Thursday, November 21, 2013

Accumulating too much

cluttered-basementRight or wrong, many adults tend to measure their happiness by how much stuff they accumulate, but in later life, I think it’s just the opposite.

Today Mary, my mother-in-law, is happily living with a few prized possessions in a 400-square-foot room in an assisted-living facility.

Last year her home was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. Fortunately, she was living in the facility at the time.

Early next year her house will be leveled and a new one built in its place.

Before demolition can begin, the two-story duplex with a detached garage has to be cleaned out. This will be no easy task because Mary had an issue with saving things. She was employed as a domestic worker and often her clients would offer her things. Mary never said no.

The garage, basement and downstairs are cluttered with bags and bags of clothes for all ages, heavy-duty tools, portable air conditioners, beds, chairs, end tables, televisions, dishes galore, linens, multiple garbage cans, extra wood, wheelbarrows, old cast-iron heaters and lots of electrical appliances.

Early in my marriage, I asked Mary why she had so many things. She told me she was orphaned as a child in Ireland and had few personal possessions, so she gladly took what anyone wanted to give and feared giving it up in case one day it might prove useful.

For a few years before she moved into the facility, Mary essentially lived in her bedroom. All that stuff never got used, and thanks to Hurricane Sandy, it has all now been damaged or destroyed.

It’s a shame because many of those items could have been put to good use if we all had been a little more proactive.

Cluttering, or hoarding, as it is often referred to, is a growing issue for seniors, especially when they grow older in their own homes. A 2008 study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University revealed that about 4 percent of the population as a whole shows hoarding behavior, but that percentage goes up to 6.2 for people over 55.

Living in clutter may increase the risk of falls and fire.

There are lots of reasons for the seemingly irrational practice of filling one’s house with things, including compulsive shopping, sentimental attachments, fear, an expectation the items will be useful in the future or just the difficulty of dealing with loss (removing the items from the household).

Dr. Jim Birren, a local acquaintance of mine and founding dean of USC’s Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, suggests that we could take some constructive steps to address this issue that would benefit individuals as well as our community.

His idea is to create Clutter Day for Thousand Oaks, where seniors could bring their clutter for sale or disposal. Sales could yield money for nonprofits. It would also contribute to reducing social isolation.

According to Dr. Birren, “Individuals donating their clutter of past collectibles would gain by social contact with volunteers or nonprofit staff and reduce their social isolation.”

Many seniors or their parents experienced the Great Depression, and as a result they value getting the most use out of an item and helping others. Giving away or donating items is a great way to practice both those values.

Adult children wishing to help their parents de-clutter should be aware that clutter can be about control, but so can being the one to decide where the stuff goes.

Begin with trying to understand why the items are important to them and see if they might be willing to give away, donate or sell items now, while you are there to help them.

Mary’s journey has taken her full circle, from a life with few possessions to lots of possessions, then back again to a life with few. Hurricane Sandy lifted the burden of keeping all those things.

If you or a loved one has accumulated too much and are willing to donate collectibles, especially clothing and household goods, give Senior Concerns’ Bargain Boutique and Thrift Shop a call at (805) 373-0504.

And look for an announcement about Clutter Day for Thousand Oaks in spring 2014. Thanks, Dr. Birren!

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Tags: clutter,Dr. James Birren,Hurricane Sandy

Categories: General, Elder HealthNumber of views: 2266

Tags: seniors need to save

Andrea GallagherAndrea Gallagher

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