One of the many challenges faced by those who care for aging family members who are downsizing their home, moving to assisted living facilities or who pass away is the overwhelming task of sorting through and disposing of unneeded or unwanted furniture, furnishings, household goods and clothes. Most of us spend a lifetime acquiring “stuff” with little or no thought to what will become of our belongings when they are no longer needed or when they simply won’t fit in a dramatically smaller living space. When our elderly relatives face a move or when they die and all but a few sentimental items and family mementos need to be emptied from the home and disposed of a frantic search often begins for a suitable way to repurpose a relative’s property.
I’ve been dealing with this challenge as I take responsibility for helping an elderly family member move from her current home to a nearby assisted living community and into a space one third the size of her current home. The task has been even more difficult because I live 2,600 miles from my family member.
After dozens of phone calls to thrift shops, consignment stores, charitable groups, religious organizations, downsizing advisors and estate liquidators I learned to my dismay that it is very difficult to give away someone’s households effects either for cash or donation. As Richard Eisenberg writes in his recent article: Sorry, Nobody Wants Your Parents’ Stuff ( https://tinyurl.com/mkrhx9g ) “the hard truth is that nobody wants the prized possessions of your parents — not even you or your kids.”
So what’s a caring family member to do?
There are businesses in many cities which will come to a home and clear out everything that is not bolted to the walls. These entrepreneurs may try to place some of the more salable items on their showroom floor for consignment. Despite the excellent condition of some furniture the reality is that many items are just not appealing to buyers. I discovered that the table and chairs of a dining room set in absolutely perfect condition could be sold but the china cabinet is an anachronistic piece of furniture that hardly anyone wants. The firms that clean out granny’s house may only consign for sale a handful of items. They will arrange to donate rest of the furniture and household goods to charities with whom they work in exchange for a donation receipt. But where those donated items wind up is anyone’s guess. And those items which can neither be sold nor donated are likely to find an eternal home in a nearby public dump.
But what about the many individuals who are in desperate need for clothing, household goods and furniture? Why is it so difficult to get those items from a vacated residence into the hands and hearts of new immigrants, refugees, or others living in poverty? The sad reality is that there are precious few charities willing to take it all and then triage the items for distribution to those in need. Most charities will select very few items and often don’t even have the facility to pick up things from the house. They’ll accept what they have an immediate need for to put in the homes of a needy family. But they have no capacity to warehouse items for those in the community to come and help themselves to clothes, furniture and household goods.
Charities that are in the business of providing social services would do well to collaborate and develop a shared facility and service capable of clearing out homes of ALL unwanted and unneeded personal effects making all usable goods available to anyone in their community in need of clothes, furniture and household goods. By sharing the costs of warehouse space, trucks and personnel the burden can be shared and the costs spread among many faith based and secular organizations in a true co-op serving the poor and underserved. It could be the ultimate Leave-a-Penny/Take-a-Penny system but on a much grander scale. People with home goods and clothing to donate could bring the items to a central warehouse or have the items picked up. And those with need for any of the items at the warehouse could receive what they need and either pick up the items or ask that they be delivered.
It shouldn’t be so difficult for donors to give and those in need to receive. Give what you can; take what you need.
Immigrants, refugees and others in our communities are in need and many of us have the ability to make things available to them that are no longer needed by our families but which could make a world of difference for someone else. It’s time for the nonprofit community to step up and meet these needs in an unprecedented model of cooperation. Private nonprofit organizations and faith-based houses of worship throughout the community should use this as a way for genuine ecumenical and interfaith collaboration, cooperation and service that no single organization could accomplish by itself.
So what is the best advice for families who want to prepare themselves for the inevitable downsizing of a loved one or ultimately the final disposition of their property? Immediately begin a process to dramatically pare down and get rid of items now that have not been used in a long time. Don’t wait until you are under a deadline to reduce what is in your loved one’s home. Repurpose items by working with charities, thrift shops and consignment shops. As difficult as it is to convince a family member to let go of some of their belongings talk with them about whether many of their unused items can serve a higher purpose by giving them to others rather than by holding onto them.
The transition of a loved one, whether to a new and smaller location or the inevitable and ultimate transition at the end of life can be physically and emotionally challenging. Change is difficult. Letting go of personal items is hard. But the satisfaction that comes from repurposing personal items for the benefit of those in need can be very satisfying. The knowledge that the lives of others can be made easier and happier with the gift of items of a family member can provide joy and happiness to both the donor and the recipient.
Items that are not wanted by trendy or kitschy consignment shops, or rejected by charities that have no immediate need in site, could make individuals grateful and happy. But the burden and responsibility of creating the right kind of co-op environment for all of your loved one’s rummage which could be turned into someone else’s treasure should be a shared priority for every community.