by Susan Caplan McCarthy
Whether you’ve been decluttering your home or sorting through photos, chances are that you pause when you find items that summon memories. Although you know that, logically, your memories are stored inside you, not in an object, after a while the number of sentimental items may seem to pile up.
If you’re downsizing, you may realize that items you’ve been holding onto because you had the room in your old home will claim too much space in your new, smaller home. And, of course, you might not want to leave your adult kids wondering why you kept so many meaningless things (to their perspective).
Instead of holding each item in your hand, drawing on your memories, and debating the object’s merits, look at sentimental items in a new way.
Collecting Treasured Memories
Instead of starting with the item and thinking of the memories connected to it, instead begin with your memories and only then consider if there are items that reflect your past.
When you select items connected to your best, happiest memories, then the items in your home are more than decorative tchotchkes, they are meaningful reflections of the journey you’ve taken through your life.
Look down this list, inspired by Peter Walsh’s book, Let It Go, and think of a favorite memory associated with the time, place or person. Don’t worry if you can’t do this in one sitting, it’s fine to return to this exercise over a week, a month, or a few months.
Write down your memories so you aren’t making the effort over and again to remember the details. (And you can then share these written stories with family.)
Think of favorite, happy, meaningful memories. You can’t get rid of your sad, negative memories, but you don’t need to hold onto objects that make you feel horrible.
You aren’t limited to a single memory for each category. However, if you have twenty favorite vacations, imagine that you’re at a party and someone has asked you to choose one. You don’t want to monopolize the conversation by talking about every vacation you’ve ever taken, so you pick one.
Connecting to Treasured Objects
Look at each memory on your list and consider if there is some item that connects to this memory. The item doesn’t have to be elaborate. A tee shirt may be the item that best reminds you of wonderful experiences with friends in college. When you think of your grandfather, you may immediately think of his pipe, which you have tucked away in a drawer.
You may not have a memory for a category, and you may not have an item or photograph associated with every favorite memory. Maybe you tossed an item years ago or it was destroyed. You don’t need to locate a second-best substitute.
This activity is intended to help you narrow your collection of keepsakes to those associated with your best memories. However, if you’re comfortable tossing (or passing along) a sentimental item, you don’t have to keep it no matter what memory is connected to it.
Also, you may find that taking a photograph of an item or holding onto a token of an object helps you to honor your sentimental items.
Preserving Favorite Photos
You may own the collar worn by your favorite dog while keeping several photos of other pets you’ve share your life with. You may have a digital folder filled with hundreds of pet pictures. However, only two are printed and framed.
Curating your photos allows you to tell a story about your favorite memories. Which photo best supports your memory of your island vacation – the picture of a palm tree with the ocean in the background or the picture of you and your friends, arms wrapped around one another, standing beneath that palm tree, the ocean in the background?
Just as you don’t have to keep every item just because it summons memories, you don’t need to keep every photo, print or digital.
Keep the Best and Most Meaningful Items
Using the technique described above, you don’t start with the items and then think of the memories associated with the items. Instead you recall memories and then find something that reflects and connects to that memory. (Or, you may realize that you don’t need to hold onto an item as a link to a memory.)
Sorting through sentimental keepsakes isn’t easy, so take your time when you need to and enjoy the process of reflecting on the best events in your life.
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by Susan Caplan McCarthy
A Year of Decluttering - September: Storage Spaces
My parents were hoarders. They kept everything because they believed that everything had the potential of getting used. When relatives bought new kitchen curtains or bath towels, shower curtains or blankets, they’d pass along their older stuff to my family. My father was a penny pincher and so the relatives felt they were helping to give our family new-to-us items for our home.
Some items got used. Some didn’t. Items got stored in unlabeled trash bags and boxes up in the attic. I remember my mother sending me up into the attic to paw through bag-after-bag in search of kitchen curtains and bedspreads.
After my mother passed and my father went into assisted living after being diagnosed with dementia, I started cleaning out the collections of stuff that had made the 800-square-foot ranch-style house a dark, cramped living space.
My brother and I filled four 30-yard Dumpsters (and that still didn’t empty the house). I made numerous trips to the Salvation Army donation center a few miles away. We held a yard sale.
I found items that had probably belonged to my grandparents and even great-grandparents – the tchotchkes essential to the décor of those time periods. I looked at all these items that I had never seen before and felt … nothing.
If my parents had valued any of these items or held close memories of the original owners of these items, we couldn’t tell. A box filled with turn-of-the-20th-century items was piled between a box of thirty-year-old car magazines and a bag of clothing from when I was in elementary school.
Our house was filled with the type of mass-produced knickknacks that cost three dollars and ninety-nine cents while the attic hid vintage and antique items that would have personalized the interior of the house.
Not to sound like horribly unsentimental people, but none of this stuff meant anything to me or my brother. Decluttering the attic and basement of our childhood home was, at times, like sorting through a stranger’s house.
The market was (and still is) glutted with cut-glass bowls and silver-plated trays that don’t complement today’s decorating standards. All this stuff didn’t mean anything to anyone else, either.
What Do Items You’ve Inherited Mean to You?
While decluttering, an older neighbor from my apartment asked about my efforts. I commented that all the stuff in my parents’ house was overwhelming – what was I supposed to do with it?
Her response? “Wrap up everything and put it back in the boxes and bring the boxes here. Store them in your area of the basement until you buy a house.”
And that woke me up.
This is what my parents had done. Wrapped up items, tucked them into boxes, and stuck them in the attic. When I found the items, the yellowed newsprint was dated the year they moved into their house. These items had spent 38-years stored in the attic.
Did these items mean anything to my parents if they never incorporated them into their home? I’ll never know.
Ultimately, it didn’t matter what my parents thought or felt about these items they had stored in boxes. These things now belonged to me and brother. Did the items mean anything to me or my brother? No.
It can be difficult to decide what inherited items mean to you, but once you gain that clarity, you can release your doubt and questions.
Is There a Best Time to Declutter Inherited Items?
Please note that I’m not prompting you to discard cherished items. You make your decisions. If you have a room filled with boxes of items that you’ve inherited and you’re okay with the space you are devoting to these boxes, then you’ve made your decision. (And I’ve met people who’ve decided that they want to keep items in boxes.) A year or five or ten from now you may decide to make another decision. And that’s okay.
If you have boxes of stuff that you’ve inherited but have never gone through, plan time to sit down and go through the boxes. Sometimes, people hold onto boxes thinking that it will be too emotional to sort through the items. When they finally open the boxes, they find a haphazard assortment of shopping lists, greeting cards, address books, candles and other items that have no significance other than being part of cleaning out an apartment or house.
I certainly held onto a few items for a couple of years before feeling comfortable with de-owning them.
Find the Memories, then Find the Items
Realize that the item no longer belongs to its original owner. It’s your item. You aren’t saving the item for its former owner.
Start with your favorite memories of the person you inherited the items from. Is there an item or items that symbolize that memory? If you went fishing with your grandfather, then his fishing pole or hat may be an item that you’d cherish. Find a place to display the item, perhaps next to a photo. Consider if other items that belonged to that person are as important and necessary to keep.
Or, tuck the item into a memory box that you go through a time or two each year, reflecting on your memories.
If you find yourself holding an item that belonged to a relative, but you have no memories of this person, what do you get from the item? You may feel a connection to your ancestors through the item which gives it personal value.
Storing Inherited Items
I feel that if an item is special to you in some way, you should display it. Or, at least have it in a drawer or cabinet that you go into frequently, allowing you to view the item. Maybe you keep your grandmother’s earrings in your jewelry box even though you’d never wear them. Maybe your father’s favorite tie hangs from a hook in your closet.
Do you really want to keep items in a cardboard box in your garage? I find that a sad fate for things you say are special.
Deciding to Sort through Inherited Items
You’ll decide when you feel comfortable sorting through boxes of inherited items. However, if the items are crowding your living space or preventing you from using your garage or basement the way you’d like to use these spaces, then consider what is most important – your life and that of your spouse and children or storing boxes of objects that now belong to you?
You probably won’t be able to make decisions shortly after losing someone close to you. But, sometimes, the longer you wait, the more important you believe the items must be. Sit down with a close friend or family member as you uncover what you’ve kept and decide what you will hold onto.
Read more …
How to Cherish Sentimental Items
Decluttering and Downsizing with Your Parents and Grandparents
Subscribe to emails and receive the free 7-day e-course, Distraction-free Decluttering, and learn the formula for focusing on and finishing any decluttering project around your home.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
March - Spring Cleaning
Maybe you bring up the topic of downsizing, or a parent or grandparent does. Perhaps one of your parents or grandparents has died or has received a dementia diagnosis, leaving their partner alone in a house that is much too big for them to care for.
While decluttering your belongings is a challenge, talking to a parent about decluttering is really a challenge. You and your parent are dealing not just with the thoughts and emotions clinging to items but you’re dealing with your personal relationship as well. (Oh, and your siblings and your parent’s friends and extended family.)
My parents hoarded items in their 800-square-foot ranch-style house and refused to declutter, even when my mother ended up in a wheelchair that was squeezing past boxes filled with items they didn’t use. Unfortunately, I couldn’t do anything in the house until my mother had died and my father went into assisted living. My hope is that you don’t end up in the same situation and can help your relatives improve the quality of their lives.
What Are Your Specific Concerns?
Although it can be tempting to start a downsizing conversation with, “do you really need all this stuff?” (or, worse, “you don’t need all this stuff) this can put another person on the defensive. (How would you feel if someone walked into your home and told you to get rid of 80 percent of your belongings in the coming months?)
When speaking with concerned family members or your parent, focus on safety concerns. Lugging laundry to the washing machine in the basement. Climbing stairs to the bedroom. Rooms that may be difficult to move around because of excess furniture, storage bins, or things stored on the floor. The challenge of dealing with lawn care or snow removal.
Consider who you could talk to before bringing up the idea of downsizing with your parent. I’m not suggesting that you and your siblings should gang up on mom and tell her that she has to sell her house and move in six months. However, talk to other members of your family to get their perspective on your parent’s or grandparent’s living situation.
Some individuals (including your parent or grandparent) may suggest that the current situation is fine. This isn’t a matter of ignoring concerns (or believing your concerns are invalid), but confusion or overwhelm about what the next step is or what the future changes will look like.
Aging in place might be another option – remaining in the house, which could include doing upgrades (putting in a walk-in shower instead of a tub, bringing the laundry room to the main floor, closing off upstairs rooms and bringing the bedroom onto the main floor) and arranging services for lawncare, laundry, driving to appointments, etc.
Starting to Declutter
Whether your parents or grandparents choose to age in place, or they decide that they will start decluttering now to get ready for a future move, focus on eliminating tripping hazards and excessive items in the beginning.
If family members are interested in specific items, have them note the things they want as opposed to stripping the house that grandma will be living in for the next 6-to-12-months. Leave it to your parent or grandparent to decide when and to whom they will give some of their possessions.
Does your relative want help decluttering, or will they do what they can on their own? Would it be helpful to bring in a professional organizer who will have no emotional connection to the items or your relative?
Do not(!) start with photographs, knickknacks, or sentimental items. This is the last category of items to review. Set up a room or corner of a room where you can set memorabilia.
You don’t have to start this process knowing exactly where or when your relative will move. However, knowing this information will guide the decluttering and decision-making process. Peter Walsh’s book, Let It Go, is wonderful in that it addresses dealing with personalities of the multiple relatives who’ll have a say in any downsizing efforts – as well as how to deal with possessions.
As an Amazon Associate, I earn a small commission from qualifying purchases. However, Let It Go is a book I’ve given as a gift to individuals trying to downsize a relative (it also helps you downsize your own home).
Are there specific areas of downsizing with older adults that I can cover in future articles? Leave a comment below or email me at Susan@ALessClutteredLife.com.
Susan Caplan McCarthy
I'm a professional organizer-coach with 26 years' experience as a teacher. I believe that an organized home isn't your destination but a step on the path toward the life you want to create. I teach decluttering and organizing skills through articles; books; and speaking engagements; as well as virtual coaching sessions.