"Americans spend the first two-thirds of their lives accumulating stuff and the last third getting rid of it." – Conventional Wisdom
When I bought my little house in the Longfellow area of Minneapolis in 1999, I was 46 and, after a lifetime of rootlessness, grateful to be able to purchase a home, i.e., a "permanent residence." I swore I'd never move again; I vowed that my heirs would have to carry me out of here feet-first.
The U.S. Air Force had transferred my family all over the world — by one count 28 addresses in as many years, with a 2,000-pound allowance for household goods — until I landed at Carleton College in Northfield with the relief and gratitude of a refugee. Then followed years of career-building adventures on both coasts. Home ownership was out of the question in pricy Washington, D.C., Los Angeles or San Francisco, and by the time I made it back to Minnesota I promised myself that I'd stay put.
And so I have, all these years, while acquiring quite a bit of furniture. I've crammed my house with inherited antiques and Oriental rugs, and probably 10,000 pounds of books. And now I look around at all this stuff and I have no clue what I'll do with it when it's time to move into senior housing.
Fortunately, I'm not facing that prospect anytime soon, but I've begun to think about it. I have no children. My nieces and a nephew all live on the East Coast. Antiques are worth practically nothing because kids today don't want brown furniture. There won't be room in a two-bedroom apartment for the dining room table that expands to seat a crowd. I won't need linens or place settings for 12 to 14 guests. Millennials are minimalists, and good for them; they don't care about china and crystal and silverware that can't go into the dishwasher.
Possessions aren't love
Now I hope to avoid the mistakes my mother made when she downsized. Many times she'd promised the same priceless object to each of the four of us, resulting in lingering resentments. "Mom wanted me to have this." "No, she promised it to me." Further, she'd cried wolf so many times as to which of us was supposed to get what that we eventually met each oral bequest not with the rapture she sought, but with a shrug. This hurt her feelings.
"Mom, you seem to believe that if we don't appreciate your treasures, it means we don't love you," I explained, finally. "That's not the case. Material possessions aren't love."
When we moved her to the dementia ward of her luxury assisted-living facility and it was time to divide the antiques, things got ugly. Mom was too bewildered to confirm what she'd promised to whom. I said at the time (and I stand by this) that no inanimate object is worth a relationship with any of my siblings, so I refused to fight even for ancestral portraits that were supposed to come to me. I didn't have room for them, anyway. Still don't.
Now I've begun to think about dispersing my own things, and I've realized that, aside from some heirlooms, I don't really care about the furniture.
The books are another matter. I've walled myself inside a fortress of books, and parting with any of them, especially the signed first editions, will be painful. I've held on to Christmas and birthday cards that will mean little to anybody else. Same with work samples; I don't need to keep five copies of an annual report I wrote 10 years ago. It's time to begin clearing out the files.
It's also time to ponder where I might move and how much help I'll need, so I did some research. I spoke with the owners of four Twin Cities relocation firms and came away feeling encouraged, struck by the compassion and respect with which all four companies approach customers and their families.
Jodi Laliberte of SortTossPack says that most of her business is pre-moving triage: Take, sell, donate. Her fee is $55 per person, per hour. SortTossPack partners with a thrift store, where clients can recoup some of the costs of moving. The store takes 55 percent, clients get 45 percent, and items are marked down after three months.
Post-move, Empty the Nest owner Sharon Fischman says her company will clear out everything, even left-behind trash. Her goal is to reduce waste and prevent stuff from ending up in dumpsters.
An antique that would normally sell for hundreds of dollars goes to their Golden Valley thrift store for whatever somebody's willing to pay. If things don't sell, they'll give them away, but, Fischman says, "Not even a nonprofit will take a sleeper sofa."
Laliberte suggests starting the decluttering process with the least-used area in the house, such as a basement closet. Pick the low-hanging fruit first; heirlooms are harder. Be compassionate and don't rush yourself or your loved one. Laliberte has watched adult children roll their eyes and drum fingers on the table while parents reminisce about prized possessions. This is not helpful.
The senior moving specialists of Gentle Transitions and Rose's Daughters work in similar ways: Each company assigns a project manager to work with clients through the sorting and winnowing process. Your move manager will help you decide what to take and will refer you to estate sales or charities willing to accept furniture you won't have room for. Each firm will send staff to measure carefully in your new space and provide a scaled drawing that shows you what will fit where. Better still, they unpack you completely, so you enter your new space and find the beds made, the kitchen organized and even your artwork on the walls — and it all happens the day you move. It's such a relief to know that when the time comes I won't have to live with stacks of boxes or wonder where I put the coffeepot.
Eddie McGill and Tommy Misener of Rose's Daughters kindly came to look at my house recently. McGill says that it's usually seven to eight years from the time we begin to think about moving into senior housing until we're actually ready to do it, unless an accident or a fall makes single-level living imperative.
The price of moving varies according to how much stuff you have and how much space will be available in your new home; estimates range from $1,500 to $4,000 per move. My costs will be higher if I insist on bringing the books.
McGill urges seniors to remember that apartments, especially the kitchens, are much smaller than we're used to. Some senior living residences assume, probably accurately, that you won't be cooking as much as you do now, and sometimes kitchens have just two drawers. Further, you're likely to have fewer cabinets and they're not as deep or wide as the ones in your home. "Do you really need three sets of measuring spoons?" he asks.
Remember that we'll be giving up garages and basements, McGill advises. You won't need that lawn mower. And don't clean out a drawer only to fill it back up again. If you do that, according to Misener, you're just "moving rocks." And don't think you'll solve your possessions problem with a storage locker. You'll pay rent on it for years and will probably never open it; you're just passing your junk problem on to your heirs.
Bill Lehman of Gentle Transitions agrees that the downsizing process can be physically and emotionally exhausting, especially when clients possess more furniture than a small apartment can accommodate. Rose's Daughters offers a pre-move sorting service at $50 per person/per hour. Gentle Transitions prices its sorting services at $52 per person, per hour, and if you do this before your move they'll give you a 20 percent discount on the move itself. This makes sense because the more organized you are at the beginning, the less hassle the packing and unpacking will be.
The people I interviewed seemed incredibly kind. When I explained what is precious to me and how fearful I am about letting go of cherished possessions, they offered useful advice on how to begin. I've come to regard them as moving therapists. All of them know of places to sell or donate antiques. All define a successful move as not bringing more than you can fit into your new space.
And all say to start decluttering now.
Minneapolis writer Kit Naylor is starting to think about downsizing. But not today. Maybe tomorrow.