DETROIT — It's been nine years since Helen B. Love's mother died, 13 since her dad passed, and she still hasn't cleared out all their stuff. What she hasn't given away to friends, relatives and charity, she has stored in her home in Detroit and in a family cottage.
"Striking the balance between dealing with the stuff and feeling good about what happens to it is everyone's issue — whether the stuff gets trashed, goes to charity, or is recycled," says Love, 62, who produces The Senior Solution, a radio show for the Detroit Area Agency on Aging.
Baby boomers face the often monumental task of cleaning out the belongings of parents who have either passed away or become too ill to live alone. The task can be physically and emotionally exhausting and result in a range of feelings — from bittersweet memories of times spent together to anger and resentment about being left with such a tremendous chore.
Every day, approximately 4,800 boomers lose a parent, according to Julie Hall, an estate liquidator and author of The Boomer Burden: Dealing With Your Parents' Lifetime Accumulation of Stuff (Thomas Nelson, $14.99).
"A lot of these parents were part of the Depression generation so they didn't throw much away," says Hall. "It's not just big stuff. I've gone through homes where people have saved hundreds of rubber bands, paper clips and Cool Whip containers. They have so much stuff that the children are at a complete loss about what to do."
It can lead to heated battles between siblings and relatives, Hall says. "I've seen children fighting over Tupperware. Sometimes in their haste to just empty the house right away they don't take the necessary time, and end up throwing away or giving away valuable items."
Love came up with a clever way to keep all 200 of her father's ties, creating heart-shaped wall hangings from them.
"I cherish them because they're a way to honor both parents, since my mom always picked my dad's ties," says Love. "So it became a way to keep something that's a part of both of them and give it new life."
For Victoria Ragland of Detroit, clearing out her father's stuff seems like an endless task.
"My father passed in 2004 and I'm still cleaning out the house," says Ragland, 57, whose mom died in 1995.
"My dad was 90 and he never threw anything away," she says of Carl Ragland, an avid golfer, bowler, square dancer and photographer who retired from General Motors in 1975.
"So I found 25 years' worth of social security statements, all kinds of golfing equipment and clothing, square dancing — everything," she says. "I found my report card — from kindergarten."
"I blew out two shredders trying to get rid of his papers," says Ragland, a Borders Book saleswoman. "Then eventually I did what a friend of mine suggested I do — what she did: I burned the rest in a barbecue pit."
Ragland also gave a lot of things away to her father's friends and sold some to vintage stores, but she still found herself with loads of stuff. "I tell all my friends you need to start thinking about it and doing it while your parents are alive," she says.
Ragland has the right idea, experts say.
When the parent, while alive, specifically dictates in writing where everything is to go, it's a lot easier for the children — and usually results in fewer fights between siblings and relatives.
"Kids can get ugly, to be polite," says Theresa Brune, founder of Simplify It LLC in West Bloomfield, Mich. "In the best situations, the children get together and enjoy it; in the worst, it tears a family apart."
Brune says adult children should be paring down their parents' stuff while they're living, not waiting until they're gone.
"I have an 86-year-old client and we were going through things that were her mother's," says Brune.