The remnants of the old woman's life have been sorted and now they're being priced: an Easter basket, a stuffed frog, a box of Depends; ping-pong paddles, a map of New Mexico, a box of Valentine candy. The stuff is piled up everywhere in the little house. Outside, her once immaculate front yard is covered in bindweed.
The woman herself has moved to the Midwest, to be closer to a daughter, taking along enough furniture and favorite paintings to furnish a small condo. She didn't stick around to see the price tags on the dolls and the dishes. Those old postcards and board games, the aprons and souvenirs? She left them all.
We spend most of our lives accumulating: amassing the things that are a visible record of our earning power and appetites. But at some point we begin to get smaller. Geriatricians speak of a "life-space diary" that reveals the shrinking geographical distance a person tends to travel as he ages, a diminishment that moves from world to country to region to neighborhood to house to bedroom to bed. And with each move to a condo, then maybe an apartment in assisted living or a son's house there are belongings left behind.
Whether it's a wall full of oil paintings in the home of a wealthy east-side physician, or the inexpensive but extensive Pez collection of the woman who raised six children in a downtown bungalow, at some point it all gets redistributed to family or strangers. Or thrown in the trash.
One morning Patrick Hafner and John Goates move through the old woman's house. The men, former antique store owners who now labor as A-1 Estate Services Inc., are overseeing the rearrangement of dresses and trinkets and household cleansers. "Usables" as opposed to collectibles, Goates explains. That's what most people have at the end of their lives. That and maybe a stack of receipts and margarine containers no one wants.
But even then, it's often hard for families to let go. Hafner remembers two sisters who sat at their mom's dining room table for two months after her death, strolling memory lane with each knickknack and necklace, before they gave up and asked for help.
As for the seniors themselves, some have a harder time than others parting with their stuff. At one end of the spectrum, there's the man in Park City who told his wife, "Just sell it all; I want to go golfing." At the other end there's the man who moved into his mother's house, already stacked high with papers, books and other belongings. When she died, he simply squeezed her stacks closer together and started his own, floor to ceiling, leaving only little trails from room to room. It took three large trash bins, Goates says, to clear the hoarder's house an archaeological dig into one man's life.
About once a month, during her outreach work with Salt Lake County Aging Services, Paula Pinkham finds herself at the home of a hoarder. One woman, whose house was completely full of stuff, was living in a 6-by-6-foot area on her back porch. Pinkham knows of old people who have been buried and injured when their stuff has fallen on them. Adult Protective Services calls them "trail houses" literally just a trail through their house.
The downsizing often happens in stages, much like aging itself first the fall and then rehab, then the realization you can't manage that big house and it's always a matter of compromises. You can take more when you move to a senior apartment than you can if you're going to assisted living. In a nursing home you will likely have half a room, already furnished with a bed and a vinyl chair. Maybe outside your door you'll have a 16-by-16-inch shadow box that someone will fill with some pictures and memorabilia meant to show who you are.
Irv Bird used to live in a house on South Temple that had chandeliers, marble statues and a bathroom as big as his current apartment. His daughters made him sell it. "So here I am, this is my mansion," he says. He couldn't bring himself to part with his concert grand piano, though. It lives now in a warehouse, where he pays $200 a month to store it.
In the end, you measure and pack and take along the things that fit, or if you're lucky, the things that matter to you most. Or the things your kids think matter. If you have no kids or other relatives to look after you, what happens to your treasures may fall to someone like Pattijean Sanchez, a deputy guardian in the state's Office of Public Guardian. If you're a ward of the state, she may be the one who will decide what happens to your belongings after you die, and it's a task she takes seriously.
"I stuff as much as I can into the casket with them," she says frankly. "You'd be surprised." And the things that don't fit she tries to dispose of with dignity in a way that honors her perceptions of the person. One of her wards, a woman with mental retardation, loved pink teddy bears. Sanchez put one in the casket and donated the rest.
Mention "stuff" and Sanchez talks about her aunt a free spirit who once took her to the hippie enclave Haight-Ashbury. At 83, in a nursing home, winding down, she kept only pictures of family and crayon sketches her great-granddaughters made in school. For the aunt, it seemed to be enough.
"It reminds me of my divorce years ago. I was obsessed with the refrigerator. And my attorney kept saying, 'Sticks and bricks, Pattijean. It's just sticks and bricks."'
Sometimes the volume of stuff left behind, and the emotion attached to it, turn the task into a mountain that can't be climbed. That happened to one Ogden family not long ago. They tell it this way:
When their mom's Alzheimer's got worse and she was moved to a nursing home, they were stumped about what to do with her things. It didn't feel right to sort through her belongings while she lived, but they knew she would never come home again, either.
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They settled on a stalling tactic: They went through the house and packed up her treasures and took them to a self-storage place, stuffing a 10-by-12 unit to the ceiling with her lamps and furniture and bric-a-brac. Each month they dutifully wrote a check for the unit, and even after the mother died in 2006 they kept paying to store her things a total that eventually reached $3,000.
Finally they forced themselves to deal with it: They had to acknowledge it really was just stuff. They each picked out a few coveted treasures, and they had a yard sale for the rest, netting a grand total of $186. The items that were left went on the curb, with a sign that said "Free" in huge letters.