Possession Paralysis Revisited

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I found this article from the New York Times(August 22,2012) very informative.   Can you you relate to what is being said?  Do you have Possession Paralysis??

Possession paralysis, it turns out, is real.

When last I checked in with University of Kansas gerontologist David J. Ekerdt about this two years ago, he and his team were investigating whether the sheer volume of possessions that older people have acquired over many decades can become an obstacle to late-life downsizing.

Everyone assumes it’s true, and Dr. Ekerdt could see why it would be. Divesting is a daunting process. “It’s physical work and it’s cognitive work” – especially when real estate closings or apartment leases set deadlines and create greater pressure, he told me in an interview. “It’s emotional as well.”

But this is what social scientists call anecdotal evidence. Nobody could really document that the need to unload possessions affected older adults’ decisions about moving to more manageable quarters – until now.

Dr. Ekerdt was able to insert several questions into the continuing national Health and Retirement Study in 2010 and gathered data from almost 1,100 community-dwelling adults over age 60.

“It confirms all the anecdotal things that lawyers and geriatricians and families tell us: Stuff can be a problem,” he said.


We’re not talking, note, about senior hoarding, a disorder in which the inability to dispose of even useless objects becomes extreme. This is normal clutter: 60 percent of respondents said they had more possessions than they needed. The proportion didn’t vary by gender or bear much relationship to personality traits, but people who were married (more acquirers per household) and wealthier with bigger homes were more likely to feel “over-provisioned,” probably because they simply had more space into which to stuff more stuff.

In the popular imagination, old people cling to possessions in part because of the objects’ associated memories, their emotional freight. But Dr. Ekerdt and his colleagues, who have also conducted 100 interviews in movers’ households, are learning that stuff may not even be particularly treasured.

“We hear somewhat about special, cherished things, but we hear more about just quantities of generic possessions,” he said. “It’s a problem of volume as much as sentiment.”

Earlier in life, perhaps it matters less that people can’t park in their garages or close their closet doors. But when Dr. Ekerdt asked respondents how reluctant they felt about moving, considering the effort required to transfer or dispose of their belongings, he found that 48 percent felt “very reluctant” to move and another 30 percent were “somewhat reluctant.”

That adds up to more than three-quarters of people over 60 feeling trapped, to some degree, by stuff.

I found myself wondering whether some of the widespread insistence on aging in place reflects a weary assessment of how hard it would be to pack up and age anywhere else.

Some families appear conscious of these barriers. More than a quarter of these older people said their families or friends had urged them to downsize, and of those, half said that family and friends had offered to help.

Yet the proportion of seniors who’d methodically disposed of possessions wasn’t high. Only 3 percent said they’d sold “many things” in the past year. “People have these ‘Antique Road Show’ dreams, but many of our possessions are not very salable,” Dr. Ekerdt said.

Another 14 percent had given many things away to family and friends, and 23 percent had donated to a charity or community groups, probably the simplest way (though still not simple) to get rid of stuff.

But — possession paralysis! — lots of people hadn’t gotten rid of anything. Their families won’t be grateful when a safer or simpler home is needed, especially in a health crisis, and the de-accessioning falls to them.

Paula Span is the author of “When the Time Comes: Families With Aging Parents Share Their Struggles and Solutions.”

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