Downsizing: Getting Keepers and Throwers to Work Together in Harmony…

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Adrian Leeds (left) and Janet Hulstrand (right)

Last week I had the opportunity to talk to a group of English-speaking people in Paris about our book and what we had learned in the process of writing it. I was invited to speak by my friend Adrian Leeds, who helps Americans (and other Anglophones) find and buy property in France. I decided for the purposes of this talk to focus on how to get “keepers” and “throwers” to work together harmoniously when downsizing in order to get the job done.

There was a big crowd: downsizing and decluttering are popular topics of discussion, if not always popular activities, and these two closely-related topics are of particular interest to people who are contemplating an international move, which some of the people in the audience were doing. (Others had already made the move and had stories to share about their experiences.)

I told the group about how in the course of writing our book my coauthor and I had decided that when it comes to downsizing, the world is divided (more or less) into “keepers” and “throwers.”

Of course, we are really talking about a continuum, with “extreme keepers” at one end of the spectrum, and “extreme throwers” at the other, with most people falling somewhere in the middle, but tending toward one or the other end of the spectrum. Many people are actually “keepers” about some categories of items and “throwers” about others. And a frequent area of conflict and upsetting family dynamics can occur when “keepers” and “throwers” collide during the process of downsizing: or when their respective categories of keeping and throwing do: hence the focus of my talk.

I explained first of all that when I say “extreme keepers” I do not mean hoarders. Hoarding is a very specific, and very difficult, problem to deal with, and it requires highly sensitive, and very often professional help; lots of patience and compassion; and a good understanding of the condition. (My coauthor interviewed Dr. Gail Steketee, an expert on this topic, here.)

I told my audience that the number-one piece of advice we have in our book is to “take your time” and–drawing on some of the stories we tell in our book to illustrate the point–explained how and why following that one piece of advice can lead to smoother, more peaceful family dynamics, fewer regrets, and more success in moving ahead with the task, especially for keepers.

I also told about how we had come up with our motto “Keep the memories, get rid of the stuff,”  how and why that is particularly helpful for the “keepers” of the world, and some of the concrete ways of doing this. (I think one of the strengths of our book is that we have more sympathy for the difficulty keepers have in letting go of things, and that is why we are able to offer more helpful advice than many of the decluttering books out there. We don’t say things like “If you haven’t used it in a year…” because we know that saying things like that does not really address the problem for keepers!)

It was really rewarding to see the enthusiasm with which these messages were received by the group, and to hear some of their comments after my talk. One woman (a thrower, I do believe) came up to me afterward and told me she was going to be nicer to her husband from now on. (“He really needs to be able to take his time and savor those memories” she said.) Another woman said she felt very affirmed to know that she was not alone in having trouble making the decisions about what to keep and what to let go of, and to have a better idea of how to find the resolve to do it. One woman talked about the dilemma she felt about keeping “old soccer pictures” and the like for her grown children, and yet not wanting to keep them in her own home anymore. (She received several pieces of advice from the crowd: I believe her favorite one was to send a box of such things to each of her grown children, who do have homes of their own by now!)

We often remind our readers that this time of year, as families gather for the holidays, can be a good time to begin that long, drawn-out process of “moving on,” getting rid of or redistributing family heirlooms, making a plan for when Mom and/or Dad might want to downsize, and talking about how their children can help them do it.

Our book has been very helpful to many families, and also to the professional organizers, senior move managers, social workers and others who help people through this process. We hope it may be helpful for you and yours also.

And although used copies of the 2004 edition can still be purchased online, we also like to remind people that the updated 2013 edition is available in ebook only. And while we know that many people favor print, we also like to remind our readers that this particular book can be very handy in the ebook format, with its live links to many of the sites we refer to in our resource section.

Not only that, but remember: ebooks do not take up shelf space! 🙂 Just saying…

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

 

“Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” Revisited

Language is the way we communicate with each other so words and how we use them are important. Any conversation about downsizing and decluttering, whether written or spoken, almost always incudes the frequently used catchphrase “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” All the words in that phrase start with “re-” a prefix that comes from the Latin and means “again” or “again and again” to indicate repetition, or it can mean going back to do something again, as in redo or revisit.

I’m revisiting my thinking about that standard: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

Reduce means to use less and is certainly a good place to start. Reduce means to have a smaller or lesser amount, or to bring down, to diminish, or to minimize the amount we have. And in some definitions, it means to restore, to bring back or to lead back, to its original or lower state. So if the first step in decluttering is to reduce, then one meaning is to bring ourselves back to our original state of needing or owning less. Perhaps thinking of “reduce” in that way, that our original state is one in which we need less, we will have an easier time of getting rid of the things we no longer need, or at least, maybe, we’ll be able to do it with less angst.

Reuse means to use something again, usually for its original purpose. Most of us have worn a dress or outfit again, getting multiple uses out of our clothes, and all of us reuse our dinner plates and cutlery every day. So reuse is a part of our daily life, a no-brainer. But another definition of reuse is to use something again for a different purpose, sometimes called creative reuse or repurposing. Our forebears used pieces of fabric salvaged from clothing or household items to create bed quilts. Currently, many animal shelters ask for used bedding and pillows to use as animal bedding. Sometimes we reuse by passing along our older child’s clothes to our younger child, or by giving clothing that’s still wearable to a neighbor who has a still younger child. When we were cleaning out my aunt’s closets, we donated a number of pairs of elbow length gloves to a local theater group: clothing from the past to be used as part of a costume.

Recycle means, according to one dictionary, to collect and treat what would otherwise be trash so it can be used again. We recycle paper, sometimes by writing on paper that’s already been used. My father-in-law used the back of legal size envelopes from his mail to make lists, a habit I have incorporated into my life. They are the perfect size and shape for a list. We can print on both sides of paper or go ‘paperless’ by emailing everyone the agenda before a meeting; all are ways to to save trees. Upcycling, or creative reuse, is the process of transforming old or discarded items into new products that are sometimes better than the original. At a crafts fair I went to last weekend, I saw crafters who had cut off the sleeves of old sweaters and fashioned them into fingerless mitts, and others who had felted old sweaters (washed them in very hot water to cause the fibers to lock together) and used that stronger fabric to make purses. In a fully circular economy, we would be continuously using and reusing everything, reducing greatly what goes into the landfills.

What more can we do?

We can take old thinking about our stuff and repeal it, replace it, reverse it; we can rethink what our stuff means to us.

We can think about resale – having a yard sale for toys that our kids have outgrown or taking our clothing to a resale shop – rather than tossing it.

We can reedit or refine our needs, both clothing and household. How many multiples of things do we really need to have.

We can refuse things that don’t work for us, even pens that are given out for free, and rethink things are not environmentally friendly.

We can retire old thinking.

We can show respect – for ourselves and our fellow beings, for all creatures, and for the earth.

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

“End Tables. I Have Just Two Words, End Tables.”

At a meeting of community business leaders I attended a few weeks ago, we were asked to share our business cards. I looked in my bag and saw that I had only two cards with me. (No, not very professional of me to not even think about checking to see if I had cards with me before I left. Really?)

I took out the two cards I had and then, after a brief pause, also shared some of our book’s business cards. (Yes, our book Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home has its very own business card).

The book’s card is a bit busy on the front with a photo of the book cover and information on how to access the book and the blog. The back is more serene, with a black-and-white rendering of our logo, the house, with our mantra “Keeping the memories, getting rid of the stuff…” below it.

I think it was the back of the card that started the discussion.

The conversation that ensued sounded a bit like our own discussion of “keepers and throwers.” “Throwers” relish clearing out and will empty a house quickly; “keepers” want to preserve special things as well as memories, and will linger over the process.

People are usually more nuanced than those labels imply and both “keepers” and “throwers” have issues that need to be dealt with. What followed with our small group was an interesting discussion of the what and the how of emptying our parents’ homes.

Tim looked at our business card and said, “End tables. All I have to say is two words: end tables.” He is a “keeper” with a lot of sentimentality to deal with, along with a strong dose “but someone could use this.” He had carefully emptied his parents’ home but had difficulty parting with the last few things. He had divvied up the family items, sold furniture, and donated many household items. He had two beautiful end tables with an inlaid wood design. His kids didn’t want them. And we all agreed that Millennials don’t want much of what we have and they certainly don’t want furniture that belonged to their grandparents. Tim couldn’t sell the end tables and wasn’t ready yet to donate them because he thought they were too beautiful to part with. Why didn’t someone else see them the way he saw them, their beauty, their value, he asked in a voice tinged somewhat with regret.

Phil is a more pure form of “thrower.” He said he had emptied his parents’ home, giving some items to nieces and nephews who were just starting out and getting rid of the rest. You could almost see him washing his hands of the job. He had been thorough and the job was done.

Jamie seemed poised between a “keeper” and a “thrower.” She embodies what we say in our book: “People who balance these attributes have come to the realization that the most valuable thing in a house is the life that has been lived there.” She had emptied her childhood home when her parents moved to a retirement condo, then emptied the condo when her parents passed away. She donated most of the stuff, sold a few things, and preserved her family treasures in archival containers. She was able to identify what was important to her and she kept those items for herself, and for the next generation.

Matt kept quiet during our discussion. Whatever his story is, he chose to keep it private and we respected that.

Amy was somewhat wide-eyed during our talk. She is a little younger and hasn’t started yet to dismantle a home. My hope is that she absorbed the many hints and tips, along the laments, about the process of downsizing and will store them away for a time when she will need them.

Luca was visiting from Italy and seemed a bit baffled by Americans talking so much about their parents’ possessions. His puzzled look seemed to say that this consuming-so-much then wondering-what-to-do-with-it is a distinctly American dilemma.

At our business meeting, the meet-and-greet part at the beginning became a dialogue about downsizing – about “Keeping the memories, getting rid of the stuff…” – because I forgot to bring my business cards with me. It was fortuitous, a chance to share our stories with complete strangers, a wonderful opportunity.

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

Obstacles to Downsizing: The Inner Sentimentalist

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Photo copyright Janet Hulstrand

 

In a recent post, I wrote about some of the “voices” that keep me from moving forward with the task of downsizing. In that particular post, I talked about the voices of my “inner ecologist” and my “inner altruist.” And I promised to introduce you in a future post to my “inner collector” and my “inner archivist,” both of whom also have plenty of reasons (some, though not I, would say “excuses”) for not getting rid of certain kinds of things.

But what I completely forgot about at the time is one of the MAIN culprits many people encounter when downsizing–and that is the “inner sentimentalist.”

Probably at this point I should mention that the reason I forgot about the Inner Sentimentalist is that our book does such an EXCELLENT job of helping to rein in the Inner Sentimentalist that dwells in many of us, and getting her (or him) to allow us to proceed with the task at hand, that I completely forgot I even had one! (This is actually true!)

I often tell people I know that our book is a good and helpful one because it has helped ME get rid of many things that, had I not had the experience of writing our book, I certainly would not have been able to get rid of–or at least, not nearly as easily.

One of the things we talk about in our book is how it is important to separate the memories from the objects--because often it is the memories we really want to keep (and they take up so much less space!). Often we don’t really need to keep the objects to which they are attached, once we have found a way to celebrate, preserve and otherwise keep the memories.

And so, as I have been involved in peeling away the layers of “getting rid of stuff” that I have had to do in recent years, my Inner Sentimentalist has made scarcely a peep. (She knows it is the memories, not the objects, that count!)

This is not to say that she is entirely dead (or, I suppose some would say, though not I!–entirely cured). She still pipes up once in a while, making her feelings known when I am weighing the value of some very sentimental object, or artifact, against the weight of holding onto it any longer.

A good recent example is when I thought I had lost the ceramic figurine my grandmother gave me when I was 10 years old.

This figurine is rather important to me mainly because it is because of her that I had figured out (perhaps erroneously, not sure yet!) that my grandmother really didn’t like me very much.

That’s a whole ‘nother story that I am not about to tell here, you will have to read my memoir one day, when it is published. For now just let me say that this little ceramic figurine played a key role at a key moment in my life, a moment in which I questioned whether a notion I had held onto since childhood–that my grandmother didn’t really like me–was true.

Anyway, none of that matters for the point I am trying to make here. The point I am trying to make here is that the figurine was important to me, and I thought at a certain point in the process of getting rid of things in my storage locker that I had lost it.

In the past, this would have been EXTRAORDINARILY upsetting to me. (I mean, how important is that? A figurine that represents such a very important awareness about one’s life, and one’s grandmother?!)

Pretty important.

And it was even more important because I had kind of pictured that figurine possibly  being worked into the book cover of my memoir one day. (Most writers have fantasies along these lines, and I am no different in that regard…)

Anyway. Here’s the point. When I thought I had lost her, I will not say I was not upset, because I was.

But I was more annoyed than anything like devastated. (I think before we wrote our book on downsizing I would have been more or less devastated.)

As it was, my thought process went something like this:

“Damn! I can’t believe it! Did that box go off to the thrift store by accident? Damn!”

But I did not stop to mourn the possibly-missing figurine. I did not stop to cry about it. I did not stop to look frantically everywhere for the box in which the figurine had been.  I just kept doing what I had to do.

I knew I had taken a picture of the figurine, so my potential book cover was safe.

I knew that if I didn’t find the figurine, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

And so, when I did find it (after all), all I thought was, “Oh! Here it is! (after all)…”

SO MUCh less sturm und drang than there would have been in the past!

Here’s the thing: once you know, really knowthat it’s the memories, not the objects, that are important, then this kind of annoying thing (which takes place unfortunately QUITE OFTEN in the discombobulating experience of moving and downsizing)…Anyway, once you know it, really, really know it?

Losing things doesn’t have to be as upsetting.

And there is a wonderful kind of freedom in that.

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

 

 

When a Hoarder Leaves Home

Other people’s stuff just left out on the street.

A friend asked me if I would like to help her clean out the home of a friend of hers. The homeowner is 70 years old, a consummate New Yorker, and…a hoarder. She had a health emergency that landed her in a rehab facility and her sister reached out for help sorting through what to bring her sister at the facility and what could be given away. I agreed to help.

To say that I really didn’t understand what the job entailed would be an understatement.

What she has

When we arrived at her home, one of the most obvious things about the place is that it is overstuffed. There are dozens and dozens and dozens of plastic storage bins, some small with cubbies, others larger chests with three drawers, in every room.

One container in the dressing area was full of shoulder pads covered in various fabrics, the kind that were part of “power” clothing in the 1980s, apparently cut out of dresses and jackets. She saved them all.

On one shelf were patterned cotton scarves, folded neatly and clearly never worn, in 17 different colorways. Yes, 17. I counted them. She was evidently a huge fan of scarves. We have uncovered hundreds, some well worn, others brand new.

The bottom drawer of one of the plastic storage containers was full of jars of the same lotion. There must have been 50 or 60 jars, most of them unopened.

Along one wall of the hallway were shelves holding nearly 1000 VHS tapes and over 150 DVDs.

What we’re doing

We are trying to donate as much of the usable items as we can.

We have brought many, many industrial-size trash bags full of used clothing to fabric recycling at our local farmers’ market.

Dressy clothing that is new or only lightly used, along with handbags and small purses and decorative household items, is going to a charity that raises funds through its thrift shops and uses that money to help those in need.

We brought other more practical clothing and unopened personal care items to a woman’s shelter, thanks to another friend who took care of that for us. That friend has also taken a couple of backpacks filled with more personal care items to a shelter for teens.

We have brought medical equipment and supplies to a charity that makes these items available to people in need.

We sent the VHS tapes to a company that recycles them (or disposes of them responsibly) and donated the DVDs to a local thrift store.

We have trashed as little as possible: old make-up, half empty bottles of shampoo and lotion, and other items that are beyond use.

What we’ve learned

In interviewing Dr. Gail Steketee, coauthor of Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, I learned that hoarding is the inability to discard or remove items that are no longer needed and that one of the top reasons for hoarding is the wish to avoid wasting things that may have value.

Our response to that is to acknowledge that so much of the stuff in this woman’s home has value and we will not waste it, simply put it in the trash it, but rather make sure it goes to a place where it will be used.

New homes can be found for almost everything, it just takes a little searching.

And for us, or at least for me, I’ve learned that what I have is enough, I don’t need to buy more. Helping to sort through the home of a person who kept way too much stuff is a lesson in anti-consumerism.

Being in this home offers me a look at what purchasing somewhat indiscriminately can lead to. It’s a lesson on how to be more measured in consuming and how important it is to sort through and get rid of things on a regular basis, small steps often, rather than waiting for what has become a large and somewhat onerous task.

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

Downsizing: Do Habits Have a Greater Impact than Goals?

 

I read some intriguing posts this week about habits.

James Clear, a productivity expert who uses behavioral science to help people optimize their habits (see his newsletter), in discussion with author Jay Papasan, talked about motivation. He says, “The key hypothesis is that habits offer a way to control our lives and that having this control supports motivation for making positive change.”

He goes on to say that in many cases people assume that what they lack is motivation, when what they really lack is clarity.

“We often focus on the achievement, but in fact, the way that we ever get anywhere is through some kind of repeated action or system… I like to think about it as the system supports the habits that will help you achieve the goal.” That’s worth thinking about: the habits become the system that will help you achieve the goal.

“The question then is, what if you just completely forgot about the goal [and] just focus on the system?…Would you still get results? I think you would.”

So rather than focus on having a clean closet, for example, you set up habits like sorting through each item of clothing on a regular basis. As we say in our book, break down the goal into manageable tasks.

Jeremy Dean, psychologist and author of Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick, explains how to take charge of your brain to make any change stick.

He has a plan he calls WOOP: Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan

“Write down the wish, the habit you want to achieve, then the best outcome of the habit, then the obstacles you are likely to face. Then make a specific plan.”

So look at your wish, to clean our your closet, and the obstacles to achieving it. Too tired to do it after work? Schedule a time with yourself that works for you, a time you can stick with.

Sonja Lyubomirsky is a psychologist and author of The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want, a guide to understanding the elements of happiness.

She says many different activities have been consistently shown to improve how we feel day to day.

“One habit which has been shown to increase well-being is savoring: reining your mind back in and forcing it to focus on the good things in life.”

Perhaps in focusing on our closet, we can be grateful for the abundance in our lives while, at the same time, realize we can pass along clothes we no longer use to those who could use them.

So create a double habit: we can focus on what’s good in our lives and contribute to the lives of others.

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

How Not to Talk to Your Mother

My mother always said she wanted to die in the house, the one she had lived in for almost 50 years and where she had raised her children. Of course, what she meant was she wanted to spend the rest of her days in the comfortable and familiar place she knew, not in a retirement community.

Would she have been more comfortable in a house on one floor rather than three? Would it have been easier to live in a place with wider halls and doorways to accommodate her wheelchair? And in a house that didn’t have stairs up to the front door? Yes, yes, and yes.

But these weren’t reasons that resonated with my mother. She was happy where she was, taken care of by my father, who was a huge support system for her.

Would she have benefited from a discussion about how she could get round-the-clock care in a more accommodating space? Not really.

If you have a mom (or dad) who knows exactly what they want and how they want to spend however many days or years are left to them, you don’t want to start a conversation about how you know better (even if you think you do).

You want to start with where they are. As Arthur Ashe said, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

So what can you do with what you have? You have a lot of love for your parents and you want to consider what’s best for them. You know they want to stay in the family home. How can you make it easier, healthier, and certainly safer for them to do that?

You can start with the idea of downsizing and decluttering to make the house easier to navigate. If that’s not something they have considered, you’ll want to begin the conversation slowly, and be considerate of their feelings as you go.

It may be at least as hard for your parents to talk about this as it is for you so here are some suggestions to make it a little easier for both of you.

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.

Tell stories. Stories bring us together and help keep our family history alive. They help us see our lives more clearly. Sometimes we transform a story just by telling it over and over, learning to see it in a new way each time we share it.

Give them a copy of our book. Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home is a great Mother’s Day gift. And this is the perfect time to purchase it because, for a short time, the book is available at half off the original price.

So how will you celebrate Mother’s Day? Wear a big smile, have an open heart, and don’t forget the flowers.

 

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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