Lickity Splickity or Little by Little?

Did you ever listen to a speaker or read an article and think: “I never thought about it like that before”?

Well, that’s what happened when I read the Barbara Karnes article about cleaning out the belongings of a deceased family member. 

BK Books | Something to Think About
Cleaning Out Their Belongings After Death

Why?  Because her advice is the anthesis of what I would do—and actually have done.  It’s against my nature.  I’m a minimalist—the kind of person who is always paring down, cleaning out, and organizing. 

I used to teach in a prison and there was a video I would show to my class with the coolest down-to earth counselor who had a way of explaining things in a way that just “hit it on the head”.  The video featured this little girl who was like a “little mother”—always cleaning up.  The counselor explained the child’s behavior by pointing out this was her way of trying to exert some control in her life.  It was a coping mechanism to counter the uncontrollable situations in her environment.   

For me, this counselor’s explanation was an “AHA” moment. It brought some light to my own behaviors. 

Barbara Karnes received a letter asking for “guidance to family members who have lost a loved one regarding how to manage the process of cleaning out the residence of the person who passed away.” 

The approach I have personally taken—one which I have often recommended—is to do it ahead of time.  I have addressed this issue in my book, What to Do about Mama? by saying “I will not leave my children the burden of my messes.” (p. 332).

As my mother-in-law would say: “There’s always mañana.” She left the daunting task of downsizing and distributing her belongings to her children—a process that happened several times as her circumstances changed.” 

As with everything, I suppose, there are different ways to look at the chore of having to allocate and dispose of your parents’ belongings. Depending on how they confronted that task, you will most likely have to deal with it, at least to some degree. That process can be formidable to be sure, but it can also be meaningful and healing from a nostalgic point of view.
In light of my own caregiving experience, I am determined not to leave my children the remnants of my life in a state of disarray. I have always appreciated that my mother did not do that to my brother and me, and I was never happy about the fact that my mother-in-law did exactly that.
So, downsizing became the first project on the top of my list. David and I went through all our storage areas and closets, paring our belongings down to whatever we truly needed or wanted.
Next, I made a detailed inventory of our belongings. An appraiser came over one evening and gave us a verbal appraisal of many items on the list. Then, I distributed the inventory to our children so they could express what they were interested in having someday. It was like pulling teeth to get them to do it. I found it impossible to make hard-and-fast decisions but did manage to come up with a system that I think will make it easier for our children to distribute, donate, and dispose of our belongings. “

What to Do about Mama? pp. 221, 303-304

 I have also blogged about the topic, previously: 



Processing the Pictures

Barbara Karnes recommendations, are quite different:

  1. First, if you don’t have to clean out belongings, don’t for awhile, wait even months if necessary. There can be great comfort seeing and holding something they treasured or used.  In the early days of grief, their belongings can bring comfort and will help you.
  2. Second, don’t make any major life decisions, like selling the house, moving in with family, spending large sums of money, or investments for at least a year. That year will give you time to think with your mind not your emotions.
  3. Now, some people can’t wait months, even weeks, let alone a year. Decisions have to be made right away. If that is the case think of what you can keep, even if the material items aren’t needed but have sentimental memories—-keep them for awhile, you will know when you can let go of them. Err on the side of keeping.
  4. Adult children often rush in and organize us elderly, thinking they know best. This is a reminder to you adult children to be gentle, try to put yourself in your loved one’s situation and ask how you would feel and what would you want if it was you living this life challenge of releasing a lifetime of memories and often independence.
  5. There are companies you can hire that will help you downsize, relocate, organize the “house item releasing.” These people are sensitive to the emotional needs and experience of having to part with possessions accumulated over a lifetime–or not. 
  6. When moving in the time of grief, letting go of material items is like letting go of the memories those items hold. It is an added burden to an already emotional assault on our idea of living.

I live in a condominium community which—though not specifically a 55+ community—is largely a 55+ community.  In the year of the pandemic, our neighborhood has found itself in a state of transition, with some of the residents leaving to progress up the ladder of senior living options, and others passing away.  One gentleman sold his home, downsized, and moved to a nearby assisted living facility—a difficult relocation during the coronavirus.  Though admittedly of advanced age, I was still surprised when I saw his obituary in the paper only a few weeks later. 
Now I wonder: 

What treasures were left? 

Cleaning Out Their Belongings After Death – BK Books

Patience with Parents: When the Shoe is on the Other Foot.


I always enjoy listening to Pamela Wilson’s Generation Podcast because of her no-quick-fix, no-nonsense, down-to-earth presentations. Today’s selection: “How to Have Patience With Elderly Parents” – The Caring Generation® Pamela Wilson   | Mar 31, 2021 | 

Click on the link below for the tips and insights that Pamela Wilson, a true caregiving expert, shares: 
How to Have Patience With Elderly Parents – The Caring Generation® (

My response:

When you write a book and it is published, the expectation is for you to sell yourself as an expert on the subject.  But I am no expert on the subject of caregiving.  This has been disclosed on the back cover of the book, What to Do about Mama?  “It isn’t a book by ‘experts’, but by regular people in the trenches—people like you.”

Do I have Caregiving Experience?  Yes. 

  1. First of all, I was an Assessor at the Area Agency on Aging for over four years.  It was my job to visit seniors in their homes in order to administer comprehensive assessments to determine their needs and eligibility for services.  I saw firsthand the challenges for seniors and their caregivers, who were, in general, family caregivers. 
  2. Secondly, I was a caregiver for my mother-in-law for seven years, four full-time when she moved into our home. 

I have known a number of caregiving experts who, later in their careers, became family caregivers themselves.  I think it’s safe to say that it was a common experience for these experts to be full of confidence at the onset and humbled as their caregiving role progressed. 

Whenever I read a caregiving article or listen to a podcast such as this one, I think: “I have a relevant example of this in my book.”  And then I am hopeful that other caregivers will find the book, read it, and be helped by all the good information shared by the three dozen or so caregiver contributors who imparted their real-life caregiving experiences. 

I would like to point something out about the recommendations given by experts—those that have to do with establishing amicable interaction with “the others.”  (This is a term I use for the players relevant to caregiving relationships.) No matter how well you apply the lessons learned about establishing priorities, employing problem-solving skills, setting boundaries, utilizing good communication skills, building healthy relationships, and practicing patience—you cannot control either the responses or the choices others make. 

On the other hand, it taught me to take each day as it came and to deal with whatever that day brought. It taught me more about patience than anything else I have ever done.

What to Do about Mama? p. 62

Since we have no crystal balls with which to view the future, it is really important to not rush into the decision to assume the role of caregiver without thoughtful consideration beforehand. On its face, becoming “The Caregivercan seem like a quick fix—timesaving and convenient.  But in the long term, you can count on the fact that your care receiver’s needs will increase, sometimes to your breaking point.  Oftentimes the caregiving journey keeps on going and going—just like the Energizer Bunny—for 5-10-15-20-years or more. 

I have learned a lot of patience and some compassion, but I would never have chosen this task if I had known what lay ahead.

What to Do about Mama? p. 105

Caregivers are a busy and rushed group of people, often juggling work and caregiving responsibilities—trying to attend to  the needs of parents, spouse, and children alike. It is common for a caregiver to feel overworked and underappreciated.  As the care receiver heads down the slippery slope, more and more mitigation is required to meet increasing needs.  It is important to keep communication open, to really understand how your relationship partner is feeling, and to talk to each other for accurate understanding. 

A few weeks later I went to a caregiver’s workshop. The young woman sitting next to me turned to me and, with tears streaming down her face, told me the following story: My mother was taking care of my grandmother in my uncle’s home. When Grandma died, my uncle said my mom must move out. She came to live with me, and now she sits and does nothing. She has no interest in my five-year-old son. She feels it’s her turn to be cared for. So, I work full time, take care of my family, and now my mother too.

What to Do about Mama? p. 1

Improving patience becomes a primary need, and the results of becoming more patient are beneficial to interactions with everyone. When criticism is thrown about, caregivers may feel demoralized

“Everything is for your convenience!”

What to Do about Mama? p. 21

On the other hand, the more that the care recipient expresses kind expressions of happiness and lets the caregiver know that what they’re doing is actually making them feel better—that they really appreciate it—the more caregiver distress is diminished.  Gratitude goes a long way.

After the next incident of incontinence, a relatively short time later, my mother-in-law said, “I appreciate all the things you do for me. I appreciate your patience.”

What to Do about Mama? pp. 19-20

Again–click on the link to listen to the Podcast:
How to Have Patience With Elderly Parents – The Caring Generation® (