April 9, 2004

Commentary by
Roger Martin

Giving away possessions means more than just decluttering

by Roger Martin

The first thing was my 86-year-old mother falling off the neighbor's porch. Backward.

At least nothing broke.

A few months later she stumbled leaving the bathroom and cracked a kneecap.

At least she didn't need surgery.

But the calls are getting awfully close.

So Brother, Mother and I have been talking about an apartment closer to where we live, a residence with others her age.

She has few material possessions compared to most Americans. In a nation that throws away 6 million tons of clothes and footwear a year, she washes and reuses aluminum foil.

But clutter of any sort bothers her, so Brother and I have started thinning her possessions.

Recently, I read an unpublished academic paper about why elders hang onto things and how they dispose of them when they leave the homestead. The paper's been submitted for publication to the Journal of Gerontology.

The work was done by University of Kansas sociologist David Ekerdt and three colleagues. They conducted careful interviews with members of 30 households who had moved the prior year.

From the interviews, Ekerdt concluded that people kept some things because they love them, they use them or they think they're valuable and hope to convert them to cash.

Other things -- bowling trophies or record collections, say -- reflect the person's identity. Still others hold out the prospect of future activity -- things like an unread book or quilting scraps, for example.

Ekerdt also found that people keep things because a friend or ancestor gave them as a gift, so that the objects are endowed with feelings of love or incite a sense of responsibility to maintain them.

Finally, and very important, Ekerdt writes, we Americans keep things around because we've got the room.

"Americans," he writes, "dwell in ever larger containers."

The average size of a new home in 1950 was 983 square feet; in 2000 it was 2,265 square feet.

The greatest transfer of wealth in American history will occur as the parents of baby boomers die.

So will the biggest transfer of stuff.

In his study, Ekerdt identified four means by which old folks leaving their homes dispersed their goods: gifts, sales, charitable donations -- and the trash.

People in the study talked most about the gifts. When they broke up their households, the first act often was that of distributing to family and friends large pieces of furniture and heirlooms.

Ekerdt reminds those who are helping an aging parent that the objects in a home possess a life and meaning to the owner. In fact, we think of objects as parts of ourselves.

Our sense of worth can be deeply affected, then, by the reception our things get when we offer them to the world.

Ekerdt says, "Stresses evolve when you offer gifts to family members and they don't want them. If a person feels she can locate her belongings with people who will use or cherish them, that gives satisfaction that the things have found a home."

In other words, if an aging parent offers something, the response "Oh, Mom, I'd never use that" gets a grade of F.

So go ahead. Smile when you accept the Hummels figurines and the silverware that tarnishes too quickly.

It is blessed to receive.


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