When I was a kid, I remember those times when my siblings and I would go to our grandparents’ houses and race straight up to the stairs to their attic to search through their treasures. We didn’t ask for permission since we’d thought that searching through those storage boxes was fair game. We also thought that our grandparents, since they were old and they were open books, had no secrets to keep.
After launching our 4-Gen Living Experiment, I realized that nothing must be considered as “fair game.” My grandmother’s storage was a very private possession and something that held, and continues to hold, some of her most personal and deepest memories. During our childhood days however, the excitement brought by the possibility of finding old photographs, newspaper clippings, costume jewelry, old prom dress and wedding dresses and even a small Singer sewing machine trumped everything that we were taught about respecting others privacy.
The “No Throw Away” Generation
During her youthful days, Grandma was a true blue adventurer. When her and my grandfather were in their 50s, they took a year off and traveled throughout the U.S. (I think they may have been the first official hipsters). They managed to keep a handful of incredible artifacts from the trip, all of which were kept in their West Virginia attic. These include blankets from native American tribes, a rock with garnets in it from Wyoming, turquoise from Arizona, etc. Likewise, my other grandparents who were Italian and German immigrants, liked to put and store things in their attic although they didn’t travel as much. Tucked in their attic hideaway were steamer trunks and cedar chests full of interesting stuff: old shoes, hats, dresses and furniture. Looking at all these treasures made me think that my grandparents’ generation (probably like yours) is one that never wanted to throw anything away. Living through the depression changed how they viewed and valued possessions.
The problem started when we moved in together. There was a pressing concern on what we should do with all those years of gathering private keepsakes and documents, their kitchen and furniture supplies, and all those decorations from holiday and seasonal occasions.
We thought that the idea of creating storage spaces in the attic for every individual would work out fine. We set up one storage space above Mom and Dad’s suite and another above Grandma’s apartment. When more space was needed, we also created an extra space at the garage attic, pool house attic as well as the basement for Mom and Dad.
As a result, the basement became a huge source of the friction around the house since it is a space that is easily accessible for everyone. It is a space that is always the subject of constant negotiation from among the household members. However, the hardest truth about it, particularly for the older two generations, is the fact that we have unlimited access to each one’s private stuff. We needed to create boundaries to honor not messing in each other’s private treasures.
Fireproof: Keeper of Collective History
In the basement, we have a file cabinet where we kept all kinds of documents: financial information, banking statements, death certificates, birth certificates, wills, and private items such as photographs and love letters. Although we never wanted anyone to see these, we didn’t know what we should do with them. Moreover, I had to oversee the safety of these most sacred documents. Such unrequested responsibility had totally stressed me out. If there was a fire, then our family’s whole history could end up in ashes. I decided to buy a fireproof safe, which gave me such a big relief. But that was just one challenge I overcame. You start to realize how delicate our past is and how mold, mildew, water and fire can take away our history and memories. I am committed to getting all of this stored in digital format just in case the safe is not “safe”. Plan for how you will take care of the prized documents and then who should have access to them.
Mom’s generation is one that can be attributed with interesting monikers: the Betty Crocker girls and the Better Homes and Gardens crowd. They have a fierce attachment to decorations. During the days of my mom and grandma, people regarded a homemaker with high esteem. The way a person decorated their home reflected the kind of person, homemaker, wife and mother you were. Having said that, it’s easy to understand why Mom’s decorations should have their own separate place from my own. Moreover, I realized how important it was to become more respectful of what these decorations had meant to her and honor them during all seasons.
Watch Your Step
Learning to respect was one thing and finding a space was another. Surely, there must be a space where we can keep all of those things from Mom’s kitchen such as the deviled egg plate and the special holiday punch bowl? Eventually, we found a space and it was right beneath the basement steps. It had shelves, a door, and I added a metal shelf on wheels. All at once, this extra space under the steps was transformed into a full-on kitchen storage unit for all those things you need for holidays and parties but don’t have room to have in a 4-Gen kitchen.
For Your Eyes Only
Grandma’s story is different. Since she can’t cook anymore and she had already given up most of her things, the kitchen stuff was easy. However, she values photos a lot. It makes perfect sense as she has Alzheimer’s visual cues are extremely important. The average mind (you and me) forgets 85% of what we hear almost immediately. So think how much harder it must be for someone with Dementia or Alzheimer’s. For this reason, we made sure that she had a room where she can keep the photos around her or hang them up. We also tried to keep out her other valued possessions in our public spaces where she can see them at all times. This move gave her a comforting effect. Some of the stuff that held sentimental attachments include a table that her father made which is where the large leather engraved over 100-year-old family bible sits on (that she gave me) and a toothpick holder made from the wood of a maple tree which her father also created.
Don’t Forget the Men of the House
Women aren’t the only ones who find value in their things. Whose snow blower do you keep? Whose lawnmower, shovels and tools? All of these items are filled with a man’s pride. Want him to get rid of a lawnmower? It’s not just a lawnmower. He bought that John Deere lawnmower, which was a really big deal for him and a sign of pride and status. Taking away these things that were earned by someone can lead to some level of resistance. Moreover, things can get even harder if these things gave them great memories and defined their whole being.
It’s a common way of thinking among the older generation – this is more than just ‘stuff’. These are the items that represent their lives, achievements and choices along the way. They’re a window into their past. Discussing these objects and other possessions needs a lot of care and respect. It is best to schedule an ideal time to sort things out and come up with a decision together. Then, everyone in the family can find their valued and personal items treated with the care and respect they deserve.
I would love to continue this journey of Embracing Living together and need your support. I promise to give you the honest, best insights I can as I live in learn in my multigenerational experiment and all the best insights in senior living design. All I ask is that we do this together.
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