Losing a parent is an inevitable hurdle in life. And for baby boomers, whose aging parents are often in their 80s and 90s, it’s an imminent one. Aside from coping with the emotional burden, there’s also the burden of dealing with all the “stuff.” It can be overwhelming.
That’s the case for Alan Miller, a rail transportation planner, who is weighed down by the volume of his parents’ things. As his family’s only adult child, he’s tasked not only with untangling his parents’ complicated financial affairs but also dealing with their personal belongings. Everything from his father’s collection of glass vacuum tubes to his mother’s holiday decorations to their numerous, scattered files of paper.
One year after his mother’s death, he’s still sorting through the remnants, large and small, of his parents’ lives. Most are packed in boxes in the basement or cluttering a spare room in his downtown Davis, Calif., bungalow, as well as stacked to the ceiling in a nearby storage facility.
“I know people who pull up a dumpster and everything goes into it. But I’m not that kind of person,” said Miller, 52, adding that the job is both emotionally and physically draining.
To help him organize and pare down, he turned to Claudia Smith, a professional organizer with Clear Your Clutter Consulting in Davis.
“Downsizing and letting go of stuff is good for everyone,” said Smith, who said many of her clients are in their 40s to 60s. “I go into homes where the attic is crammed and every room is filled. The kids are completely overwhelmed.”
Grace Bamlett, owner of Organized Outcomes in Orangevale, said parental possessions are “an emotional weight for baby boomers.” She said 10 to 15 percent of her business is clients who are “either having to downsize for their parents or dealing with stuff left to them after their parents have died. It’s a large group of people, and it’s only growing larger.”
As professional organizers, Bamlett and Smith encourage their clients to shed belongings but not the memories.
Bamlett is a proponent of “guilt-free” organizing. “If you’re holding onto something because you feel you should, don’t. Give it to a charity that speaks to your heart. Or find another relative, someone who’s interested in family genealogy.”
• Start now: If parents are alive and willing, ask if they want help.
Start giving things away to family or friends: jewelry to a dear friend. A set of dishes to a daughter-in-law. “It’s far better to give them to a loved one now,” said Smith. “They can enjoy them and your kids don’t get stuck with everything when you die.”
Years before she died, Judy Hertel’s mother sat down with her two daughters at the kitchen table, going through her heirloom and costume jewelry. At her mother’s suggestion, Hertel and her sister made a list of the pieces they especially wanted to keep.
Sacramento, Calif., attorney Don Fitzgerald, whose father was a school bus driver and avid outdoorsman, has several shadowboxes created by his sister after their father died about 11 years ago. Using pieces of their dad’s favorite flannel shirts, his fishing lures and old family photographs, she gave one to each of the six grandchildren, including a photo of each child with “Papa.”
“My brother just wanted it done. His attitude was: Go in, get it done and put the house on the market.” Her sister, by contrast, needed to touch every piece of paper, which greatly slowed the process. “It created a lot of tension,” recalled Hertel.