Mom and dad’s house is full of “stuff”: where do we start?

Dr. Sandra Timmermann

Boomers and Gen Xers may not know it, but they may face a time when they will need to help their parents clear out their home or end up doing it by themselves. They will have to go through papers, make decisions about what has value, sell or give away furniture, find out what siblings and family members might want (or are ready to fight over), and take charge of a move to a smaller place or a long-term care facility. They might also have to contact real estate agents and sell the house or condominium.

Why is this so difficult?

Our parents are from another generation. Many grew up when times were tough and so when they bought something, they felt they would keep it for life. Some did not have much money when they first married and had children, so each item they purchased meant a lot to them.

As they got a little older, they saved the drawings and other things that their kids did at school. They began to collect pieces of art and souvenirs from trips. And, just by virtue of living a long time, they accumulated a lot of things that were not so valuable, from extra furniture to beach umbrellas to decorative items to what we’d just call junk. Basements and attics are full of these items, many of which haven’t been used for years. They kept files, papers and letters that accumulated over time. Perhaps they inherited family dishes or collectables from their parents that were put on a back shelf or stayed packed in boxes.

A case study

A friend’s story about helping his parents move to an assisted living community is a case in point. When his Dad’s health began to deteriorate, he could see that they were not managing very well in their large suburban house. They hadn’t planned ahead to make it accessible and “senior friendly’ or to make provisions for the possible need for care at home. Weighing the alternatives, they finally agreed that a move would be a good thing.

However, once the wheels were in motion, my friend discovered that his parents were reluctant to leave the place they had lived in all their married lives. He found out that his mother in particular had a hard time parting with the things she had accumulated. He also discovered that they thought their furniture and collectables were much more valuable than the going market price. The hard reality was that even the thrift shops wouldn’t take many of the items. The children and grandchildren didn’t want their crystal glasses and their collection of figurines—and neither did the consignment shops or antique dealers. He discovered that the Millennials, who are now setting up their own homes, have little interest in traditional furnishings and dishes. And then he had to get the house ready to go on the market as he was responsible for selling it.

What’s an adult child to do?

Breaking up a home that is chock full of the worldly goods accumulated over a lifetime is emotionally stressful not only for a parent but also for the adult children, who may have grown up in the home and spent their childhood there. The sense of loss that many parents experience when they have to move can create tension with their children who are doing the best they can to help with the transition and deciding what to keep or give away. Also the responsibility of taking charge of the nuts and bolts while at the same time juggling work and family pressures isn’t easy. The worst case scenario is being left with this problem after the last parent passes away. Dealing with siblings, going through papers, selling the house and getting rid of the household goods can be a full time job.

If there ever was a need for a conversation early on, this is one of the reasons why. Most people want to stay at home well into their old age so part of the conversation is about how to help set parents up in a “senior friendly” home before a health condition creates a problem and to encourage them to purchase long term care protection so they could pay for care at home or in an institutional setting. And included in the conversation is the issue of decluttering—encouraging them while they are still healthy to give away what children or grandchildren might want now before they die and to get rid of things that they don’t need. This not only helps them, but also helps the adult children who otherwise will be faced with an ordeal they hadn’t anticipated.

Seeking help

There’s a new book out with an unlikely title called “The Gentle Art of Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter.” It’s become something of a best seller. This concept is Swedish, with roots in the word “dostadning”-- do, meaning “death” and stadning meaning “cleaning.” It’s the process of clearing out things that we don’t use or need so others don’t have to do the decluttering for you and it can be done at any life stage, not just old age. According to the book review on Amazon, the author’s “radical and joyous method for putting things in order helps families broach sensitive conversations, and makes the process uplifting rather than overwhelming”.1

Sometimes, families don’t have time or just can’t handle the emotions and the physical work involved in getting rid of things. If that’s the case, they need to seek outside help. They might turn to a Professional Home Organizer. I was surprised in my home state to find a number of them listed who are bonded and insured. Or if parents are moving to another home (hopefully that will take place before a crisis occurs), another option is to contact a Senior Move Manager. These are professionals who work with the older person who is moving and with the families, and help them relocate. There is a national association of Senior Move Managers, with a website to help locate those in the profession.2 Many of their clients are children of aging parents, but they also have proactive older adults who contact them. A family conversation about this concept may inspire parents to be proactive and get started before a crisis occurs.

The role of a Financial Professional

Adult children are potential caregivers, and it’s smart for them to be part of a bigger conversation about what their parents plan to do as they get older. So many of us don’t really know if our parents want to age at home, if they have long-term care protection, and how we can help them as they make their journey. A conversation about a house full of “stuff” and what they want to do with it might be a good opener for more the difficult topics that need to be covered.

A cluttered house may not be much of an issue when people first retire, but as a person ages, it’s a good idea to consider what an adults belongs mean to the rest of the family. If the conversation hasn’t taken place, it’s never too late to get started.

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1  Magnusson, Margareta. The Gentle Art of Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2018.

2  National Association of Senior Move Managers.  

This article is being provided for educational purposes only. It does not constitute an endorsement, solicitation or offer of any particular insurance product or product type and is not intended, and should not be relied upon, as insurance or financial advice.

GE-5439768.1 (02/2023) (Exp. 02/2025)