A lifetime's worth of acquisitions and mementos may bring
comfort to older adults, but this "material convoy" can also become
more burdensome with age, US researchers say.
Based on a national survey, a new study finds that after age
50, people become less and less likely to sell or donate items they no longer
need – possibly because doing so becomes more and more difficult, physically or
"Having too many things is an obstacle to (older
adults) being able to move to or live somewhere smaller that better suits
them," said lead author David Ekerdt, who is director of the gerontology
centre at Kansas University in Lawrence.
A new industry
The problem has spawned a new industry of "senior move
managers", but little has been known about why older people tend to hang
on to things that no longer fit their lifestyles. "For the first time, we
have data about older people's regards for their possessions," Ekerdt told
Reuters Health. He and a co-author analysed data from the Health and Retirement
Study, an annual survey of health, social and economic trends among Americans
age 50 and older that started in 1992.
Twenty-two thousand people filled out the 2010 survey, which
included questions about how participants handled belongings. They included how
often people had "cleaned out or reduced the number" of belongings,
and how often these possessions were sold, given to friends or family or
donated to organisations.
Ekerdt and his colleague found that among people over age
70, about 30% of people reported they had done nothing over the past year to
give away any belongings. And 80% in the same age group said they had sold
nothing in the past 12 months.
Yet more than half of the respondents in all age categories
believed they had too many belongings. For example, 56% of those aged 50 to 59
and 62% of those 70 to 79 reported having more things than they needed. The
results are published in the Journals of Gerontology: Series B.
Getting rid of things
"I was surprised by the finding that so many people say
they have more things than they need," Ekerdt said. "You wonder why
is that so? Why don't they get rid of things?" It's possible some people
had divested themselves of excess stuff earlier in life, or before a move to a
new home, so they didn't feel pressure to do it later, the authors write.
It's also possible that with increasing age, failing health
makes it physically harder for some to organise and disperse their goods. In
addition to logistics, emotions stirred by the prospect of parting with items
linked to one's own identity and fond memories can make downsizing difficult.
"Sometimes when an adult child steps in to help mom or dad move, they
bring emotional baggage. A lot of people are afraid they will lose the memory
if they lose the item," said Mary Kay Buysse, executive director of the
National Association of Senior Move Managers, who was not involved in the
Senior move managers help older people de-clutter and
downsize later in life by figuring out which belongings are no longer needed
and how best to get rid of these items. For younger adults, the study serves as
a reminder to survey one's own possessions now – not in a few decades, she
noted. "As a culture, we need to look at whether we need all of our
stuff," Buysse said.
To avoid regret later on, people of all ages should be
thoughtful about what they are giving away or selling. "Not everything has
to go, but not everything should stay," she said.
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(Picture: an elderly thinking hard from Shutterstock)