Sunday, October 13, 2013

Too Much Stuff

The New York Times had an article today about the challenges of selling  a hoarder's apartment (see It hit rather close to home since I am currently recovering from a bout of shingles, brought on, every doctor I've consulted agrees, at least in part by the stress of trying to help my 91-year-old mother de-clutter her condo so she can sell it and move into a smaller apartment in an assisted-living facility. Several comments left online from readers had particular resonance with me:

"How sad to attach sentimentality to inanimate objects."

My mom wasn't always a borderline hoarder. In fact because we grew up without a lot of money, she and my dad used to harp about how having lots of possessions (like the new clothes I longed for) wasn't important. She isn't the typical hoarder in that she doesn't go out and buy lots of stuff. But over the years, her household has incorporated several others: my maternal grandmother's, my paternal grandmother's, my great-aunt's, a tenant who died without heirs, a tenant who just left possessions behind. And while stuff keeps coming in, very little ever leaves.

Mom knows the history of all of her possessions--which ones were wedding gifts (to her or to someone else), which family member made what, which special dish her mom used to make in a particular casserole dish. But in focusing so much on these things that remind her of people in her past, she has neglected to pay attention to people in her present--including her kids and grand-kids. Rather than learn how to use email to correspond with any of us, or even to type out letters the old fashioned way, she chose to learn word processing by typing up a list of her possessions and their history (but never shared the document with anyone, that I know of).

My mom's passion for "miniatures"--little dollhouse vignettes--makes things even worse, because in her eyes, most things can be transformed into a "mini"--wine corks, bottle caps, bits of broken jewelry, pieces of fabric, the list goes on and on and on. On my most recent visit, she showed the most affection not toward me or my sisters or brother, but to a brochure of Ultrasuede swatches, which she caressed gently and lovingly as she described with excitement all the ideas she had for using them.

"underneath the mounds of junk, what they're really suffering from is loneliness - the stuff is just to fill their emptiness..."

In the last six months or so, my mom has confessed to feelings of loneliness. This isn't terribly surprising, as she lost my dad about three years ago. But she doesn't really do anything about it. For example, even knowing that I'm sick, she hasn't called. Nor did she acknowledge my birthday (or either of my sons' or my niece's ) nor has she sent a thank-you for all the work my younger son did to help her on a visit in August.

And because prying all this stuff away from her is so emotionally exhausting, I'm guessing that once the downsizing and move is complete, none of us will visit her all that much--at least not right away--because this process has taken so much out of all of us, and has exposed all of her selfishness, paranoia, and greed and we'll need a break for a while.

"...people with hoarding problems have things they cannot find because of the sheer volume of their belongings. This is also a condition that is not as severe in one person as in another. They acquire, save and, well, hoard, to the point of being unable to use the living space. When the stove, fridge, bathroom and bed are all inaccessible, the hoarding has completely immobilized the person. It is not about being thrifty."

As we helped her sort through her things, we found stuff my mom obviously hadn't touched since she moved seven years ago. In with her minis were nine or so clothes brushes (still in drawers in a display unit that was once in the master bathroom in her old house but had been moved to her studio when she moved to the condo). Two were broken--and even those she had trouble letting go of. So that left seven or so clothes brushes--none of which she uses--but which she insisted on holding on to.

She had stashes of candles in various places, and sleeves of light bulbs scattered here and there. Obviously she'd buy more because she didn't know what she already had. Ditto for cleaning supplies, boxes of Bisquick (she--a woman living by herself who hates to cook--had 5 boxes!), canned goods and much more...

My siblings and I have tried multiple strategies to encourage Mom to see that paring down her possessions could actually make her life easier, but to no avail. C, whose aesthetic sensibilities are perhaps the most highly honed of all of us, has painted the picture of a gracious new lifestyle wherein Mom eats on nice china every day (thereby only moving one set), furnishes her home with her prettiest things (instead of trying to bring every hodgepodge item she owns into her new place), and wears her nicer clothes (having disposed of the torn and stained things). B created a detailed floorplan of the new apartment with cutouts of all of her furniture (all to scale) so that she could see the limitations of her new space; J takes everything she is offered--even if she doesn't want it and will put it directly in the trash when she gets home; D diligently boxes up everything--then places it in her storeroom where he plans to have it continue to sit even as the moving trucks pull away. First, I tried to get her to think about the use value of things, so that she'd keep the items she used daily or weekly, but find alternatives for items she'd only use occasionally (like borrowing folding chairs). Then, I tried to get her to list the items she wants to take, rather than go through all of her things, because I know that just as shoppers are more likely to purchase something they have held or tried on, Mom is more likely to want to keep something she has seen that she owns. I thought, for example, that she could be convinced that a person who doesn't cook often would only need, say, three mixing bowls. But she couldn't go along with my plan, and so when she saw that she had something like 9 mixing bowls (some metal, some glass) she decided she needed them all.

A normal person could sort things according to Jenna Mahoney's three key questions:

1) What’s its function?
2) How does it make me feel? 
3) Would I save it in a fire? 

But my mom can't. Function is seemingly irrelevant to her (e.g. the clothes brushes described above, or the 3 white enamel cleaning basins she wanted even though she doesn't clean, or the yard bug spray even though she no longer has a yard); everything makes her feel nostalgic; and she'd save nothing in a fire because she couldn't get out as she dithered about what to save.

Update: Of course lots of us struggle with how much stuff we have, hence articles like: 21 Surprising Statistics That Reveal How Much Stuff We Actually Own.

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