KU Professor outlines downsizing practices for seniors in pandemic

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LAWRENCE, Kan. (WIBW) -- During local stay at home orders many American’s have had the chance to declutter their homes however, it seems to be especially significant for older adults.

“I’m not anti-materialist, but I want to call attention to the fact we do accumulate material goods over time, and it would be better to have households that are proportionate to the size of our lives,” says David Eckerdt, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of Kansas. “And when our lives become more limited, our household should become lighter as well.”

This is the basis of Eckerdt’s new book, Downsizing: Confronting Our Possessions in Later Life. The book addresses how to declutter after a lifetime of accumulating possessions.

More than 100 individuals were interviewed about the downsizing process allowing Eckerdt and company to analyze the meaning, bond and management of belongings.

He says that downsizing is often misunderstood.

“Many people assume it’s pretty easy to do,” he says. “But our participants claim it’s one of the hardest things they’ve ever done. These are people who have moved before. Only this time, they’re older and perhaps have less physical stamina. And often they face the time pressure of needing to finish this within a brief period.”

Ekerdt takes the time to describe “material convoy” as a barrage of physical items that tag along with people throughout their lifetimes.

“Things come and go, and things are more important and less important, but there’s always a convoy of things following us around. And that convoy becomes basically unsustainable later if people need to move to a smaller place,” says Ekerdt.

He says that a hallmark of a well-kept house is constantly putting belongings away to reduce visible clutter.

“When you decide to downsize, the chaos of all that all comes rushing out,” he says. “So you confront not only what’s in the drawers and the cupboards, but you confront what’s in the attic, the garage, the basement, maybe even your car.”

Currently information and accessibility are often overvalued than physical items which younger generations often criticize. Eckerdt says there is an underlying reason why it is harder for the boomer-plus demographic to let go.

“One of the reasons we keep things is we want to bring about what psychologists call ‘possible selves.’ So if I have that certain thing, that’s somebody I can become,” says Ekerdt. “If I keep those cookbooks, I can perhaps be the person who will use those cookbooks or who will explore those woodworking tools or crochet books.”

Younger generations wonder why this process couldn’t have been started months, or even years earlier.

The reality of such a task is often not practical. This is due to individuals who don’t know in advance where they’ll be moving. Currently the pandemic complicates matters.

“The outlets for disposing things – whether we’re giving away, selling or donating – are all blocked for now,” says Ekerdt. “People are probably not taking care of this in a way that they otherwise would. They’re probably not taking care of this in a way that they otherwise would. They’re probably not looking for housing, so everything has just gotten stopped.”

He says that downsizing and decluttering extend beyond just seniors preparing to move.

“We conducted a national survey with older adults, and 60% of people over the age of 60 say they have more things than they need. So they’re well aware of shepherding large convoys through time that will eventually need to be confronted, “says Ekerdt. “But family members are equally affected by this. They are just as concerned. And wouldn’t they like to see their parents living as safely and independently as possible?”

The book can be found at the Columbia University Press website.