Why Older Adults Have A Hard Time Letting Their Stuff Go

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.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

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.

(SOUNDBITE FROM RADIO PROGRAM)

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

(MUSIC)

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.

(SOUNDBITE FROM RADIO PROGRAM)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF OBJECTS FALLING, SCREAMING)

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.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: