Getting rid of our parents’ stuff is painful work

March 22, 2015
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It was hard to believe no-one wanted the antique dining table, the setting for 50 years of family celebrations. The children couldn’t sell it or give it away. Nor the matching chairs. Far from fighting over their mother’s possessions, the siblings, in their 60s, were united in guilt and distress about finding a home for it all.

“It’s been bloody hard work and it’s taken six months,” the daughter – I’ll call her Barbara – told me.

How many of us are in this situation or will be soon? At the stage when we’re likely to be de-cluttering our homes, our parents are moving into aged care facilities or dying, leaving us with their possessions to inherit or disperse.

Some of it is lovely and cost a fortune back in 1950 or 1980. Antique dining tables we weren’t allowed to put a glass on; or if not antique, solid furniture, saved for and paid off in instalments when furniture was an investment. Crystal vases that were wedding presents, and Royal Doulton vegetable dishes, and silver cutlery we recall our mother polishing…. Much of it is laden with memory and emotion for us.

Yet many of us don’t need more stuff and don’t really want it. Our kids are living at home, or if they’ve moved out, have furnished tiny apartments in IKEA and Kmart. Do 20-somethings roam antique stores like I used to do? In the era of cheap and spindly, is recycling on their mind? I don’t think so. They don’t want big, dark Victorian wardrobes. And it comes as a shock to many of us that when we try to sell the good stuff not even antique shops want our parents’ antiques.

“If you’re sitting on quality, fret not. But if it’s plain, old brown furniture from 1850s on, forget it, and if it’s a reproduction, we can’t even burn it,” Shauna Farren-Price, business manager at the auction house, Lawsons, told me. People are dismayed at how little they get from selling. But with eBay and its ilk, potential buyers can compare hundreds of antique oak tables just like the one your family thought so special.

In Barbara’s case, her mother was moving from a big house full of lovely stuff into one room in an aged care facility. That her mother was mentally alert, and in possession of a spread sheet itemising all her belongings so she could track where they ended up, made the task more challenging. It was important to Barbara to make her mother happy.

“I’ve taken her lounge-room furniture even though it meant I had to get rid of my own lounge-room furniture which I quite liked,” Barbara told me. “My brother took the dining room furniture – it’s the second lot he’s inherited because my parents are divorced. Fortunately he’s got a big garage.”

We’re often reluctant to send a message to our parents that no-one in the family values their precious things. So sometimes people pay to put their parents’ stuff in storage in the hope someone might need it one day. That’s what Kerry did when her mother went into aged care because of dementia. Eventually Kerry sold some furniture to a colleague for “not very much”. She tried living with other pieces in her own home but got rid of them over the years because they didn’t suit her taste. In the process she learnt a lesson.

“You don’t need very much to remember someone you love. If I had nothing of my mother’s I’d never forget her,” Kerry told me. “She was a wonderful mother.” She kept some jewellery, some silver-plated teaspoons, and a collection of vases. But the vases made her sad, so she kept the one piece associated with happy memories of her mother.

Now she faces the task with her father, who’d been divorced from her mother, and lives in a three-bedroom apartment furnished to the hilt. He’s moving into a care facility and wants Kerry to find good homes for his possessions. But again the extended family doesn’t want anything, and certainly not Kerry, now retired, who’s had the time to de-clutter her own home. “I don’t want to put my children through what I’ve had to go through,” she said. “With my mother, it was physically hard work and emotionally upsetting.”

The answer for many may be a charity like Vinnies. Its policies can vary from state to state, or even within a state. I’d be interested to hear of readers’ experiences with charities. Here’s a handy website for furniture donations. In Victoria, for example, Vinnies treats deceased estates with “priority and sensitivity”, its retail operations manager, Michael Rawlinson, told me. It will organise skip bins and take away pretty much what the family wants to donate. “Brown might be ugly for antique dealers but it comes in handy for us,” Michael said. What isn’t sold in their shops is given directly to people in need such as refugees.

And here’s some advice for those still to face the job. It’s from David Ekerdt, of the University of Kansas, an expert in household downsizing. “Older people want our love and affection, but they probably don’t need more stuff. So why pile on more?” Instead of giving things for Mother’s Day or birthdays, offer to help parents start the de-cluttering process now (but don’t start World War 111 with your siblings). He swears they’ll feel relief at having lightened the load.

Any advice or experiences to share? Please leave a comment.

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