweigh weekend clean-outs every time. Third, be mindful of what is coming in and what is going out. If more is coming in than is going out, you are trying to bail out a sinking boat with a spoon, and it just won’t work.

What do you love most about your work?

I love the ‘ah-ha!’ moments that people have. I love making a real difference in the quality of life for the people I work with. It is so rewarding.

Thank you, Nettie!

Nettie Owens, CPO-CD is a professional organizer and owner of Sappari Solutions, founded in 2004. Prior to starting her own company she worked in variety of positions for companies large and small, and honed her skills in management, project management, customer service, instruction, and office administration. Nettie graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a BA in Computer Science and a minor in Entrepreneurship and Management.  She lives in Maryland with her husband and three rambunctious kids. She is active in her community, supporting non-profit groups such as The Havre de Grace Green Team, Habitat for Humanity, and many others. She was interviewed for this post by Janet Hulstrand, coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, and of this blog.

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