«Gabriella V. Smith and David J. Ekerdt, University of Kansas We adapt a metaphor from life course studies to designate the whole of one’s possessions, ...»
With the exception of Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate?, published by
CONFRONTING THE MATERIAL CONVOY IN LATER LIFE 383the University of Minnesota Extension Service, all books located for this study are authored by self-help or lifestyle management professionals.
These guides never present a hard sell (they never explicitly say ‘‘hire me!’’). Instead, the authors focus on when and how to bring in paid assistance.
Yet, the overall message leans heavily toward hiring various professionals rather than taking on downsizing as a completely do-it-yourself project. Hiring professionals (such as those in the author’s own ﬁelds) is presented as an empowering way for people to exercise control. These authors contend that researching and hiring professionals to tame the material convoy is a wise use of both money and time After all, who really has the time to sort through a lifetime of items while maintaining a busy life? The irony is that these authors are advocating the consumption of services even as they promote the dispossession of belongings.
Somewhat surprisingly, sections on the actual mechanics of downsizing and disposal take up a relatively small amount of text in the works surveyed.
The procedural techniques for tackling household disbandment in later life closely follow those given in the general decluttering literature. Each work carries the oft-repeated advice to separate all items into piles designated ‘‘keep ⁄ donate ⁄ trash’’ or ‘‘keep ⁄ don’t know ⁄ get rid of.’’ Outlets for personal possessions show little variation. All volumes suggested selling items through yard ⁄ garage sales or estate sales. Several books mentioned auctions—both online and traditional—as well as consignment or second-hand shops. Donation to favored charities and ⁄ or historical societies rounded out the dispossession options for items of any value. Disposal is a constant recommendation, with recycling highlighted frequently in addition to the ubiquitous dumpster.
One difference between general downsizing literature and the elder-speciﬁc genre lies in the addition of measured advice about equity—how to make fair decisions about distributing cherished items among potentially competing relatives. Strategies include having relatives place colored stickers on items they desire, notebooks with distribution instructions, and familiar heuristics for deciding which items to keep (e.g., take photographs of beloved items instead of keeping the items themselves). Overall, the works reﬂect fairly routine practices of possession divestment (Gregson, Metcalfe, and Crewe 2007), but with a special emphasis on the unique challenges of giving legacy items to family and friends.
With stories of their personal encounters with the material convoy, the authors often place themselves in a sympathetic hero role (Lunt and Livingstone 1992). In these authors’ telling, they are the battle-hardened veterans of ‘‘stuff wars’’ that have left them with accumulated knowledge and insight into the further attack on clutter.
384 GABRIELLA V. SMITH AND DAVID J. EKERDT Writing about Elders Of the 11 manuals examined, ﬁve were aimed primarily at seniors themselves and six were written primarily for an audience of family members, who are usually assumed to be adult children (Table 1). The special burden of the material convoy in later life is stressed in both types of works, but works aimed at family members—The Boomer Burden, Moving Mom and Dad, Don’t Toss My Memories in the Trash, Moving On, Family Realities, and No Ordinary Move—are closer in tone to mainstream decluttering literature. The message is that overfull households threaten well-being and must be tamed.
The interesting twist is that these are other people’s (elders’) households that threaten the well-being of both generations. This twining of interests in elders’ belongings stems from families’ increasing concern for the welfare and living environments of their older relatives (Ekerdt and Sergeant 2006), as well as a narrowing time horizon for continued well-being. Works written for family generally present consistent practical downsizing advice, whether parents are deceased, of decreased capacity, or capable of playing an active role in managing material possessions.
Such volumes exhibit an urgency not found in works aimed at elders.
The authors of Moving Mom and Dad admonish children to ‘‘take action. Try open communication about their situation and let them know they’re not alone. Don’t wait until a crisis hits; begin discussing alternatives [to current
housing] while they can be part of the solution’’ (Morse and Robbins 1998:
27). Time is of the essence because elders may grow frail. Chapter titles illustrate the pressing tone found in these volumes: ‘‘Help! I can hardly cope with my own life, and now my parents are falling apart!’’ (Morse and Robbins, 1998); ‘‘Early Tremors,’’ ‘‘Seven on the Richter Scale,’’ ‘‘What You Resist Persists,’’ ‘‘Finger in the Dike,’’ and ‘‘Time Famine’’ (Perman and Ballard 2007); and ‘‘First Signs’’ and ‘‘The Hearse Doesn’t Have a Trailer Hitch’’ (Hall 2008).
Books aimed at family members frequently repeat the claims of general decluttering literature—that everyone in our society suffers from an overabundance of possessions and we must do what we can to avoid increasing our load. However, in the stories spun by these authors, the problem to be addressed is twofold. One issue is the sheer volume of possessions that elders have amassed, and the other is the possibility that this convoy will visit you, overwhelm you, and become your responsibility. Accepting possessions from a downsizing elder increases one’s own material inventory and potentially that of the next generation. If not vigilant in this matter, adult children will end up with responsibility for their own possession load, that of their children, and that of their aging parents.
CONFRONTING THE MATERIAL CONVOY IN LATER LIFE 385The authors surveyed also drive home the many ways that attachment to ‘‘stuff’’ breeds family conﬂict: battles over who should inherit what, how possessions should be valued, and what constitutes a fair distribution system and the rights of extended family members. These authors adopt the familiar rationale of general decluttering literature that control of possessions is vital to a fully actualized life. Elders and their family members need personal discipline and mastery over unhealthy emotional attachments to mere stuff—no matter the sentimental or heirloom value—because this is the only way to tame the elder’s material convoy and stop it from becoming a transgenerational burden.
Within books written primarily for family members, authors commonly include sidebars speciﬁcally addressed to elders that mediate the blunt, urgent tone of the main pages. For example, in Moving On, the authors include a shaded section of text speciﬁcally for parents to guide them in communicating with their children as the family home is being downsized. The Boomer Burden author Julie Hall peppers her text with shaded boxes ‘‘For Parents.’’ While parents and adult children are often cooperating on a disbandment project, each generation merits its own advice.
Whether speaking to adult children or parenthetically to elders, authors nevertheless maintain (in the general style of advice manuals) an imperative voice. They can, however, shade toward paternalism, implying that elders are incapable of the self-control needed to thin their own material convoy because of their attachment to ‘‘stuff,’’ and by extension, they sabotage their potential to live an age-appropriate lifestyle.
Writing for Elders By contrast, the literature addressed to elders takes a gentler tone, with an emphasis on the positive aspects of downsizing and moving and the ways that later life can be more enjoyable when unburdened by the excess possessions that need constant management and care. Along with a streamlined collection of belongings comes the added psychological beneﬁt of making decisions on one’s own behalf. Unlike the literature for family, these manuals do not have a time-is-short urgency about downsizing. What they do feature is an outright deference toward long-held possessions that are personally meaningful.
Clutter and excess stuff remain pejoratives in the elder-targeted literature, but the emotional connection to possessions is not viliﬁed to the extent that it is in general or family-focused divestment manuals. Whereas volumes targeting general or younger audiences stress the emotional baggage that possessions represent and treat attachment to biographical items as a symptom of self-indulgent consumerism, the elder literature promotes divestment with more sensitivity. Authors afﬁrm the sentimental value of items and 386 GABRIELLA V. SMITH AND DAVID J. EKERDT acknowledge how possessions represent personal and family history. However, the size of the material convoy in later life still remains an issue, so disbandment methods and dialogs shift to stress ways that dispositions can nonetheless honor one’s belongings.
One strategy highlighted in Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate?, Moving for Seniors, Rightsizing Your Life, and Just Pencil Me In is the ‘‘safe passage’’ disposition. Safe passage involves making sure that personal items are placed in new quarters in ways that protect and honor the particular article, and it can be accomplished by a variety of means (Roster 2001). These methods include gifts to family during one’s own lifetime or donation to historical societies or to non-family members who will truly appreciate the value of items, giving them a ‘‘home.’’ Each author in this subset stressed the need to share the stories behind seemingly ordinary objects, to place them in the context of family history. ‘‘That small vase that doesn’t look like much to others may be a special treasure from your childhood, travels, heirlooms, work life or activities…If you don’t let someone know [the stories behind the objects], those treasures may be on the dust heap before you know it…This could be one of the most valuable projects you can undertake’’ (Morris 1998: 21). The meaning of things to their owners, both monetary and symbolic, obtains considerable respect in these manuals.
The consumption critique in elder-targeted literature works hard to esteem the values that older readers may hold. An emphasis on thrift, often packaged with reference to the Great Depression or the sacriﬁces of the Greatest Generation, is a rhetorical device that recasts the problem of excess possessions as a matter of impractical saving. These habits of frugality are painted as unrealistic and potentially self-defeating because many elders need to downsize their homes. Frugality is also unwise because our modern convenience culture has a ready availability of low-cost replacements for storage containers, rubber bands, etc. In Just Pencil Me In, Wilma Willis Gore empathizes with a woman who moved into a new retirement community. This woman kept a seemingly useless box of old jelly glasses and was embarrassed to recall: ‘‘It took me a while to get out of the habit of storing things I thought I might use in the future’’ (Gore 2002: 95). Overzealous saving and sentimental attachment to items are gently discouraged as they inhibit downsizing of the material convoy, which in turn hinders seniors from living their ‘‘best’’ lives today. For example, Ciji Ware counsels her readers to ‘‘Accept that the past is past… This acceptance, in turn, can open doors to new worlds, along with an appreciation for the advantages of the age you are now’’ (Ward 2007:16).
Texts aimed at seniors frequently highlight the surprising ease of disbandment and the freedom and exciting choices that a downsizing can promise, as opposed to the stress. Authors such as Gore and Ware who speak of their own
CONFRONTING THE MATERIAL CONVOY IN LATER LIFE 387moves touch lightly on the challenges that they faced and keep the tone upbeat and lighthearted. The emotional stresses of dispossession, especially the potential for family strife, are not elaborated to the same extent as it is in literature targeted at family members.
In arguing for the mastery of possessions, the elder-oriented manuals clearly stress the exercise of agency and the satisfactions of being in control.
There are advantages for one’s family, legacy, and personal sovereignty.
Ware, Gore, Nemovitz, and Stum encourage seniors to take control of disbandment projects (or at least as much control as their personal health allows) as a way of preserving autonomy. Personal supervision of disbandment decisions is advanced as a way for seniors to maintain control over the path of their lives. ‘‘You’ll get lots of advice from people,’’ Gore advises, but ‘‘an individual really has no choice but to reject all but the advice she or he wholeheartedly agrees with and take charge—whatever the consequences’’ (Gore 2002: 70). Possession reduction, authors say, can be a parental gift to children.
Possession reduction also preserves one’s privacy by keeping family members from sorting through personal items and papers. Downsizing is often framed as a parental responsibility to avoid passing undue burdens to loved ones. And ultimately, a sifted and slimmed material convoy is also a way to control one’s postmortem image and legacy.
Discussion There is a material convoy of possessions that accompanies an individual from birth to death. Whereas its size and manageability may be an issue at any stage of life, this paper examined arguments as to why these matters must be confronted in later life. For adults generally, a genre of self-help literature has emerged that critiques the accumulation of possessions, urges discipline and self-mastery, and offers practical advice about their divestment (Cwerner and Metcalfe 2003). When older adults are the focus of downsizing texts, the view is that possessions threaten to overwhelm not only elders but also their families. Our examination of this subgenre—11 recent popular books—shows
authors addressing two distinct audiences about the material convoys of elders:
family members and elders themselves. The manner of address is analogous to two stances that family members have been found to take toward the downsizing projects associated with household moves by elders (Ekerdt and Sergeant 2006). These lie on a continuum anchored at each end by the inclination to assist or assert.
In the ‘‘assist’’ stance, family members are supportive of an elder’s disbandment efforts while respecting their autonomy and values. In a similar way, decluttering manuals addressed to elders are quite resolute about the need to downsize, but the standard critique about consumption and lives out of 388 GABRIELLA V. SMITH AND DAVID J. EKERDT control is softened by sensitivity to the meaningfulness of elders’ things. The ‘‘assert’’ stance is paternalistic and preemptive of elders’ decision making, and this is likewise the manner of literature aimed at family members who are aiding the household downsizing of an elder. With a tone and urgency that is close to mainstream clutter-control advice, authors emphasize the trouble posed by the elder’s convoy: its burdens, threat to safety, and potential for family discord. It is possible that this less sentimental, summary view of the elder’s possessions resonates with family readers because it voices a displaced impatience and frustration with the stress of caregiving.
Why the gentler tone in works addressed to older adults? We believe that authors, who claim practical experience in these matters, understand that episodes of downsizing in later life are not primarily undertaken to yield a cleaner, freer household ready for further consumption. Rather, the divestments urged by these texts will occur in anticipation of and preparation for a narrowed life world. There is a liminality and lower horizon to life at this stage (Carstensen, 2006) that these authors seem to appreciate and respect. The focus on living a good life as elders is presented with the appreciation that time is precious. For all the conﬁdence that these experts have in their advice, the usefulness of their messages lies in the encouragement to maintain a material convoy that is proportionate to one’s stage of life.