When a loved one dies, we often go into cleaning mode. There is an urge to bring order to a world that has been turned upside down. I began cleaning out my mother’s condo the same day that she died. I was desperate to stay busy, to wear my body out with exhaustion as my mind reeled from the profound moment I had just experienced. After a cleaning frenzy, I certainly was exhausted, but dismayed at how much remained.
My parents weren’t hoarders, but they came from a generation that was reluctant to discard of household goods. I was fortunate in some respects that my parents had always lived in small quarters, whether it was an apartment or the retirement condo, but a lifetime’s worth of stuff was still formidable to assess. Over time, I have made significant progress. The local Humane Society took my parents’ sofa and recliner, and I found a lovely woman via Care.com who picked up several boxes of donations to take to a church thrift shop where she volunteers. My mom would be pleased that everything from Avon dish collections (which she received from her brother and never used) to my childhood toys will have new homes.
Almost two years after her death, my mother’s clothes still hang in the close, as do my dad’s clothes, and he died five years ago. Furniture and books also remain. What happened?
It’s not sentimentality, as I long ago selected keepsakes from each of my parents that hold special meaning. It’s been difficult to find the rest of the items a home. Other families are running into the same issue.
As a Next Avenue article bluntly put it, “Sorry, nobody wants your parents’ stuff.”
I don’t have children, but even those who are parents will find that younger generations are not interested in acquiring “stuff,” especially when that stuff includes heavy furniture and book collections that will hinder their much-beloved mobility. While furniture, artwork, and books used to be family heirlooms, handed down from generation-to-generation, for younger people, these items are seen less as treasures and more as burdens.
As a Generation X member, I’m somewhere in-between in my love of old family items. I have a few such pieces in my home, but I’m not a collector. Even if I wanted all of my parents’ stuff, with their condo in New Mexico and my home in Georgia, the logistics and cost wouldn’t be worth it.
Family caregivers may end up babysitting their loved one’s stuff long after their family members are gone. For those who can afford it and need to move items quickly, there are estate liquidation companies and senior move managers who can offer tips on downsizing while your loved ones age in place. For others, especially those in rural communities, unloading household items can be more of a chore.
Charities that accept donations such as clothes and furniture often have a higher standard for quality than one might expect. They are not meant to be dumping grounds for junk, and they have every right to refuse items. My parents’ wardrobe, heavily worn and hopelessly out-of-fashion, would not make the cut at many charity-operated thrift shops.
Items like my parents’ bed are beyond well-used and simply need to be disposed of, but that is easier said than done in a small town. In Atlanta, when I want to get rid of junk, I simply used one of the many junk removal services. Some even provide same-day service. But no such service exists in my parents’ small town, and classifieds, online and in the local newspaper, have not been helpful. Unlike Atlanta, the town’s sanitation service does not offer a bulk rubbish day where heavy items can be left by one’s household trash for pickup. Everything would have to be trucked to a landfill. I asked a local home renovation company who was giving me quotes on repair projects for suggestions, and even they didn’t know of a local resource.
There are options which I’m going to explore. One option is donating clothing to nursing homes. My father wore mainly donated clothes during his time in a memory care center, because the distance was too far for my mother to bring laundry back and forth, as some family members did. Of course, there are no nursing home near where my parents live, so that would mean transporting the clothing.
Another option is to use a service like Goodwill’s Give Back Box which accepts most items (refer to website for restrictions) and provides a free shipping label. In my case, because USPS did not provide mail delivery to my parents’ condo, I would have to bring such boxes to a post office or shipping center.
My father loved the local library so I may be able to find a home for his books there.
Unlike some families who are selling their parents’ home and are forced to clean out quickly, I have the luxury of time as I maintain ownership of the home. The old mattresses and box frames are stacked in a bedroom, collecting dust but out of the way. The books are boxed up. The clothes are doing no harm hanging in the closet. While I’m still eager to finish the job, once everything is gone, I wonder if I will have a pang of longing for what is no longer there.
Maybe the younger generations have it right. Hang on to the important things, the memories of time spent together with loved ones, captured in a neat and tidy digital form. Let go of materialistic goods that do not bring joy or have special meaning. It will certainly make the purging process less painful.
Joy Johnston is an Atlanta-based digital journalist who began The Memories Project blog in 2012 after her father died of Alzheimer’s. Her essays have appeared in best-selling anthologies, including Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer’s & Other Dementias.