Why Do Our Elders Hold onto Paper?

“One Man’s Trash is another Man’s Treasure.” – English Proverb

Last month, I spent a busy weekend helping my mother clean out her garage. Of the ‘treasures’ we sorted through, there were several boxes labeled ‘important papers’. Dipping into these boxes revealed something amazing: nearly 6 decades of bank statements, check registers, cancelled checks, and receipts.

While my mother was reluctant to recycle, donate, or pitch physical items, she refused to relinquish her ‘important papers’ to the same fate. While I grumbled about some of the forgotten documents (great-grandmother Rebecca’s laundry clients), Mom insisted she needed to go through things in her own time. I grumbled, but agreed.

Yesterday she called with good news, “Krissy, honey, I just found our tax returns from 1959!” That was the year she and dad married. She also found every tax record since.

While we discussed the reason for keeping these records, she admits that keeping them for so long was not necessary, but at the time, it’s what she and dad thought was expected of good, hard-working citizens.

Secondly, my mother is a genealogist. All of this represented family history and carried emotional ties to the past. Although saved, forgotten, and dragged through 10 moves, she recently shredded most of it…without my input or influence.

If you find yourself helping a parent or other elderly relative with a paper hoard, here are suggestions to manage the heap.

  1. Be patient. Discuss, reminisce, and understand the significance of the papers. My father grew up poor so it was critical to keep track of every penny.
  2. The papers represent proof. Tax returns provide proof of employment. Receipts provide proof that a young couple could afford a new car. Because of that value, a 50 year old car receipt has great significance.
  3. Realize it is more than numbers for our elders; it is history unique to their era. We do not understand how life was back then. The best we can do is understand their motivation. While they may not understand our lifestyle and beliefs, we do want them to respect ours and offer them the same courtesy.

When faced with the need to thin the mountains of paper memories, ask your elder these questions:

  • Why is this important to you?
  • Why do you want to hold on to this? (Avoid mentioning that it has been buried in the basement for 40 years; it won’t matter).
  • Who would be interested in these items?

Following these exercises, the older adult may gain a little more perspective and can make thinning decisions more wisely. If the collector still refuses to reduce or eliminate the stash, avoid the argument. Instead, make an attempt to organize. It’s easy enough to toss when they pass on.

Enjoy the history lesson and let it pass. Someday we will have the same conversation with our children or grandchildren!

Kristen

 

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