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Getting Rid of Stuff part 2

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Dear readers:

In the last column, N.S. asked about what to consider in passing her possessions to her children.  She also was concerned that her children would rather avoid the conversation.  Here is our continuing discussion.

Distributing possessions does not conjure up thoughts of research.  Yet this has emerged as an area of exploration in social science.  David J. Ekerdt, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Gerontology Center at the University of Kansas Laurence and colleagues have conducted research and published on the subject based on interviews with over 100 households that have downsized.

According to the authors, ritual and tradition play a major role in how “stuff” is distributed.    Their recent article in the Journal Generations of the American Society on Aging had as its theme “Ritual in Later Life:  Its Role, Significance and Power.”

Let’s discuss what we know about distributing possessions.  Here are some facts based on Ekerdt’s and others’ research findings.

Adult children usually are familiar with parents’ possessions.  They grew up with them.  And they may have a good idea about what they would like.   Adults also may have a clear sense of who gets what–to the extent of writing recipients’ names under select items.

Giving often is episodic.  There usually is no single time that possessions are given.  It may be a birthday, holiday or just a visit.  I recall my mother visiting from Florida with one or two silver serving spoons in her purse that belonged to my father’s parents.

Adults may create an event, asking family and friends to visit and take what they like.   This may occur when an older adult moves to a smaller living space such as an apartment or assistive living residence.

And then there is just the visit. A daughter visits and admires a piece of jewelry and in no time, it’s hers.

Special things have their own category.  Examples are items worth a lot of money, things that are part of a family history or items that just have special personal meaning to the older person.  Often a story is needed to explain the “specialness” of such items.  It’s that sword from grandfather’s service in the Spanish American war, the crystal that was part of grandmother’s dowry from Europe or the linen tablecloth that was hand stitched by a great grandparent.

Gender also plays a role according to Ekerdt’s research.  When the recipient is not obvious, items often are passed on to men and women according to traditions and expectations.   For example, one of his study participants passed down military paraphernalia to his son; an older woman who couldn’t find any of her grandchildren to take her furs gave them to her daughters to distribute.

Decisions about “who gets what?” often relates to thoughts about mortality and legacy.  There comes a time when we realize we are not on this planet forever.  The question is, “How do we want to be remembered and what part of that memory can be captured through passing on our possessions?  Memories can be created by things, if the story is told.  And legacy is part of the memory.

According to other researchers, recipients can be identified by asking several questions:    Who is the first to ask for the item(s)?  Who can best use it?  Who has the optimum room for it?   Who would value it the most?  And who is the most deserving?

Now to the question of children why children prefer to avoid the conversation.  Perhaps the most obvious answer is that it is difficult for them to think about becoming adult orphans – a time when parents have made their exit.  By not talking about it allows one to dismiss the prospect as though it will never happen.  This is understandable but not practical.

N.S., consider having that chat with your children.  Let them know you understand how difficult it might be for them.  Yet, what joy there can be in sharing this passage…this living legacy during a lifetime.  Such a dialogue can make everyone feel connected with a stake in the present and future.

And thank you for your good question.  Hopefully, we can all think about our own legacy and see it as a positive move in giving during our life time.

Copyright 2011 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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