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Successful Aging: The problem with possessions and learning to let go

Q. At the age of 82, I have accumulated too many things in my home and am having a hard time moving them out. Although I love them all, I feel the need to downsize given I may be making a move at some time to a smaller place. So, do we own our own possessions or do our possessions own us? D.L.

You have asked an important question faced by millions of older adults who feel they are experiencing “super accumulation” in later life. Debra Frank, a 20-year veteran professional organizer offers some tips on how to get started, particularly if letting go is difficult.

“There are no right or wrong ways to do this,” she says. “It’s about being comfortable with the process, one that can be done with grace and one that can be part of a life review as possessions are honored in the process of letting go,” she adds. Frank suggests beginning with a goal and a plan, asking yourself what you want to accomplish and when you want to complete the process. One size does not fit all; select the process that resonates most with you. Here are a few strategies to consider.

In deciding what to keep, select a number of your most favorite items and let go of the rest. If you find that all of your items are favorites, it may be easier to select items you like the least because there is less emotional attachment to them. Regardless of what you are letting go of, it is comforting to know that your items are going to the “right place.” That might be selling them at an auction or yard sale, giving them to friends and family members or a nonprofit organization. Know that eliminating some of your possessions makes room for new experiences.

You may be surprised if your children are not interested in your treasured possessions. And that gets to the millennials (ages 26 to 41) and what we know about their lifestyles, preferences and reasons for their lack of interest.

The Internet is one powerful reason. It allows them to access photos and videos of their experiences capturing cherished memories as well as songs and movies. It provides answers to any question they might have day or night without relying on hard-copy books, journals or reports. Forget about photo albums, Encyclopedia Britannica and our CDs. Additionally, millennials value freedom more than belongings and consequently buy smaller homes. Instead of filling their homes with things, they want their lives to be filled with adventures and experiences, finding it more important to make memories than having items that elicit them, wrote Tim Denning in an online piece titled, “Why the younger generation doesn’t want to own stuff.”

According to the website Simplicity Habit, millennials do not want the following items:

Wedding dresses. Even though the dress may be a classic, that daughter or granddaughter likely wants a dress that she has selected. Additionally, that special dress of yours may have turned an antique yellow.

Dinnerware. Fine china, crystal, stemware and sterling serving pieces have been part of formal entertaining often requiring lots of hand washing, particularly the plates and cups with the gold rim that are not dishwasher safe. At one time, guests were impressed with these beautiful table settings. Today, entertaining is less formal with fewer at-home dinner parties. And for many, the preparation and “cleaning up” is just too much work.

Dark, heavy antique furniture. Much of our furniture that was popular when we purchased it may no longer be in style. That means the entertainment center, the large buffet and the China closet likely will be rejected. Although some furniture styles of older pieces are coming back, many children already have the furniture they want.

Suitcases. Many older luggage pieces were designed to last forever. I don’t ever recall seeing a worn-out Samsonite suitcase. Today’s luggage has advantages since they are easy to handle, lightweight, durable and roll easily through an airport.

Sewing machines and film projectors. Items that help us remember the good old days may be of value to us but not necessarily to millennials. For example, they may not want a sewing machine in their home for the purpose of nostalgia. And they likely would not know what to do with a film projector or the projector and carousel holding slides of our 50th birthday celebration.

“Do we own our own possessions or do our possessions own us?” If having too much stuff disturbs us and we do nothing, then our possessions own us. However, if we are comfortable with our possessions regardless of the number, we own them.

D.L., thank you for your good question. Stay well and be kind to yourself and others this holiday and all holiday seasons.

Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Visit Helen at and follow her on


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