Downsizing all the stuff

If you’ve ever had to downsize your belongings or help a parent or aging relative with downsizing, what you’re about to read will come as no surprise.

Most of us possess an enormous quantity of stuff. Stuff we don’t use and don’t need, yet continue to hang onto for whatever reason.

Although consumer spending looms large in the American economy, there’s been little research on what we actually do when it comes to keeping and disposing of our many possessions, especially as we get past middle age.

A recent study in the Journals of Gerontology: Series B tackles this issue and concludes that although many older adults find comfort and identity in the things they’ve accumulated during their lifetime, the sheer quantity can become burdensome – not just to the owner but also to relatives who might eventually be forced to deal with all the excess belongings.

The study also turned up a finding that could make many of us think twice before procrastinating on cleaning out the attic or the closets: Past the age of 50, we become less and less likely to dispose of our possessions.

The researchers drew their findings from the 2010 Health and Retirement Study, an annual survey of Americans 50 and older that for the first time included four questions about what people did with their belongings. What they found: 30 percent of respondents who were over age 70 had done nothing in the previous year to clean out, donate or dispose of excess belongings, and 80 percent had sold nothing. Even after controlling for various factors such as widowhood or a recent move from a house into a small apartment, activities to reduce what the authors call “the material convoy” consistently grew less with advancing age.

Yet more than half of the survey respondents in all age categories felt they had too much stuff. Among those in their 50s, 56 percent believed they had more possessions than they needed; for those in their 70s, it was 62 percent.

(To be clear, we’re talking here about the ordinary lifetime accumulation of possessions, not hoarding.)

One need only look at the proliferation of articles and advice about downsizing to recognize this as a growing social issue. What happens to all the belongings we no longer need or have room for as we age – does most of it end up in landfills? What about older adults who have a large accumulation of stuff they haven’t disposed of – does it become a hindrance to moving into a living situation that might be safer or more manageable? Who makes decisions about the stuff if the owner is unable to do it himself or herself?

Perhaps this is a problem unique to the current older generation, folks who came of age during the Depression and who tend to save and reuse things instead of throwing them away. Then again, the increasing square footage of the average American house (1,740 square feet for the average new single-family home in 1980; 2,392 square feet for the same home in 2010) suggests that with more space, younger families may fill it with more belongings than their parents ever had, thus perpetuating the problem when it’s eventually their turn to downsize.

Perhaps declining health and reduced stamina simply make it harder to deal with excess stuff as we get older, regardless of which generation we belong to. There’s an emotional aspect as well to parting with items that we’ve lived with for many years.

How we accumulate and dispose of our possessions might seem like a purely personal issue but bigger issues are at stake, the study’s authors wrote. While we may treasure our belongings, the stuff can also become burdensome, especially as we age and our vulnerability increases. “To the extent that possessions – not just single, cherished items but in their totality – create emotional and environmental drag, individuals will be less adaptive should they need to make changes in place or even change place,” the researchers wrote. “The material convoy is not innocuous, mere stuff; its disposition must be undertaken sooner or later by someone. The realization of this is why the material convoy – personal property – becomes an intergenerational or collective matter.”

Additional reading on downsizing an aging household:

20 tips to help you get rid of junk

Family things: Attending the household disbandment of older adults

Tips to help you get a grip on downsizing possessions

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