a parent is an inevitable hurdle in life. And for baby
boomers, whose aging parents are often in their 80s and
90s, itís an imminent one. Aside from coping with the
emotional burden, thereís also the burden of dealing
with all the "stuff." It can be overwhelming.
the case for Alan Miller, a rail transportation planner,
who is weighed down by the volume of his parentsí
things. As his familyís only adult child, heís
tasked not only with untangling his parentsí
complicated financial affairs, but also dealing with
their personal belongings. Everything from his fatherís
collection of glass vacuum tubes to his motherís
holiday decorations to their numerous, scattered files
year after his motherís death, heís still sorting
through the remnants, large and small, of his parentsí
lives. Most are packed in boxes in the basement or
cluttering a spare room in his downtown Davis, Calif.,
bungalow, as well as stacked to the ceiling in a nearby
know people who pull up a dumpster and everything goes
into it. But Iím not that kind of person," said
Miller, 52, adding that the job is both emotionally and
help him organize and pare down, he turned to Claudia
Smith, a professional organizer with Clear Your Clutter
Consulting in Davis.
and letting go of stuff is good for everyone," said
Smith, who said many of her clients are in their 40s to
60s. "I go into homes where the attic is crammed
and every room is filled. The kids are completely
Bamlett, owner of Organized Outcomes in Orangevale, said
parental possessions are "an emotional weight for
baby boomers." She said 10 to 15 percent of her
business is clients who are "either having to
downsize for their parents or dealing with stuff left to
them after their parents have died. Itís a large group
of people, and itís only growing larger."
professional organizers, Bamlett and Smith encourage
their clients to shed belongings but not the memories.
is a proponent of "guilt-free" organizing.
"If youíre holding onto something because you
feel you should, donít. Give it to a charity that
speaks to your heart. Or find another relative, someone
whoís interested in family genealogy."
NOW: If parents are alive and willing, ask if they want
giving things away to family or friends: jewelry to a
dear friend. A set of dishes to a daughter-in-law.
"Itís far better to give them to a loved one
now," said Smith. "They can enjoy them and
your kids donít get stuck with everything when you
before she died, Judy Hertelís mother sat down with
her two daughters at the kitchen table, going through
her heirloom and costume jewelry. At her motherís
suggestion, Hertel and her sister made a list of the
pieces they especially wanted to keep.
wasnít ready to give anything up yet but wanted to
know what we wanted," said Hertel, mother of three
kids in their teens and early 20s. "And she wanted
to avoid any fights after she was gone," she said
with a laugh.
MEMORIES: One way to eliminate the avalanche of stuff is
by capturing a loved oneís memory in smaller ways,
such as a shadow box, which contains "the essence
of the member in a physically small way," as Smith
Calif., attorney Don Fitzgerald, whose father was a
school bus driver and avid outdoorsman, has several
shadowboxes created by his sister after their father
died about 11 years ago. Using pieces of their dadís
favorite flannel shirts, his fishing lures and old
family photographs, she gave one to each of the six
grandchildren, including a photo of each child with
glance at the shadowbox," said Fitzgerald,
"and great memories come flooding back."
the professional organizer, did the same for her father.
donít need a room packed full of stuff to honor a
memory," said the Davis resident. "You want to
keep the history and memories alive, without the burden
of a huge volume of physical stuff."
DIFFERENCES: It can be challenging when siblings come
home to divvy up Mom and Dadís belongings. When Hertelís
father died in January 2013, he left behind a lifetime
of possessions in the family home outside Chicago.
Everything was still in the house, from old family board
games to Hertelís wedding dress. And then there was
the basement. Her father, a General Motors machinist,
had a basement workshop filled with tools, lathes, vises
and thousands of pieces of leftover scrap metal.
Cleaning all of it out to ready the house for sale fell
to Hertel and her siblings.
brother just wanted it done. His attitude was: Go in,
get it done and put the house on the market." Her
sister, by contrast, needed to touch every piece of
paper, which greatly slowed the process. "It
created a lot of tension," recalled Hertel.
they donated clothing, linens and kitchenware to a local
church charity. They recycled 150 pounds of metal,
including boxes of bolts, screws and nails. And they
filled two waist-high dumpsters with discards.
task was further complicated because Hertel was in
California and not able to be as hands-on as she would
have liked. In retrospect, she wishes theyíd done far
more of the sorting while her parents were still alive.
Edwards, a retired teacher in Carmichael, Calif.,
vividly remembers how she and her siblings divvied up
the contents of their parentsí sprawling, four-story
Victorian mansion in Merchantville, N.J., which had been
in the family since 1900. It took two years and
innumerable trips back east. Essentially, "we
linked arms and walked room by room. We didnít assign
values to anything but used three colors of Post-it
notes" to mark the things each wanted to keep,
including items for grandchildren. "The emotional
part was extremely hard to do," Edwards said, but
dividing things up was comparatively easy among her
WAIT TILL TOO LATE: Four or five years before her mother
died at age 97, Marty West, a retired University of
California-Davis law professor, helped her go through
closets, drawers and paper files. It was a process her
mother welcomed, she said.
her motherís 90th birthday, West took home boxes of
loose family photographs and assembled a four-volume
scrapbook of her motherís life, starting with baby
pictures in 1915. It was a way to preserve the best of
all the random photos that pile up in drawers and
wasnít until after her mother died that West
discovered ó stashed in her motherís garage ó a
treasure trove of old family correspondence, some dating
back to the 1800s. The letters, in shoeboxes and
cardboard containers, had been stored unopened for
years. Some were from her Kansas grandmother written to
her grandfather while they were courting in 1896. Some
were from her parents, who were social and religious
activists in the 1940s, working as high school teachers
in the Japanese internment camp in Manzanar and later in
a church-sponsored relocation hospital in Chicago.
was sad when I discovered all this correspondence
because I could no longer ask her about it," said
the past several years, West has been methodically going
through hundreds of letters. Sheís tossing out
"anything Iíd never want to read again," but
keeping correspondence that has personal, historical or
emotional significance. Old letters from aunts, uncles
and cousins have been sent to surviving relatives. The
ones she is keeping are filed chronologically in
airtight plastic containers, rather than cardboard boxes
that could be susceptible to insects.
her own professional papers, chronicling her work on UC-Davis
faculty womenís issues, West has already donated many
to the UC-Davis archives.
those kinds of chores now can save everyone tedium and
some heartache in the long run.
having closed up his parentsí Palo Alto, Calif., home
and settled most of their legal affairs, is now
committed to paring down the physical pieces of their
lives that heís accumulated in Davis. "The nature
of the job is emotionally wrenching, but most of it is
so tedious just because of the sheer quantity,"
him, it couldnít be done without a professional at his
baby boomers want someone to give us permission to let
go," said Smith, the professional organizer.
"We feel a huge responsibility to honor the past.
But thereís the financial, emotional and sheer
exhaustion of the time and energy in dealing with
why she advocates a simple rule of thumb: "We spend
our first 40 years in life collecting things. And we
should spend our second 40 years getting rid of
ON PARING THE CLUTTER:
photographs: While an elderly parent is still alive, go
through family photos together, jotting down pertinent
dates or names on the back. Enlist a grandchild or
friend to help, sorting loose photographs by month or
year. Eliminate duplicates or send to other relatives.
youíre moving: The art of downsizing takes practice.
Every couple of years, go room by room, sorting through
clothes, books, kitchen cupboards, even the garage, as
though you were weeding out in preparation for a move.
Some families put sticky notes or masking tape with
their names on furniture or belongings. Others keep a
list of items that family members have
"claimed." It can speed up the sorting process
and ease arguments after you or your parents are gone.
down: If you love Grandpaís flannel shirts, donít
keep all of them. Choose a favorite or two and donate
the rest. Same for sets of dishes, books, artwork and
Help yourself de-clutter by giving to those who need it
more. Whether itís books, clothing, linens, furniture
or bric-a-brac, pick a favorite charity and donate. If
there are valuables or items with possible historic
significance, contact a local historical society,
museum, fraternal organization, school/college or group
with a specific interest.
a pro: If the task is too overwhelming to go it alone,
consider hiring some help. To find a professional
organizer by ZIP code, go to the National Association of
Professional Organizersí website: http://