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.
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.