The Un-Stuffing Of America
By Lori Bitter
It isn’t a technology solution. It is decidedly low-tech. It’s not a medical device, but it does ease suffering. And while we sometimes joke about hoarding, older adults are buried in stuff — the accumulation of a lifetime (or two). The resistance to letting go of it is an enormous issue for caregivers, senior living providers and aging in place experts. Of all of the issues of caregiving, this one is the gift that literally keeps on giving.
I profess my expertise.
I come from a long line of near-hoarders. My grandmother, who passed away at 98 on our family farm, was a collector — antique furniture, dishes, books, family photographs, recipes … she had my grandfather’s college report cards squirreled away! And I had the task of helping to empty her home and prepare for her estate sale. (Read that as two truckloads of stuff making its way from Missouri to my very small Bay-area home — including her restored Victorian baby carriage — because who doesn’t need one of those?)
My mother, whose basement was nearly at intervention stage, had a fire and her house burned down. She lost everything but continues to joke that she saved us from the work of going through that stuff. The positive outcome was that she and my stepfather moved to a very livable, beautiful home in an age-targeted community with plenty of features for aging in their home.
Caregivers & Professionals
In our research with family caregivers, it isn’t medication management or fall prevention that keeps them up at night, though they care deeply about those things. It is their worry over what to do with all of their parents’ stuff. The conversations with their parents can be as precarious as the “time to give up the car keys” talk. At a time in their life when seniors are losing friends, giving up hobbies and freedoms, their treasures are very important. The irony is that seniors believe staying in their homes as long as possible is easing a burden on their children. The reality is that it shifts the burden from the finances of long-term care to extended time and expense of wrapping up their affairs after death.
Senior housing professionals know that stuff keeps older adults from moving to homes that are better designed for their needs — both physical and social. Aging-in-place professionals and occupational therapists know the dangers all of the stuff creates in the home. Caregivers tell us that the aftermath of losing a loved one is so complicated by the dispensation of stuff that their mourning and grief is put on hold sometimes for several years.
Two-thirds of 18-34 year olds value experiences over possessions. They don’t value or want the stuff. And if HGTV is any indication, they are buying tiny houses with the storage capacity of a file drawer. That’s if they can afford to buy a home at all. Perhaps it’s growing up with the stuff that has created this desire for a simpler existence.
I work with smart entrepreneurs who have brilliant ideas for apps and devices that serve older consumers, some more scalable than others. You want scale, consider this:
There are 50,000 storage facilities in the U.S. — five times the number of Starbucks. That’s 2.3 billion square feet.
50% of storage renters are simply storing what won’t fit in their homes even though the average home size has doubled in that last 50 years.
Currently, there are 7.3 square feet of self-storage for every man, woman, and child in the nation. One in 10 Americans rents offsite storage. It’s the fastest-growing segment of the commercial real estate industry over the past four decades (New York Times Magazine)
25% of people with two-car garages don’t have room to park cars inside them; 32% have room for only one car (U.S. Department of Energy)
The home organization industry, valued at $8 billion, has more than doubled since 2000 at a rate of 10% each year (Uppercase)
Services like moving, packing, estate sales and auction sites are fragmented and require time, trust, and oversight. Rarely are there services of social workers, gerontologists or care managers to start the conversations, provide resources or support family caregivers. But every day there are millions of families trying to figure this out. This is a service worth figuring out. (After I figure out which key goes to which storage unit.)
About the Author
Lori Bitter is president of The Business of Aging, a company that provides strategic consulting, research and product development for companies seeking to engage with mature consumers. Lori serves as publisher of GRAND and the publisher of the newly released,book, “The Grandparent Economy” Her favorite title is “Gigi” for grandsons Gabriel and Henry.