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Why Older Adults Have A Hard Time Letting Their Stuff Go

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A study finds that people over 50 have difficulty getting rid of unneeded possessions. Some of this is for emotional reasons and some of it for physical ones.


We're learning more about a problem that has touched so many families. Older adults have a hard time letting go of their stuff. There's a new study looking at this reluctance to sell or give away possessions. This tendency can make it much harder for older people to relocate if they want to, or have to. Let's turn to NPR's Ina Jaffe, who covers aging.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: The Johnson Wax Program, with Fibber McGee and Molly.


INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Older people who just can't part with anything made for popular entertainment back in the 1940s. Fibber McGee's jam-packed hall closet was as much a star of the radio show as the title characters.


JAMES JORDAN: (As Fibber McGee) Hey, Molly, Molly.

MARIAN JORDAN: (As Molly) What is it, McGee?

JAMES JORDAN: (As Fibber McGee) Look. I got all that stuff back in the closet, all straightened out.

MARIAN JORDAN: (As Molly) Splendid, McGee, splendid.

JAFFE: Fibber was sure he could find exactly what he needed in there. Just open the door.


JAFFE: Fibber McGee and Molly were a laugh riot in the 1940s but today, as Molly used to say, 'tain't funny, McGee.

DAVID EKERDT: Excess possessions may be an obstacle to older people living in more appropriate housing.

JAFFE: That's David Ekerdt, the director of the gerontology center at the University of Kansas, and the co-author of the study published in the Journals of Gerontology. You hear a familiar refrain, he says, whenever older people are considering relocating to a retirement community or assisted living.

EKERDT: People go in and say, but, but, but it's so small.

JAFFE: In other words, where will I put my stuff? Ekerdt examined data from a nationwide survey of thousands of older adults. Among people aged 70 and up, nearly a third said they hadn't donated or given away anything in the previous two years, and more than 80 percent said they hadn't sold anything in that time. There may be a lot of reasons for this, says Ekerdt - both physical and emotional.

EKERDT: It's an emotional task because our identity is in our possessions.

JAFFE: And health issues can make it tough to clear out the basement and clean out those drawers. Even giving things to family and friends is not without peril.

EKERDT: You risk people rejecting your gifts. That can be stressful to hear, when they're told no.

JAFFE: Ekerdt says that some people interpret his work as a critique of American consumerism.

EKERDT: But I think the reality is much simpler; that just in living, things accumulate.

JAFFE: And how many of you can name all the things hiding in the recesses of your hall closet? Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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