Sentimental objects are one of the most challenging categories for professional organizers to help clients with. This is especially true with objects related to family history, such as:
Family history documents (letters, journals, diaries, invitations, etc.),
Education related (book reports, college papers, graduation diplomas, etc.),
Civil records about family members (marriage records, immigration records, birth/death certificates, etc.)
Photos, diaries, papers, trophies…these are all critical elements of your family legacy. They tell the story of important family members, and are the fabric of what binds families together. Personally, I am not an advocate of throwing this all away. On the other hand, how can anyone benefit if these materials are stashed away in the attic, basement, or closet?
The first step to any family history project is taking an inventory of what you have. Even if your project is simply tidying your family history boxes, you will be happy you did it. And I promise, your children will thank you!
Take some time to go through each box carefully and understand what is in them. It’s almost always the case we find things we had completely forgotten about. And it’s not at all uncommon to find objects we thought were lost. Once you know what you have, it will be much easier to figure out what to keep, and how to organize it all.
One complaint I hear frequently is that people don’t really know what to do with these materials. They accumulate and accumulate, taking up more room than you ever would have wanted. The fear of the materials being damaged, and frustration that nothing productive is being done with them, causes most people to feel anxious, along with a good measure of guilt.
Organizing family history materials allows us to honor family members and declutter. As I mentioned, I am not a fan of throwing these materials away. BUT, you’ll be surprised how much space is being taken up by duplicates, damaged papers/photos, old frames, and photos of people you don’t know—all of which can all be thrown away.
And watch out for newspaper clippings! Newspaper paper does not last. Not only that, it can damage other materials it comes into contact with.
The advent of online publishing has made printing books in small print runs very affordable. Imagine having a book of all your parents’ correspondence, and giving a copy to each of your children. Or imagine assembling all the civil records about your ancestors so the whole family can have a richer understanding of its roots and history. All you need is a scanner and a little patience. If you don’t have the time, there are many scanning services which can do this for you. The Association of Professional Photo Organizers is also a great place to find someone locally who can do this.
Once scanned, it’s time to select an online book publisher. There are many to choose from. Two of my favorites are Blurb and Mixbook. Mixbook in particular has some great layouts just for family history projects. Be sure to wait for a sale! Both these sites frequently offer significant discounts.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that these books become instant family heirlooms. They make terrific gifts for important birthdays or around the holidays.
If you run into a hiccup while organizing, scanning, or making your book, feel free to give me a call. I’m always happy to answer questions. Good luck with your family history project!
Yes, there really is such a thing as Relocation Stress Syndrome!
Relocation Stress Syndrome, or RSS, was approved as a formal diagnosis in the early 1990’s. (And here you were thinking that everyone else must be so much better at relocating and that it was just YOU who weren’t handling this very well – not true!)
You are not alone if a relocation is stressing you out or making you feel like, perhaps, you’ve lost your marbles.
Although anyone can be impacted, the elderly are at greater risk of feeling the effects of RSS. Many NAPO professionals are skilled with organizing and managing relocations and the sometimes unpleasant side-effects. Some even specialize in senior moves exclusively!
Continue here to read more from NAPO Senior Move Management expert, Susan Osborne, as she describes the symptoms and strategies for facing this not uncommon relocation affliction.
Being a “baby boomer” with aging parents (we don’t use the “O” word) is a challenge. Someone has to manage their finances, medical care, etc., in addition to managing their own lives. Some people transition into this next phase easily, while others may struggle. My mother-in-law blossomed when she moved into a continuing care community. All the people, the activities, and the fine meals prepared there… visiting her seemed like geriatric camp.
The ideal situation is when parents make the decision to plan ahead, before something “happens.” They will have a say on how things will unfold and won’t be feeling left stuck. Communication is key. Remember, this is a huge life change for them so check your ego at the door. If you can’t communicate, get a mediator to help you through the process.
What if they don’t want to move?
The longer our parents wait or the more they postpone the process, the harder it will be. Period. As children, we can be a blessing and a curse. They want us there, but they don’t want our opinions. Personally, I was not invited to help my mother when she downsized. It was emotional and difficult to understand. I, the expert, was banned from doing what I do best.
Don’t wait for a crisis to happen; being prepared for every scenario is key. Think about the worst case and consider all the events that will follow: transportation, after care, meal preparation, hygiene and so on. These are all possible circumstances that will need to be addressed after a crisis. Once you are in the crisis, things move very quickly. This can be very disorienting and stressful for your parents (and you too).
Where to go?
Transition is hard for everyone. Finding the right place will give your loved ones peace of mind and security. A member of my family couldn’t return home and moved to a facility that was chosen by their kids. It was ok, but the quality of care quickly declined. This resulted in moving an 85-year-old with Parkinson’s twice within a few years. Very disorienting.
How a facility is managed can tell you a lot. For my mother, we opted for a place that is managed by the community or a residents board of directors.
What about the stuff? Where do you start with a lifetime of possessions?
Start as soon as possible. What does that mean? As soon as your parents start warming up to the idea of moving, talking about moving, or looking at new places, begin to sort.
Implement deadlines. Set a goal of when decisions need to be made, and if the deadline passes, the stuff goes into the trash or a donation bin. Start in the attic, basement or garage. The big things are easy (we call this cherry picking)— extra furniture, appliances, or things they no longer use. Then shift into the smaller items, like things they will no longer need in their new place: bikes, shovels, tools, etc., can all go…
Excess items are easy to let go. In a small space, you will only need so many household goods. Entertainment items can be paired down to just the basics.
Kids, our parents are not responsible for our stuff from high school and college. Help them make the decision to let go of your old things.
Emotional items are more difficult. It’s ok to leave those to the end. Pick your battles and make realistic decisions. Small stuff is good, but the bigger stuff might be more difficult. Find a balance.
To store or not to store?
The storage decision is hard. Be realistic on what you need to store. I have a client who has spent $50K on storage since her dad died. I am sure that what is in there is not worth the storage cost.
The only time I recommend storage is if there is no way you can get your parents to change their minds. Have the hard conversation, but know that sometimes it’s not worth the battle.
If it’s a non-negotiable decision, respect your parent’s choice. It’s okay to revisit the conversation later. Suggest going through the unit in six months. They might feel better about making decisions once they have settled into the new space and relaxed.
My number one word of wisdom is— do not bring everything to your house to sort! Too many people have called me with a basement or a garage full of their parent’s things. My aunt died thirteen years ago, at the last minute we packed a couple of boxes to sort through at my mother’s house… they are still there.
This is a difficult time for everyone. We need to drive the process, learn to listen and be supportive while maintaining a good relationship with our parents.
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“How can I make my parents organize their papers? They gave me power of attorney and named me as executor, but I don’t know where anything is.” I receive phone calls like this several times each year. The caller is usually fearful, frustrated, and worried about the state of the parents’ affairs.
Each time I hear this question, or one like it, I’m reminded of the old lightbulb joke:
Q: How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: Only one, but the lightbulb has to want to change.
The same is true for a disorganized loved one – they have to want to change their situation. But even though we can’t make them change, there are a few things we can do to pave the way for them to request help.
First, a few things to remember:
In short, your parents likely feel some level of embarrassment or vulnerability. To be successful, you will need to be sensitive to their discomfort, and respect their pace. Here is the sequence I recommend to clients who are preparing to assume their parents’ affairs:
It might take a few iterations to build some momentum with your parent. The key is to respect your parent’s preferred pace. In time, your parent may trust you enough to delegate work to you, or let you hire a professional organizer.
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No Need to Hold onto Things for the Next Generation
When I give workshops, I am asked over and over again about what should be saved for children; if you don’t have children, you may be saving these things for friends or other family members. Many parents seem to think their children want what they have, so they hold onto items for when these children will appreciate these things. Items range from baby clothes to games to books to schoolwork to china to sterling silver and include tons of paperwork.
I have a client, with whom I have been working, whose father saved every personal and business record. He had checks from 1949 to the day he died. He had his and his wife’s medical records from the 1960’s (both of whom are now deceased), 8 estates that he had settled, and business records back to the 1960’s (including his stationery and business cards – from long retired positions). While everything was very organized and labeled, sorting through it has been a tremendous burden on his daughter.
Two 4-drawer file cabinets, one 2-drawer file cabinet, 2 desks, book shelves, and chairs had been used to store this paperwork. We are shredding and recycling 98% of these records. My client wants to go through everything to make sure there is nothing of value hidden away. We have talked about why her father would have saved all of this and cannot come to any satisfying conclusion.
Not only is there paperwork, but there are also items from grandparents and other relatives. Again, my client is going through all of this to figure out what she wants to keep and what she wants to donate or sell. Since her brother does not live in the area, she has to go through all these things by herself and save some things for him to go through, including his own items.
If you are saving things for your children/friends/other family members, please ask them if they want anything. If they say no, then either sell, donate, recycle, shred, or trash the items. There is no reason for you to hang on to this stuff, unless you really want it. If it is packed away and not being used, and no one in your family wants the items, give them away now so someone else may really be able to appreciate them.
Also, keep on top of your paperwork — shred or recycle old records. Settling an estate can take a lot of time. You can significantly speed up the process by getting rid of paperwork and any unused or unwanted items now.
This type of activity will not be one of your more fun things to do, but it sure will save time and heartache in the future. The lesson my client learned from all of this is to purge and continue to get rid of those things now that she no longer needs or wants. What are you going to do now with your unwanted and unnecessary items and paperwork?
No Matter How Much
We Wish For More!
Managing our time and never having enough of it seems to be a common theme these days. I hear the same complaint from students, single people, married people, parents of young children, baby boomers, working people, and even retirees — believe it or not. No matter what your age or what stage of life you are in, time management skills will make your life easier to handle.
We all have demands put upon us by others (e.g., boss, children, spouse, friend, other family members). However, we are in control of what we decide to do and what we decide not to do. If it’s between going to the doctor because you are sick or driving 5 miles out of your way to save $.50 on a gallon of milk, you may want to forgo the latter just to give yourself more time to do the things that are absolutely necessary. Then, you’ll be able to give yourself time to relax, take a deep breath, and re-energize.
If you always have too many activities to handle in a day, think about what you have to get done, what you want to get done, what you don’t want to do, and what you don’t have to do. Make columns on a piece of paper with these headings and write them down rather than keeping them in your head. This will help you to visualize what is going on in your life and may even spur you on to not do those things you don’t want to or think you have to do.
And, by the way, don’t forget to fit sleep into those 24 hours. What are you going to do to manage your time better so you finally are able to do those things you love? My goal is to see you go from Bedlam to Brilliance!