The Meaning of Things

I love when I come across a really terrific article of interest to Senior Move Managers, Boomers, older adults, etc.  I especially enjoy articles about “the stuff of life.” Today, I discovered an excellent post from February 2009 on the Aging in Place blog that I want to share with you. The words of blog author, Patrick Roden, PhD, resonate with me as a Boomer myself, daughter of 80+ year-old parents, and advocate for the Senior Move Management profession.  Many thanks to Patrick Roden for The Meaning of Things.
Things embody goals, make skills manifest, and shape the identities of their users. Man is not only homo sapiens or homo ludens, he is also homo faber, the maker and user of objects, his self to a large extent a reflection of things with which he interacts.

–Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and; Eugene Rochberg-Halton, The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self (1999)

Many years ago I was sitting in a statistics class listening to Professor Ann Wax have the unenviable task of explaining to undergraduates the difference between reliability and validity. Her brilliant treatment of the topic came in the form of a story; which to this day I still recall with admiration.

Professor Wax began her narrative by telling us about a death in the family. Her aunt, who lived back east, had passed away and being prudent before she died had labeled various personal items to be dispersed among surviving relatives.

This was a favorite aunt of Dr. Wax and she received her share of meaningful things in the mail from her estate. One large slender package stuck out however because it was wrapped with the care offered a new born baby. When she carefully unveiled the object to her surprise it was a closet mirror . . . that cheap kind you adhere to the back of a door.

Why on earth had she taken the time and effort to wrap an item that could be bought at any Target or Wal-Mart and mail it across the country?

It soon became apparent why this was one of her aunt’s cherished objects —when Dr. Wax casually looked at her image in the mirror she appeared 15lbs. slimmer!

For many years the mirror had made her aunt appear 15lbs. lighter every time she saw her image (reliable), but she in fact was still her current weight (validity). So, the mirror was reliable . . . but not valid. Lesson learned . . .

The Meaning of Things
“Is there one personal possession you value above all others?” This was a key question put to respondents in a survey. More than 4 of every 5 respondents were readily able to identify such an object. Gender difference appeared as men identified more consumer items and women more symbolic items like photographs and jewelry.

For adults over 75 more of them (30%) could identify no cherished object as compare to only 8% of the younger respondents. The researchers found out this was because many of the older participants lived in nursing homes and lack of cherished things was associated with the absence of one’s own home.

The findings for the researchers proved institutional care often means moving into a place bereft of meaningful things that surround one in the home. “The almost symbiotic bond between home and objects is severed” (p.66).

From the glass roses I presented to my friend in the nursing home lasting 2 weeks before being knocked off the window-ledge (broken by a nurse-aide); to the antique Santa that I had to identify as hers by labeling it with black marking pen (nursing home necessity), meaningful things can lose meaning in institutions.

Beyond Materialism
Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton note: Objects affect what a person can do, either by expanding or restricting the scope of that person’s actions and thoughts. And because what a person does is largely what he or she is, objects have a determining effect on the development of the self, which is why understanding the type of relationship that exists between people and things is so crucial.

Aging in place can maintain that essential bond between people and things. It’s a reliable and valid way for us to continue to interact with meaningful objects which delight the senses and support our identity.
Though the intent of Mr. Roden’s blog is to support aging in place in one’s own home, I submit that “home” is wherever you lay your head. Senior Move Managers accomplish precisely what he is seeking: thoughtfully assisting older adults in the downsizing (and relocation) process so they keep what matters most – even when moving to assisted living, etc.

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