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Aug. 13, 2020, 4:59 a.m. EDT

‘I just wished at one point there could be a fire,’—Some insight into the emotional turmoil of downsizing

The author of ‘Downsizing: Confronting Our Possessions in Later Life,’ has some advice, and why it’s worth doing

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By Richard Eisenberg


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This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org .

Ever since I wrote the viral 2017 Next Avenue post, “Sorry, Nobody Wants Your Parents’ Stuff,” I’ve been a little obsessed with Americans’ love/hate relationship with their possessions and downsizing. So, I was fascinated to read University of Kansas sociology and gerontology professor David J. Ekerdt’s new book, “Downsizing: Confronting Our Possessions in Later Life,” and to have a chance to interview him about it.

Ekerdt has actually conducted exhaustive interviews with Americans over 50 about their experiences shedding their stuff.

In 2002-2003, he and his researchers spoke with 38 people age 60 and older who’d moved in the previous year within, or to, the region around Lawrence, Kansas, and Kansas City, Mo. They also interviewed 98 people 60+ in the area around Detroit and again in Kansas and Missouri between 2008 and 2013. And in 2010, they put questions about relocation and possessions into the mammoth University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study (HRS), surveying 1,814 Americans age 50 and older.

61% over 60 say they have too much stuff

One of the most revealing findings from the HRS questionnaire: 61% of people in their 60s said they felt they had more things than they needed. As Ekerdt writes in “Downsizing,” older Americans have a “predicament with possessions.”

“I don’t want to scold people,” he told me. “I think it’s a given that people accumulate things for all sorts of reasons. It’s more convenient to do nothing [about that] than it is to do something.

Here’s the rest of my interview with the king of “stuff” research:

Next Avenue: How and why did you become so interested in the subject of downsizing and possessions?

David J. Ekerdt:  I have been studying over my career how people make transitions in later life and everything it entailed, but also the way people get ready for the future. Thinking of the residential relocation question, that will almost always entail people moving to smaller houses, which means they have to reduce by perhaps half or more the quantity of the possessions they have. And the further forward you go in life, the more difficult this might become.

So, we sought funding from NIH [National Institutes of Health) to learn how people went about doing this exactly and what we could learn to help inform people.

What surprised you from your surveys?

People often described downsizing as being hard work and drudgery.

And it’s quite complicated; it’s a cognitive task you have to think through, with endless details. You have to make lists. People talked about waking up in the morning and making more lists and their sleep being disrupted as the deadline was bearing down on them. That’s how stress tends to express itself.

“One of the problems with selling things is that people have almost no idea of the prices people will pay for them and they are continually disappointed by the prices they get.”

David J. Ekerdt, author of “Downsizing: Confronting Our Possessions in Later Life”

And it’s emotional: you have to stop and consider whether you will still want to have things and protect them, or try to place them with relatives. So, it’s a social task.

Relief after downsizing

And how did people say they felt after they downsized?

They had relief. Their accomplishment was a form of empowerment.

You say that some people use the ‘magical thinking’ approach to downsizing. What do you mean?

This is when people are funny. One person said: ‘I just wished at one point there could be a fire to take care of all of these things.’

You said you found a lot of ‘divestment inertia.’ What do you mean by that?

It’s typical for people to do less and less about their possessions as they move into their 70s, 80s and 90s. About half of people in their 70s have difficulty stooping and crouching and kneeling. By the time they’re 80, almost two-thirds do. Imagine cleaning out a house without stooping, crouching and kneeling. And over half of people who are 80 have difficulty lifting and carrying something as heavy as 10 pounds. So the inertia is not surprising.

What do you think were the most important and interesting findings from the surveys you conducted?

I think I’d go right to one of the major things: There is a sequence of strategies people use once they embark on downsizing and have to decide what they will keep.

Also see: Why you need to downsize—now

First, they think of giving things away that people might want. Then they think of selling things they couldn’t give away. And then donating things. And finally, discarding.

If you need to move, we found the most common length of time for this downsizing is about six weeks to two months. In that period of time, the work you have to do to give things away and sell them is not going to move much material out of the house unless you turn the selling over to someone like an estate seller.

Yard sales: a lot of work

How did selling items, yard sales and estate sales work out for the downsizers?

About a quarter of the people did what I call opportunity selling. That’s like when a neighbor hears you’re moving and buys your lawn mower.

Half of the people tried more engagement — with yard sales or church sales. Everyone will tell you that a yard sale is a lot of work.

Some went with delegated sales where an auctioneer or an auction house takes everything away and removes your identity from everything.

Related: This is the perfect time to declutter and destress every part of your life — not just your closet

Some tried estate sales and they were pleased sometimes. But you have to understand the ground rules. The seller might mix your possessions in with others. Or the people found the estate sales person would hold the sale in the middle of the week, rather than on a Saturday or a Sunday when the people downsizing thought would get more traffic.

Do people get much money when they sell their things?

The first person we interviewed sold everything for $28,000 and she even made her own granddaughter, who was interested in the grandfather clock, come to the sale. But most people don’t realize that much money.

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