A Mother’s Day Gift

Hi everyone,
Below is a reprint of a Mother’s Day 2013 column in the New York Times New Old Age blog, written by NASMM’s friend and lead researcher on downsizing and relocating in later life, Dr. David Ekerdt, from the University of Kansas. Dr. Ekerdt will return to the NASMM Annual Conference in 2015 in San Antonio, TX to update us regarding his ongoing research.
{Due to the NYT paywall, many people do not have the opportunity to access the insigthful & engaging New Old Age blog. Here you go! And hat tip to Margit Novack of Moving Solutions for reminding us of this terrific piece as we approach Mother’s Day 2014.}

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Adults with older parents or even grandparents will soon be searching for suitable Mother’s Day and Father’s Day gifts. If these presents are not consumables — a box of chocolates or a bottle of spirits — then they will only enlarge the material convoy that accompanies Mom and Dad through their later years.

Older people want our love and affection, but they probably don’t need more stuff. A 2010 survey of Americans 60 and older found that 60 percent agreed they had “more things than you need.” Fully 75 percent said that the thought of dealing with their things made them somewhat or very reluctant to think about moving.

IV27VG-vintage-green-vaseSo why pile on more? Instead, I suggest that you help whittle things down by making yourself available to receive some belongings your elders would like to offload.

It’s a myth that older people cling to their possessions. Of course they cherish certain things, but most homes hold uncounted thousands of objects, only some of them special. My studies of household downsizing in Kansas City and Detroit reveal that seniors feel almost universal relief at having lightened the load.

Transfers of possessions from older to younger family members normally require some occasion, such as a wedding or graduation, lest the gesture, coming out of the blue, be viewed with alarm. (“You’re giving me the antique table? You’re not planning on dying, are you?”) And the younger generation’s readiness to embrace what’s on offer — the crystal, the matched floor lamps, the baseball card collection — cannot be assumed.

But Mother’s Day and Father’s Day afford the perfect occasions for the unqualified reception of stuff. You can approach this a few different ways. For example, write this in a Mother’s Day card:

Mom, you have said so often that you don’t want me to give you one more thing because you already have too many things. So this year I am taking you at your word. I will make a contribution to your favorite charity and then, when you are ready, I will happy to take any of your things that you would like to unload.

Or you can suggest belongings she might give you. Lest anyone accuse you of stripping the shelves, propose things that live deep in the recesses of the home: vacation videos, excess flowerpots, sporting goods or long-ignored books. Stuff in the basement, the attic, the closets, the shed, the garage.

Ask for photo albums now, while elders can still tell you who all those people are. Suggest nothing that, like the tufted family rocking chair, will set off World War III among your siblings. In fact, siblings can organize themselves to receive things as a group, thereby forestalling the charge of having taken unfair advantage.

Another technique: Wrap an empty box as a present, with a note inside that says, “Fill me, please.” The gift will initially seem puzzling, but this becomes your chance to explain your intentions. And if the box is eventually filled and passed back to you, empty it and begin the cycle again. The transfers might become a habit.

If you try this for Mother’s Day, your father will almost certainly ask whether you are going to pull the same thing next month. “For you, especially,” would be a good reply.

When the jewelry, random houseplants, random hand tools and back issues of National Geographic come, you can archive, curate, sell, donate or regift them. All you need at the moment of exchange is a smile and the promise that you know “just the right place” for these things. Leave it at that.

The looking-glass nature of human connection means that receiving is giving, that taking things is a gesture of generosity. Honor your mother and father by welcoming their things no matter what, and then welcoming yet more.

David J. Ekerdt is director of the gerontology center at the University of Kansas.

2 responses to “A Mother’s Day Gift

  1. Stuff is complicated. I have always promoted the gift of time. In my work I see lots of people with too much stuff. It is so important consider the value of collectibles and realize how habit and time allow people to end up with too much at the end of life. My mother always said to give with a warm hand and I appreciate that every time I think of her because she taught me what generosity really is and that it isn’t always wrapped in a box.

  2. The offer to take excess items from the home of your loved one is a beautiful gesture. I highly recommend it to all of the children of my clients. No one wants their stuff to be trashed, no matter how old or worn. I have heard many times from my older clients that they just get overwhelmed with the process of downsizing their homes before moving. When a plan is in motion to send items to family members, they welcome the chance to let go of treasured items and continue the process to move forward with the rest of the move. Stuff can get in the way and cause unnecessary stress for my clients. Having a family member offer to take the photo albums, tools, china, kitchenwares, etc. is a priceless gift and one that is most appreciated.

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