the current

How unwanted family heirlooms create a divide with aging parents

It's a demographic certainty that as baby boomers age, the volume of unwanted family heirlooms will skyrocket — and families navigating this inheritance are finding it stressful.
Parents see heirlooms. Their kids see junk to clean up. It's a keepsake dilemma for families. (Pixabay.com)
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Thanks to aging baby boomers who have accumulated generations' worth of stuff, the world is in the midst of the greatest wealth transfer in human history.

For the parents and grandparents, the heirlooms they bequeath hold special meaning, but too often, their children see their treasures as junk that they don't need, have room for, or may even have to pay someone else to remove.

Social workerLinda Hochstetler and her family are navigating the heirloom avalanche, and it's creating a rift with their aging parents.

Have you inherited family possessions that hold no value to you personally? (Pixabay)

After her father had a heart attack 30 years ago, Hochstetler's parents started getting things in order for when they die, arranging a pre-paid funeral, completing their will and preparing advanced care plans.

Her parents are clearly organized, and this summer, Hochstetler, her siblings and the grandkids went home to find a table full of sentimental possessions — all with personal stories — to pass on to the family. 

"Most of the stuff is broken, chipped or just a single piece — so beautiful china, but just a single piece," Hochstetler describes.

"There's about 80 pieces on this table and there's about 20 of us and each of us go, 'Hmm maybe one or two things we'll take,'" she tells The Current's host Piya Chattopadhyay.

"Dad's kind of like going, 'Oh, wow, I thought you might want a whole bunch' and he's kind of wanting us all to fight over it … and it's not happening. And so there's this real quiet."

At the end of the visit, Hochstetler's father told the family not to take anything. He seemed hurt.

"We felt bad, as if it was sort of demeaning his life."

Hochstetler finds the experience of going home for visits — and facing the same scenario every time — exasperating.

"I'm really sad that they don't seem to have the insight …  to push through this step of openly saying, 'Here are things you may have if you like, and if you don't, then we'll get rid of them,' and they can't quite do that."

Linda Hochstetler's parents want to give the family their sentimental possessions, but she says they're not ready to let go yet. (Pixabay.com)

Hochstetler's parents intend to move at some point into a retirement home where their friends live, so downsizing is inevitable.

Karen Shinnhelps seniors and their families clear out stuff and says in situations like this, it comes down to mathematics. "They can't take it all. So they start to determine what's really important to them." 

Her advice to Hochstetler is to offer a motivating factor to the scenario, getting rid of possessions provides an opportunity to move into a smaller home, which is what they want. 

What a single mitten reveals 
When Plum Johnson cleared out her late father's belongings, she found a single mitten that showed a side of her dad she never knew. (plumjohnson.com)

Plum Johnson's memoir, They Left Us Everything, chronicles her family's past after she and her brothers cleared out their parents home. 

"It was a fascinating journey back into the lives of mom and dad. And I think if we had called someone in to take everything ... I never would have discovered sides of my dad," Johnson tells Chattopadhyay.

She describes finding a single mitten in her father's top drawer, it belonged to her youngest brother.

"I never thought of dad as being that sentimental," she says.

"There were treasures that we found amongst the things that most people would have put in the garbage."

Listen to the full segment near the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Ines Colabrese.