K.K. writes: "When my mom died after living with me for over 8 years, I thought I'd prepared. NO. The next 10 months were hard, emotional. It's one reason I put objects in storage. I knew I wasn't prepared to sift through everything. Now I'm ready. How do I go through my mom's stuff?"
Coincidentally, L.R. also wants advice for those who have an elderly mom or dad: What to do with a lifetime accumulation of a parent who is either too frail or whose emotions are too powerful to be of help?
Like K.K.'s mom, who was not able to downsize as her health declined, my mother, too, has been worried about leaving a burden.
L.R. writes that she was faced with downsizing after the death of a family member. I, myself, am traveling to Chicago this month, where I grew up, to pack my 89-year-old mom's house. Even though she has whittled down her collections of art and antiques, I find Mom is more attached now that her health is failing.
L.R. suggests that she wants to downsize because she needs a change of scenery to help with the grieving process. K.K. says much the same: As grief subsided, she feels she can tackle her mom's objects in storage.
This short article gives K.K. and L.R. some tips for dealing with these intimate issues. Overarching this theme is the fact that change in an emotional time, symbolized by loved objects, is difficult.
My mother was recently airlifted to a hospital close to my brother on the East Coast. I was elected to form the family plan: what was going into storage, who was going to inherit what, and what Mom's future living quarters might contain. All this with no assurance of anything. At the time of her airlift, she felt much too weak to think about her home of 30 years, and I packed only a small suitcase for her.
A few days ago, she felt well enough to tackle the first step in this process: She read my photographic appraisal of ALL her possessions. That was bittersweet. I do this for a living, and yet, as mom said, I never did it for HER. Here's what I learned:
Tip No. 1: When you do an inventory for your elder, list objects in the locations they occupied in the household. If Mom can't remember something, I reference a certain drawer in the china cabinet.
Tip No. 2: If the family agrees, make a shorter inventory of all the objects in a room-by-room fashion with fair market values (that is, what things would sell for as second-hand material) and make a copy for all the grown children and grandchildren of the family. Be transparent.
Tip No. 3: Agree on a period in which to digest the inventory, both for your elderly parent and for the heirs. Decide if age trumps interest. In our case, my Mom's kids' selections trumped the grandkids. Select the most computer literate family member to make an interactive spreadsheet on Google Docs. I suggest using a ranking system: number 1 is listed with an object of absolute desire, 2 for medium interest, and 3 only if the object is to be donated. Be ready for pushback once your elder sees what the kids want: Mom started this process ready to give much away. Now she wants to control object dispersal to family.
Tip No. 4: Bring the elder parent into a one-on-one discussion with care. Ask for a recorded, written or dictated document of your elder's wishes before you do so. Be prepared to offer both sides of a long-distance move. In the case of a treasured table, I gave the cost of crating versus the cost to leave with a family member.
Tip No. 5: Be cautious of subtext. What you are preparing for is what K.K. prepared for — a loved one's decline. Speaking to my mom about giving things up, she heard that subtext; she said, "It would be easier if I died." I gasped, but offered "The fact that we are planning your new room interiors means that you have a future house!"
L.R. suggests that divesting means, for her, a change of scenery. I tried that phrase on my mother. She replied that she has no energy to create a new environment, so to make it easy, she needs to keep everything. Overwhelmed by the sheer amount of objects even the smallest home can contain, all or nothing is an easier concept than many small and painful decisions.
Tip No. 6: Ask professionals. I spoke to a few professional packers. An elder parent is used to finding objects in certain places, and this knowledge led to this suggestion: use technology. Take photos of objects where they live. When packing boxes for storage, that photo is then affixed to the box; all boxes are labeled with their origin locations (for example, "second shelf china cabinet").
Tip No. 7: When Mom and I first talked about the move, she wanted her kids to have everything; now she can't let go. Many of us have therefore reviewed her inventory. How do you speak to Mom about letting go? My nephew, our diplomat, said he would like to talk with Mom about a desired object's family history. Therefore, if one of us wants something, THAT photo will also be on the box. Mom will be getting a file of those photos and those names.
Tip No. 8: Consider renting two storage lockers — one for the most necessary of objects, such as clothing or computers, and another filled with the furnishings for a small apartment. We rented two 10-by-10 units so that we could find labeled boxes easily.
Tip No. 9: Assign family members who are good at tasks to help. My brother Dave is an IT professional; I have been in contact with him about the computer and paper files. My brother Paul is an engineer, perfect to oversee the logistics of the storage lockers. My sister Nan is good with space and color; she prepared a few suggestions for "mixed use" furniture adaptable for various-size rooms. Because Mom had lived with a bookshelf for 30 years, she couldn't see it might be used in the future for kitchenette storage.
Tip No. 10: Write this where you can see it: "Grant me, please, that I can face whatever awaits, as constructively as possible, for my mom, and for the rest of us. Without movement, there can be no change."
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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