Parents’ stuff can be boomers’ burden

Boxes of memories become emotionally costly inheritances

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Label photographs: While a 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 date. Toss duplicates or send them to relatives.

Pretend you're moving: Downsizing takes practice. Every few 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.

Designate: 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.

Slim down: If you love Grandpa's flannel shirts, choose a favorite or two and donate the rest. Same for sets of dishes, books, artwork and clothing.

Donate: Help yourself declutter by giving to those who need it more. Whether it's 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.

Hire a pro: If the task is too overwhelming, consider hiring some help. The National Association of Professional Organizers, www.napo.net, lists organizers by ZIP code. Typically charging by the hour or by the job, they are trained to help clients sort, organize and downsize homes and offices.

Label photographs: While a 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 date. Toss duplicates or send them to relatives.

Pretend you’re moving: Downsizing takes practice. Every few 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.

Designate: 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.

Slim down: If you love Grandpa’s flannel shirts, choose a favorite or two and donate the rest. Same for sets of dishes, books, artwork and clothing.

Donate: Help yourself declutter by giving to those who need it more. Whether it’s 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.

Hire a pro: If the task is too overwhelming, consider hiring some help. The National Association of Professional Organizers, www.napo.net, lists organizers by ZIP code. Typically charging by the hour or by the job, they are trained to help clients sort, organize and downsize homes and offices.

Losing a parent is normal. And for baby boomers whose parents are in their 80s and 90s, it may be imminent. Aside from the emotional burden, the task of dealing with the “stuff” can be overwhelming.

That’s the case for Alan Miller. As his family’s only adult child, he’s not only untangling his parents’ complicated financial affairs, but also dealing with their personal belongings. Everything from his father’s collection of glass vacuum tubes to his mother’s holiday decorations to their numerous, scattered files of paper.

One year after his mother’s death, he’s still sorting through the remnants, large and small, of his parents’ 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 storage facility.

“I know people who pull up a dumpster and everything goes into it. But I’m not that kind of person,” said Miller, 52, adding that the job is both emotionally and physically draining.

To help him organize and pare down, he turned to Claudia Smith, a professional organizer with Clear Your Clutter Consulting in Davis.

“Downsizing 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 overwhelmed.”

Grace 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. It’s a large group of people, and it’s only growing larger.”

As professional organizers, Bamlett and Smith encourage clients to shed belongings, not memories.

Bamlett advises “guilt-free” organizing. “If you’re holding onto something because you feel you should, don’t. Give it to a charity that speaks to your heart. Or find another relative, someone who’s interested in family genealogy.”

• START NOW: If parents are alive and willing, ask if they want help.

Start giving things away to family or friends: jewelry to a dear friend. A set of dishes to a daughter-in-law. “It’s far better to give them to a loved one now,” said Smith. “They can enjoy them and your kids don’t get stuck with everything when you die.”

Years before she died, Judy Hertel’s mother sat down with her two daughters at the kitchen table, going through her heirloom and costume jewelry. At her mother’s suggestion, Hertel and her sister made a list of the pieces they especially wanted to keep.

“She wasn’t ready to give anything up yet but wanted to know what we wanted,” said Hertel. “And she wanted to avoid any fights after she was gone,” she said with a laugh.

• DISTILL MEMORIES: One way to eliminate the avalanche of stuff is by capturing a loved one’s memory in smaller ways, such as a shadow box, which contains “the essence of the member in a physically small way,” as Smith put it.

Sacramento, Calif., attorney Don Fitzgerald, whose father was a school bus driver and avid outdoorsman, has several shadowboxes his sister created after their father died. Using pieces of their dad’s favorite flannel shirts, his fishing lures and old family photographs, she made one for each of the six grandchildren, including a photo of each child with “Papa.”

“One glance at the shadowbox,” said Fitzgerald, “and great memories come flooding back.”

“My brother just wanted it done,” Hertel said. “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.”

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.

For her mother’s 90th birthday, West took home boxes of loose family photographs and assembled a four-volume scrapbook of her mother’s 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 closets.

It wasn’t until after her mother died that West discovered — stashed in her mother’s garage — 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, teaching high school in the Japanese-American internment camp in Manzanar and later in a church-sponsored relocation hospital in Chicago.

“It was sad when I discovered all this correspondence because I could no longer ask her about it,” said West.

Miller, having closed up his parents’ home and settled most of their legal affairs, is committed to paring down the physical pieces of their lives. “The nature of the job is emotionally wrenching, but most of it is so tedious just because of the sheer quantity,” he said.

For him, it couldn’t be done without a professional at his side.

“We baby boomers want someone to give us permission to let go,” said Smith, the organizer. “We feel a huge responsibility to honor the past. But there’s the financial, emotional and sheer exhaustion of the time and energy in dealing with it.”

She has 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 things.”