The Cross-Over Point

At some point in life most of us concede that our grown children are adults and turn over their management to themselves. But what happens when it becomes necessary for the adult child to parent the elderly parent? Who decides when that cross-over point is reached?

Some Seniors recognize when they are slipping cognitively and have prepared themselves for asking for and receiving help from their children, but they are the rare ones. More often, it comes about involuntarily during or after a crisis. What I’ve seen happen is the adult child decides that the parent must no longer live on her own but needs to be uprooted from her home and placed in an Assisted Living Facility, with or without the parent’s cooperation. This sort of decision is perhaps more apt to be made by a child who lives far away…problem encountered – problem solved.

But look at it from the perspective of the parent faced with being uprooted. Is it really necessary for her to be torn away from all that is familiar? Can another solution be found such as the use of technology to keep her safe and adjust for memory glitches? The end result may indeed be moving to a care facility, but giving the parent time to make the transition gradually by remaining in her home for a few more months or years benefits her greatly as long as she is safe.

I have been puzzling this out because of a situation in my own family where I can see both sides of the situation.


Many of us grew up hearing that old adage,

Use it up

Wear it out

Make it do

Or do without

And that is the reason there are so many old homes in Maine that are stuffed to the gills with the belongings of several generations. We who grew up with “practical savers” can tell you stories of the things to be found in parents’ or grandparents’ homes that defy reason.

I can remember my mother helping one of her cousins pack up her home to move. I was a young child, but neither my mother or her cousin thought it strange that her wringer washing machine, in the kitchen corner, was used to store the leftover waxed paper wrappings from her husband’s lunchbox. This had nothing to do with recycling and everything to do with not throwing anything away. Other than that the home was reasonably tidy.

Many decades later my husband and his sisters helped their parents empty a family home and move into a senior community. It took many  visits to accomplish the job because, to his parents, nothing was considered worthy of being thrown out, but should go home with one of us.


Why We Have Too Much Stuff

I have been wondering why I see such quantities of relatively worthless stuff in people’s homes. I remember when a client removed himself from the work we were doing to weep tears of rage and regret when he discovered the extent of his wife’s shopping addiction. She was no longer around to keep her secret but she had stashes of stuff, some of it new and unopened, that she had purchased from cable TV shopping channels. Now her husband was left to dispose of this stuff in order to put the house on the market.

A recent article in the New York Times gives some of the clearest explanations of this relatively recent phenomenon.

“The cascade began 25 years ago, when China started to export huge amounts of cheap clothes, toys and electronics. Cut-rate retailers and big-box stores encouraged us to stockpile it all.And we did. A study of middle-class families in Los Angeles found that just one in four families could fit a car in its garage. (It also found that mothers’ stress levels rose as they described their household mess.) Americans who struggled to afford health insurance and college could nevertheless buy lots of stuff, sometimes on credit.”

Book review: Sell, Keep, or Toss?

I have been amazed when I’ve given a talk on downsizing, when some people come up to me afterward and tell me that they have downsized already but still have all of the stuff from their former home in storage. This is because they would rather pay the storage fees than suspect that they got any less than top dollar for the items they have stored.

That is why I like to recommend this book by Harry L. Rinker, “Sell, Keep, or Toss? How to Downsize a Home, Settle an Estate, and Appraise Personal Property”.  In the book he takes you through the whole process of getting rid of your stuff. He starts out by telling how online auctions have changed the value of items that were once thought scarce and instead are showing up in the thousands on auction sites. He informs you that the price for items you see in antique and collectible guidebooks reflect the price you would expect to pay in a retail store, not what the dealer or collector is going to offer you. After getting you to accept realistic prices for your stuff, he spends the rest of the book showing you all the ways of disposing of your items. He breaks down the downsizing process into step by step plans.

You would feel more confident following his instructions than you would getting advice from the cousin of a friend of a friend who knows someone.

Mental preparation

Edna understood that underlying her reluctance to deal with the chaos in her home was a lot of emotional baggage. It had always been easier to make no decisions about the stuff than to really focus on the items.

  • She had things that were of no real use or value to her but she felt she must keep them anyway because of the people who had given them to her. What if they visited and didn’t find the items they had given her?!
  • She really wished that her family and friends would stop giving her ceramic cats just because at one time they had been novel and interesting to her. She knew in her heart it was up to her to speak up and not to expect anyone to read her mind. Why she couldn’t even read it herself! The question was – could she give herself the freedom and permission to just say “no” to some of the stuff and give away, throw out, or sell items that no longer gave her a sense of fulfillment?
  • There were some things she had kept out of the sense of guilt she might feel if she got rid of them because she had received them from her mother even though her sister had wanted them just as much.
  • There were even items she avoided because of the anger she felt when she even thought about them.
  • And then there were the items that still brought up grief from Arthur’s death…things of his that could go to someone else when she felt ready to release them.


How ready are you to deal emotionally with the items you will encounter as you go through your home?

Could you release any items back into your original family such as to a sister, brother, or their children? Could this be an opportunity to heal a relationship?