Do Older Adults Have Too Many Possessions?

“Your peers will respect you for your integrity and character, not your possessions.”  David Robinson 

But if possessions are temporary and do not reflect the character of man, why are so many older Americans swimming in them?  The overabundance of personal property is troubling when you consider many older adults live on limited or fixed incomes and have modest savings.  According to the recent article entitled How Many Seniors Are Living in Poverty?, in 2016, half of all Medicare recipients had incomes less than $26,200.00.

Ironically, at a time when possessions could be liquidated to pay bills and secure a stable retirement account, many older adults struggle with the act of selling personal property.  Allison Bond, a contributor for Reuters Health News notes that after age 50, it is not uncommon for adults to hang on to possessions they no longer need.  The reasons why older adults cling to possessions are many and include: (a) the need to downsize may only occur as a result of a sudden or unexpected illness; (b) possessions give seniors pleasure; and (c) dealing with mortality is difficult for older adults.

  1. The need to downsize may only occur as a result of a sudden or unexpected illness. Seniors often require medical attention at a moment’s notice.  Falls are a primary culprit.  The National Council on Aging reports that falls are the leading cause of fatal and non-fatal injuries for older Americans.  The NCOA notes one in four Americans aged 65+ fall each year; every 11 seconds, an older adult is treated in an emergency room for a fall; and every 19 minutes, an older adult dies from a fall.  While falls are the primary reason for sudden illness or injury in older adults, the onset of dementia can be just as unexpected.  When elderly fall prey to dementia, the feeling of confusion and helplessness is often without notice.  Dementia is a category of diseases that reduce memory and cause a deterioration of other mental functions.  Because it is a progressive disease, its symptoms are often overlooked until immediate care and relief is needed for the senior adult.  Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and accounts for nearly 80% of all cases.  By the time an older American is diagnosed, the senior adult may have ruined his or her health and their finances.  It is not uncommon for an adult with dementia to spend carelessly on services and the purchase of unnecessary personal property.  Regardless of the reason for sudden or unexpected illness or injury, the ability to downsize possessions in a reasoned and cautious manner could be jeopardized.
  2. Possessions give seniors pleasure. People take pleasure in many of their possessions.  Seniors in particular cling to possessions that give them comfort and security.  Older adults collect pictures, mementos and keepsakes from their children and grandchildren.  If you’ve ever been a parent, you know how these items warm your heart and remind you of the days when your children gave unconditional love.  Some experts believe the loss of an item is the loss of the memory.

Still other items that were once valuable remain in the homes of seniors because their original purchase price haunts their owners.  Appliances, tools, paintings, collectibles and antiques clutter many homes because their owners anticipate they will appreciate.  Still others were so valuable when purchased that their owners fear locking in the loss in value by selling.  Finally, some possessions remain in a home because the owners fear they can’t be replaced.  Older adults remember when online sales did not control the marketplace and the purchase of a unique or one-of-a-kind item such as china, jewelry and personalized items was extremely difficult.  Today, online sales allow consumers to find just about anything and the need to keep an item such as a tool because its user once used it to build something isn’t as important.  Modern online sales, allow consumers to purchase an item and have it mailed to their home within 5-7 business days.

3. Dealing with mortality is difficult for older adults. Selling or dismissing items should begin in your 50s and 60s to avoid extreme emotional hurdles, according to Gary Small, Director of the UCLA Longevity Center and President of the American Society for Geriatric Psychiatry.  For seniors who don’t sell before they turn 65, keeping unnecessary items can become an emotional burden according to Small, and “It overtakes your life.” Small believes selling or disposing of possessions is an emotional journey fraught with good and bad feelings.  Tossing an item once owned or enjoyed with a paramour or former spouse may emit great joy because the unpleasant feelings may go away with the item.  Still other items such as long cherished awards, letters and photographs can provide great dissatisfaction and despair.  In the end, seniors are more comfortable with disposing of possessions when they are in control of how they live the next chapter in their lives rather than waiting until they must do so in a rushed and hurried manner.

Seniors who downsize should perform the task in a systematic manner according to most experts.  For some, the move means reducing the size of their accommodations from a large home to a reduced space such as an apartment or rehabilitation center.   Because the need to reduce is becoming more common as baby boomers age, the growth of specialty services such as Senior Move Managers has begun.  These highly specialized organizations help older adults and their families with the daunting task of downsizing and moving seniors to new residences.  According to the AARP, management firms charge $40 to $125 per hour and rarely do all the work themselves.

AARP contributor, Sid Kirchheimer, in his August 24, 2011 article Finding Help in a Crisis Downsizing suggests most downsizing does not occur as the result of an emergency.  He notes most downsizing is methodical and involves yard sales, online sales and calls to family, friends and local charities for giveaways.  To ensure a smooth, unemotional downsizing process, Mr. Kirchheimer suggests the following steps: (1) Start early; (2) Have a plan; (3) Involve the kids; (4) Keep memories, without the clutter; (5) Donate; and (6) Be a shrewd yard sale manager.

An oversupply of personal property is not uncommon in the senior adult community.  How one conducts the sale of those items is influenced by many factors and could be the result of a sudden or unexpected physical or mental issue.  While the act of downsizing is almost unavoidable for most seniors, there are services available to help and if the move to a smaller accommodation is not the result of an emergency, there are reasonable steps you can take to make the process less emotional and taxing.

Todd Miller is a Partner with the Law Office of Todd Miller, LLC located in Jefferson City, Missouri.  He was once again recognized by AVVO.com as Top Contributor in 2018 and in 2017 he was recognized as Advisor of the Year by GolfInc. Magazine.  He annually receives the Client Distinction Award by Lawyers.com and he writes and lectures on various legal topics.  You may find him on Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, and Twitter and at 1305 Southwest Blvd., Suite A, Jefferson City, Missouri 65109 staff@toddmillerlaw.com, www.toddmillerlaw.com (573) 634-2838