Academic journal article Generations

Distributing Possessions: Personal Property Can Become a Social Matter

Academic journal article Generations

Distributing Possessions: Personal Property Can Become a Social Matter

Article excerpt

Eventually, most elders begin to deal with their possessions in a surprising variety of ways-with motivations from self-satisfaction to the wish to transcend mortality.

Over the course of their adult lives, people accumulate possessions. They buy them, find them, make them, and receive them as gifts. Adults assemble a material convoy around themselves as they enact social roles (householder, spouse, parent, employee) or embark on projects to develop, express, or enjoy themselves (Smith and Ekerdt, 2011). They also shed things along the way, in routine ways. Goods flow in and out during daily life, but many things stick. And because the convenience of storage tends to exceed the inconvenience of disposal, people find themselves in the second half of life with "stuff."

Living quarters, grounds, and even vehicles contain uncounted things whose meaning and significance are a jumbled lot. Some things are special, but most are mundane, some even mysterious. People keep possessions for two basic reasons: things are either useful or symbolize something (Ekerdt, 2009). These meanings can grace the same object and shift over time. An automobile is something to drive and show off one's practicality or style; once new, it depreciates over time, but after a long enough time it can resurrect as a classic car.

The charge is often leveled that ours is a throwaway society, but research has concluded otherwise (Gregson, Metcalfe, and Crewe, 2007). Most people are reluctant to discard serviceable possessions, preferring instead to give them away, sell them, or even leave them at the curb for the public to pick up. Although there is a great (and unproven) conviction that the current generation of older people, having come through economic depression and war, are frugal, waste nothing, and keep everything, other cohorts also share the virtues of recycling, reuse, and thrift.

Even if they have heeded the critique of the anti-clutter industry and kept their households manageable, people will arrive in later life curating an accumulation of possessions that must eventually be dealt with-by someone. Sooner or later, what is essentially personal property becomes a social matter.

Distributions Mark a Turning Point

It is quite possible to do nothing about household contents, leaving the disbandment to one's survivors. But there usually comes a time-or, rather, times-when most elders begin to deal with their possessions, in part by passing things along to other people. These divestments are a signal, an implicit announcement to oneself and to others that a turning point is at hand. The disassembly of one's material convoy, to the extent that it happens, is an enactment of the gathering awareness that life's time is growing shorter (Carstensen, 2006). Distributions of possessions are acknowledgements that things will not continue as they are, that one is oriented toward limits.

The prompts for these distributions are several. They are a necessary part of moving to a new residence, which in itself is the outcome of a decision that daily life will be lived on a different footing. Such moves are almost always to smaller spaces, and the divestments that occur under these circumstances have been the focus of our research in the Midwest with a team from the University of Kansas and Wayne State University (Ekerdt et al., 2004; Ekerdt and Sergeant, 2006; Luborsky, Lysack, and van Nuil, 2011).

Our interviews about relocation in more than 100 households have also touched on other prompts to downsize. These include life events such as the death of a spouse or bouts of illness. Lessons are learned by observing the way people manage possessions, taking the successful methods of family or friends as a model and their failures as a caution. The maturation of grandchildren, grandnieces, and grandnephews inspires gifts that this generation is now ready to use or appreciate. Finally, none of these events may have happened-moves, losses-but some elders begin to trim possessions in the anticipation of whatever is to come. …

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