a woman smiles confidently as she gets ready for visitors for her yard sale

There is no shortage to the amount of “stuff” that a person can collect in his/her lifetime; however, there can be a shortage of space to put it all!

Seniors often have mountains of personal items (including furniture, electronics, books, photographs, collectables, and so on). When living in a house, a senior will have the benefit of extra room to keep these types of things, when necessary. If and when a senior has to move into a care facility, the square footage is considerably reduced and downsizing will become necessary.

The massive job of disposing of Mom and/or Dad’s belongings isn’t always easy for anybody, explains Shannon Lang – Senior Move Manager with Edmonton, Alberta’s Elder Move Inc. (a company specializing in senior downsizing and relocations). “Parents have grown up in a time when you saved everything – just in case you ever could use it. In addition, parents often spent what seemed like a lot of money when they originally purchased these items and would like to pass their treasured belongings along to their children; however, adult children will often have a full house of belongings themselves. Your home was intended for you and was never intended to serve as additional storage space. Perhaps most importantly, each item is associated with a memory or memories and parents may feel that if they let go of their belongings, they will also forget these stories.”

It isn’t any simpler for family caregivers, continues Lang. “Letting go of the parental belongings is often overwhelming as there is just so much stuff and one often doesn’t know where to start. Adult children may be fearful of giving something away and then having Mom/Dad ask for it back. Becoming the decision makers and making choices about parental belongings means becoming the parent and, therefore, results in a complete role reversal.”

As a former co-caregiver for both of my own aging parents, I was faced with the problems related to parental purging. This began with moving Mom and Dad from their retirement home in scenic Victoria, British Columbia to their former home in Edmonton, Alberta (the rationale here was that Mom and Dad would be closer to my two sisters and myself and we could provide better care). After Mom passed away, I helped to move my father twice more and each time we had to further limit his belongings that he could bring with him.

When it comes to reducing your parent’s clutter, what can you with it all? Before disposing of everything, Lang recommends allowing for ample time. “Downsizing a senior can be a very emotional process. Do not rush and keep your parents involved – remember that these items are theirs and everything has a memory connected to it.”

Begin by distributing a number of parental belongings amongst you and your siblings. Based on an adult child’s interests, these choices shouldn’t be that difficult (my older sister obtained Mom and Dad’s art collection, I took Dad’s stereo system, and my younger sister acquired many of Mom and Dad’s books). You could next donate items to those in-need; Mom and Dad’s pots and pans may be greatly appreciated by a child who is just moving out of the house. I remember selling Dad’s collection of classical music compact discs to a second-hand music store and then depositing the proceeds back into Dad’s bank account.

You could also take possession of smaller items. Personally, I have adopted a number of smaller knick-knacks which once belonged to Mom and Dad (these now sit on my office window ledge) and Dad’s favourite salt-and-pepper tweed hiking hat. I have found that glancing at these items works very well to remind me of my parents while not stealing all of my own space.

You can also hold a garage sale. For better results, coordinate your sale with a neighbour’s sale as these larger, “Multi-Family” events offer more inventory and can be more attractive to customers.

Another option is to rent a storage locker to house larger items (or those you can’t bear to part with or don’t know what to do with …). If you’re wanting to store Mom or Dad’s television set or fine furniture, you may want to look for an indoor, heated storage unit. While storage unit companies often offer locks for sale to patrons, you can certainly provide your own. With a keyed padlock, you may have to physically get copies of the lock key and provide these to other family members, whereas a lock’s combination could be more easily shared. Whether you choose an indoor or outdoor storage locker, know that the monthly cost can quickly add up. Personally, I would advise using a storage locker only for a short period of time to avoid a sizable financial loss.

To save money in the long run, turn the job over to a “senior move manager” As a professional, a Senior Move Manager will come in and make those more difficult choices for you. Lang regularly assures caregivers and seniors alike that she “knows the order in which things need to happen and has the connections to make things happen – efficiently and empathetically. A Senior Move Manager can arrange for all the work to be done meaning a caregiver can spend more quality time with a parent rather than being tied up with sorting and packing. We work with seniors and caregivers and respect their belongings and their decisions.”

On a final note, never underestimate the power of parental belongings as these material objects which can provide significant memories and a strong emotional attachment for many people. Please don’t jump into making hasty decisions yourself (or force someone else to find a new home for parental belongings before he/she is ready to do so). People can experience significant amounts of grief before, during, and after the time that Dad’s armchair or Mom’s desk is gone. While you will lose physical items in the process of parental purging, you will never lose the memories that go with them.

Rick Lauber is the author of Caregiver’s Guide for Canadians, available at national Chapter’s bookstores.

Written by Rick Lauber
Rick Lauber is a former co-caregiver, established freelance writer and author of Caregiver’s Guide for Canadians (Self-Counsel Press). Rick’s book is available for purchase at national Chapter’s bookstores and online.

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  1. It was easier for me to deal with my mother’s death than it was to feel responsible for all the stuff she left! The way to sanity for me was hiring an Estate Sale company. She had lived in a Senior Living Community, & you could do the sale yourself, but the rules that had to be followed was just as stressful as the amount of stuff to be sold.

  2. I am so grateful for how easily Mom let go of her things when I moved her from her already small apartment into my 860 sq. ft. house. I had to get rid of a lot to make room for her and she appreciated that. I consider myself lucky, after seeing so many friends deal with this after their parent(s) passing.

  3. I inherited my mother’s belongings when she developed dementia and had to go to a nursing home. My home was filled everywhere……..in my haste to purge, purge, purge…..I destroyed valuable medical records which can not be reconstructed. These were Dr. notes from 3 different primary care doctors (before computers) describing issues and medicines she was given. Please do not destroy such records until you are absolutely sure you will never ever need them.

    Quick tip in getting rid of my own memories…….take pictures of things you can no longer store/keep/want. Doesn’t seem as hard to part with those old dusty things…….

  4. Its even more difficult when the parent is deceased. My advice is to wait as long as you can to make those decisions. To early to painful not always good decisions.


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