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«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, ...»

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Self-help books about possession reduction, especially those addressed to family members, appear to trample on the value that older people may place on their things. The significance and meaningfulness of possessions in later life have been confirmed in numerous studies (e.g., Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981; Kroger and Adair 2008; Price, Arnould, and Curasi 2000). Older people prize possessions that symbolize their selves and their ties to others. Widows, for example, will maintain a bond with the deceased partner through certain possessions (Gentry et al. 1995; Shenk, Kuwahara, and Zablotsky 2004). Our view is that these possession reduction books actually affirm the significance of the material convoy even as they contend with it.

These authors do appreciate ‘‘the comfort of things’’ (Miller 2008), which is why they are keen to objectify the convoy as a batch of ‘‘stuff’’ and urge family members to recognize its threat to welfare and family harmony. And, in addressing elders, these authors tread more carefully and with explicit deference toward the meaning of possessions. If it were easy to part people and their things, these authors could be less resolute and imperative.

The tone of the literature analyzed here is one that is simultaneously upbeat about the benefits of possession reduction as well as deferential to the value of prized possessions. In this, the authors demonstrate qualities that have been identified by critics of self-help media, namely emotionality and a certain amount of ‘‘dumbing down’’ (Gauntlett 2008; Squire 2001;

CONFRONTING THE MATERIAL CONVOY IN LATER LIFE 389

Zimmerman et al. 2001). The complexities of downsizing in later life are often glossed over while the benefits are highlighted in the ‘‘pursuit of a happy identity’’ (Gauntlett 2008). The somewhat patronizing tone of some of the works analyzed does not so much signal a denigration of older adults, but rather a soothing condescension that is found throughout the self-help genre.

The works analyzed here demonstrate the complex relationship that people have with their belongings and how the problems of possession reflect broader cultural anxieties (McGee 2005). This matter of the material convoy and its disposition is the intersection of anxieties about aging, aging ‘‘well,’’ family roles and responsibilities, and consumption. Family members are warned not to take on the burden of elders’ stuff, even though research shows that families play a valuable role as conduits for disposition (Curasi, Price, and Arnould 2004; Hunter and Rowles 2005; Marx, Solomon, and Miller 2004). By contrast, elders are advised toward family solutions and how the disposition of their convoys can be a significant material and symbolic benefit to others. Thus, an assembly of personal belongings, tended for years and conveyed to later life, becomes at this life stage a collective and transgenerational matter.

ENDNOTE

*This research was supported in part by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, R01 AG30477. The authors gratefully acknowledge Aislinn Addington and Ben Hayter for their assistance and advice. Please direct correspondence to Gabriella V. Smith, Department of Sociology and Gerontology Center, University of Kansas, 1000 Sunnyside Ave, Room 3090, Lawrence, KS 66045, USA. e-mail: bellagvs@gmail.com.

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