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          The great junk transfer is coming. A look at the burden (and big
          business) of decluttering as Canadians inherit piles of their parents’
          Sorting, storing and disposing of old family belongings will be a
          labour-intensive challenge in the next decade as baby boomers age
          [16]Erin AnderssenPublished May 21, 2022Updated May 23, 2022
          Kevin Cameron, whose father died last year and whose mother is in a
          nursing home, must now decide what to keep or toss from their
          cluttered home in Shelburne, N.S.Aaron McKenzie Fraser/The Globe and
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          How-to guide • [24]Eight tips for managing intergenerational junk
          Last fall, Kevin Cameron stood in the doorway of his parents’
          two-storey Saltbox home in the woods on the South Shore of Nova
          Scotia, the place he’d built with his dad when he was a teenager and
          woken up to during snowy family Christmases with his own kids. The
          silence felt like a punch in his gut. For the first time, his mother
          was not coming around the corner to greet him. His father was not in
          the basement, tinkering with an engine. He had died that summer after
          a stroke at the age of 87, and his mom, 81, was now in a nursing home,
          losing her memory of the house. Yet the rooms of the place were just
          as they’d always been, as if his parents were only running errands in
          Wandering through the house, he saw the kitchen shelves loaded with
          bowls and dishes, rooms crowded with furniture, books and knickknacks,
          closets packed with clothes, drawers stuffed with toothpicks and
          razors, a full set of mouldy encyclopedias on a shelf. His dad’s
          workshop was filled with tools, machine parts, cardboard boxes of
          greasy washers. There were sheds in the backyard cluttered with
          chainsaws and bikes and broken microwaves, along with a 1950s backhoe
          his father had insisted he inherit, even though Mr. Cameron, an
          artist, has absolutely no use for it.
          This was only the beginning. After a long search, Mr. Cameron would
          eventually find the registration for his parents’ car - which he now
          had to sell - inexplicably buried in a plastic bag stuffed with unused
          Christmas cards, the kind that charities send in the mail. There were
          keys that matched no locks. Sales receipts that went back to 1948. His
          parents had kept everything and thrown out nothing.
          How could a house that felt sorrowfully empty also be so
          overwhelmingly full? “And then it hits you,” Mr. Cameron says, “all
          the work ahead.” He saw the months of lost weekends, the five-hour
          round trips he would have to make from his own home in Greenwich, in
          the Annapolis Valley. This was the inheritance he never wanted: a
          burden that would rob him of time, just when his dad’s death was
          reminding him, at 58, of his own mortality.
          Anger and resentment sliced through his grief. Why had his parents
          left him with all this mess?
          Mr. Cameron with items from his late father: Snowshoes, a chainsaw, a
          model ship.Andrew Tolson/The Globe and Mail
          Over the next 10 years, Canadians will inherit an estimated
          $1-trillion – the largest transfer of wealth in history. But all those
          investment portfolios and real estate assets being passed on by aging
          parents will also come with piles and piles of stuff with nowhere to
          The parents of baby boomers, the oldest generation alive today, were
          savers, having learned in the lean times of war and the Great
          Depression to treasure what they owned. Their children were consumers.
          Together, they will leave behind houses jammed with mahogany dining
          room sets, silver platters, crystal figurines and all manner of
          tchotchkes that their kids don’t want. And, even if they did want
          them, this Great Intergenerational Dump is happening just as
          millennials are facing a housing crisis, which will leave many of them
          either renting or living in much smaller homes. Grandma’s massive
          china cabinet is not going to fit.
          So what’s the result? A booming business for junk companies willing to
          take it all away. An exponential growth in storage lockers that are
          never emptied. Endless Saturdays of garage sales, and trips to the
          landfill. An exhausting cycle of cluttering and decluttering. For
          every painting you’d fight your siblings for, there’s a Hummel
          collection – the one your parents said, “would be worth something
          someday” - that’s going in the garbage. Because, let’s be honest, we
          all already have too much stuff as it is.
          Sorting, culling, and tossing all that “accumulation of life,” as the
          junk experts call it, makes for lucrative business. According to an
          investor presentation this month, Storage Vault, the country’s largest
          publicly traded storage business, went from owning 10 locations in
          2014 to 197 in 2022 – with a combined capacity of 10.8 million square
          feet of space. The company’s share price has soared from 50 cents to
          more than $6. The association of Professional Organizers in Canada,
          which started in 1999 with 30 people, now has 600 members ready to
          help with the handwringing over those cherished Royal Doultons.
          Five years ago, Deb Darbyshire, co-owner of the Calgary franchise of
          Just Junk, estimates that she’d get a call once a month from adult
          children looking for help cleaning out their parents’ home. Now, she
          picks up a new job roughly once a week. About one-quarter of the
          families tell her: “We don’t want any of it. Take it all.”
          A Santa Claus made of cans from Mr. Cameron’s parents’ belongings.Aaron
          McKenzie Fraser/The Globe and Mail
          But as Kevin Cameron discovered, there’s an emotional challenge to
          dealing with the treasure and trash that your parents leave behind.
          It’s not easy to throw away these pieces of them.
          “What if, once they died, and we got rid of their stuff, I could never
          find my parents again?” worries Julia Ridley Smith in The Sum of
          Trifles, a collection of essays about cleaning out her parental home.
          Sons and daughters who have faced the chore describe wrestling with
          how to do it properly, respectfully and fairly (also cheaply and
          quickly) while ghosts hover. The whole process shakes awake buried
          sorrows, sibling rivalries, family dysfunction. It is never just about
          the the stuff.
          “It’s just so easy to be immobilized by what to do with some stupid
          thing you wouldn’t even give a second thought to if you saw it on the
          side of the road,” says Lori Walker, who cleaned out her parents’ home
          with her sister in 2019. Now when her friends mention the same task
          lies ahead for them, “I feel my stomach turn over.”
          If it was just junk, it would not be so hard. But possessions have
          meaning; they tell stories and reinforce our memories.
          How we treat the stuff of past generations – and how we divest our own
          belongings to the people we love – offers a lesson in what we value
          too much and perhaps don’t value enough. What matters in the end? What
          endures? That’s the challenge: what to take – and what to leave behind
          – when you close the door on your parents’ home for the last time.
          Brenda Thompson lies amid some of her parents’ old possessions and
          trash in Granville Ferry, N.S. ‘When I finish with Mom and Dad’s
          house, I might as well keep right on going, and start in the attic of
          my own home,’ she says.Andrew Tolson/The Globe and Mail
          [IMAGE][IMAGE] Ms. Thompson found eight pairs of eyeglasses that
          belonged to her father, shown in a family photo. She donated five and
          kept three. ‘It’s just the fact they rested on his face and his eyes
          looked through them.’ She laughs: ‘They will be my daughter’s problem
          someday.’ Andrew Tolson/The Globe and Mail [IMAGE] This flashlight
          revived memories of night trips to the bathroom while camping at
          Chezzetcook Beach when Ms. Thompson was about five. Fifty years later,
          it had enough juice to flicker for 30 seconds. Andrew Tolson/The Globe
          and Mail [IMAGE] Ms. Thompson's mother worked at Eaton’s when its
          catalogue division closed. They make her think of her 13-year-old self
          who loved leafing through them, but also: ‘I can’t believe I wore
          that.’ Andrew Tolson/The Globe and Mail
          One afternoon, in Perth, Ont., Danielle Robichaud and her mom, Donna,
          sat on the floor of Donna’s home, trying to sort through a pile of her
          late father’s possessions, when they came across the award plaque.
          Donna, planning a move closer to her daughter, was determined to
          downsize properly; when her husband died in 2013, she had moved most
          of his belongings from British Columbia to Ontario. It had been too
          hard to part with them then, but now she was ready to let them go –
          with Danielle’s permission. Danielle, an archivist at the University
          of Waterloo, would drive up on weekends to help her mother keep what
          mattered and discard what did not.
          The wooden plaque – bestowed on Danielle’s father at a car show – was
          unexpectedly complicated. She didn’t want it, but she felt torn: Her
          dad had cared enough to save it. Donna, having already carried around
          a box of bowling trophies for more than 30 years, wanted her daughter
          to decide its fate.
          As an archivist, Danielle is an expert on stuff. She thinks like a
          curator who, faced with only so much space, has to be cutthroat about
          what will hold its future value. Letters and diaries are golden
          because they reveal a person’s thoughts and character. But a trophy is
          a title without a story, unable to say what made someone a good bowler
          or why they loved cars. Its value peaks at the moment of delivery,
          then steadily diminishes, gathering dust in the back of a closet,
          until a decade after the recipient’s death, it’s dead weight in your
          daughter’s hands, headed for the trash. “It just becomes this thing
          filled with a lot of guilt.” Danielle knows it wasn’t rational. But “I
          felt badly throwing it out.”
          What was the most precious item that she brought home from her
          father’s stuff? His favourite mug that she now uses for her morning
          coffee. “There is something deeply comforting about drinking from it,”
          she says.
          That’s another common theme that emerges: what your loved ones will
          save of you may be the last thing you imagine. Not the china tea pot
          or the crystal bowls, but the scratched-up cooking tray you used to
          make their favourite squares, the Corningware the family took camping;
          the twist of driftwood you found together on the beach one summer –
          items that fall into the categories of useful, portable, original and
          wrapped in nostalgia.
          Items from Kevin Cameron’s father.Andrew Tolson/The Globe and Mail
          But dividing up objects isn’t easy, unless siblings can work together.
          “I said many times that when mom and dad go, it’s gonna be a
          bloodbath,” says Lori Walker, who worked for five months with her
          sister, Sandy, to clean out their parents’ home in Victoria, B.C. “As
          it turned out we were a spectacular team.”
          Sandy, a retired therapist, credits that to earlier work the sisters
          put into their relationship. Otherwise, she says, “it just takes one
          person to say, ‘I’m going to back off. I’m going to let go of this.’ ”
          The pair also tried to respect their different emotional responses.
          Lori saw that it was painful work for her sister, who compared the job
          to disturbing a memorial. When the owner of a local consignment store
          came to the house to assess their mom’s beloved antiques, Sandy wept
          with relief that they’d found someone to treat the furniture with
          reverence and care. But Sandy also made room for Lori’s frustration –
          like when her sister needed to vent about why their mother had left
          them to deal with the dusty collection of Petro-Canada drinking
          glasses, or their dad’s work shed cluttered with lidless plastic
          containers and old spoons.
          Since Lori, an instructor at Capilano University, had to travel from
          the mainland, the larger load fell to Sandy, who lived in Victoria.
          She found people to take the jigsaw puzzle collection, donated the
          freezer to the food bank and arranged for a charity to send their
          father’s tools to El Salvador.
          Over the weeks that they worked on the house, they created piles for
          recycling, for garbage, an entire room for the stuff that was TBD.
          When they both wanted an item, such as a vase, they would put it on
          the floor and collect all the vases, then take turns choosing. For the
          most part, their contrasting tastes worked in their favour. In the
          end, they agreed to share one item: a plastic plate filled with
          coloured sand that looked like ocean waves when tilted, which had
          fascinated them both as little girls. It was not, Sandy notes, one of
          the items her mother had stamped with a sticky note that read: “This
          might be valuable.”
          Both Lori and Sandy understand why families get a junk company to just
          take the stuff, especially when you live far away, when the job is too
          overwhelming. But Sandy also says that sorting through your parents’
          things, if you have time and energy, can result in special moments –
          bonding with your sister, or finding a card you once gave your mom,
          scrunched in the bathroom cabinet, on a day when you are especially
          missing her. (That card is one of the possessions Sandy describes when
          asked for a special item she saved from the house.) Meanwhile, Lori
          came home with duffle bags of coins and stamp albums, now stored in
          her basement, saved for the prospect of a buried treasure. She will go
          through them, she says. Someday.
          For both sisters, finally closing the house felt like freedom. “It
          didn’t finish the grief,” says Sandy, “but it was like, oh, now I can
          breathe differently.”
          Donna Robichaud, 65, has begun to feel that same lightness, as more
          stuff leaves her house. It’s amazing how quickly you forget the very
          item you hummed and hawed about giving up. Still, culling your own
          life isn’t easy. “It does take a few steps to get there,” she admits.
          When considering an item’s fate, she asks: how does this fit in with
          who I want to be – what I want to do – during the time I have left?
          She also cringes when she hears her friends say they are leaving the
          job to their kids. “I think that’s selfish. I look at my own house,
          and if somebody told me I had to pack it all up because someone died,
          it would be exhausting and I would be angry.”
          It can also make an old grief painfully fresh. Rachel Berman’s parents
          had been planning to downsize when her mom became ill and died. Her
          father refused to leave the house after her death or change anything
          inside it. So, years later, Dr. Berman, a professor at Toronto
          Metropolitan University, and her brother were left to sort through
          their family possessions when her dad died in late 2020. Packing up
          her mom’s things felt like losing her a second time. “The wound was
          ripped open for me, like boom, here we go again.”
          Life is unpredictable – parents need to move into a home sooner than
          they think, an illness takes its terrible course, a pandemic
          complicates the usual business of grieving and settling affairs. For
          Brenda Thompson, a writer and publisher in Perrotte, N.S., cleaning
          out her parents’ trailer was hindered by leaky pipes and an ice storm.
          She started in March – she remembers stepping into the cluttered home
          and feeling physically sick – and has been going nearly every day
          since. “It feels like we are in an ultra marathon; one problem gets
          fixed, another one pops up.”
          She’s already thinking about all the “crap” she is hanging on to for
          no reason. “When I finish with Mom and Dad’s house, I might as well
          keep right on going, and start in the attic of my own home,” Ms.
          Thompson says.
          [IMAGE][IMAGE] The workshop and backyard sheds of Mr. Cameron’s late
          father are full of old tools and broken machines that Mr. Cameron must
          now get rid of, sell or find a use for. Aaron McKenzie Fraser/The
          Globe and Mail
          The hardiest of offspring will persevere, whatever the mess. Nine
          months after his father died, Mr. Cameron figures that he and his
          wife, Beth, are about one-third finished.
          The house pulls at him, like a heavy chain. “Compared to what is going
          on in the world, this is nothing,” he says. But if his parents had
          settled their own affairs better, “it would have made my grief
          easier.” And protected his memories of them.
          He has a ritual now, each time he leaves the house in the woods – a
          way, he explains, “of detaching myself from the resentment, the
          sorrow, the questioning.” He puts on the security system and locks the
          door on the stuff that still needs sorting. “See you, Dad,” he
          whispers. “I miss you.”
          So sit your parents down, Mr. Cameron advises, and have The Talk
          before it is too late. Giving away your worldly possessions isn’t
          easy: it means living in a universe that is shrinking, not expanding.
          But there can be meaning and purpose in that awareness, suggests Laura
          Gilbert, author of The Stories We Leave Behind.
          She wrote the book after cleaning out her parents’ home forced her to
          consider her own possessions in a different light: Were they treasures
          or burdens? More importantly, when her kids opened the door to her
          house when she was gone, what story will she have left them? She began
          to think of her belongings as auditioning for a part in the movie
          version of her life, and at workshops, she coached people to wander
          through their homes, like members of a film crew, and think about the
          narrative their possessions tell. “If you think about the themes you
          leave behind, you get to shape those memories,” she says. “By not
          leaving a disaster, the kids walk in knowing what was important to
          you.” Also, she points out, children who can wander through a
          carefully curated home are less likely to crumble on the doorstep and
          call the dumpster company.
          Growing old in Canada: More from The Globe and Mail
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          Rob Carrick and Roma Luciw spoke with families in such situations on
          this episode of [25]the Stress Test podcast.
          [26]Matthew Halliday: Why downsizing your home in retirement may not
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          [27]Kelsey Rolfe: Can financial planners adjust to parents giving kids
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          [28]Rob Carrick: Now more than ever, owning a house is not a
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