How to part with cherished belongings – and help others

By Michele McGovern
September 6th, 2021 Health & Wellness 2 Comments

Letting go is difficult, even when it’s with cherished belongings.

But as older adults age in place – and often need less or must declutter – they face the challenge of deciding what to do with heirlooms, hard-earned belongings and outright excess.

While handing cherished belongings on to family members was once the norm, it’s popularity dims. Why? Younger generations grew up with inexpensive access to anything they could want or need. They aren’t inclined to hang on to what older adults might regard as “good stuff.”

On the bright side, when older adults part with unnecessary belongings, downsize or declutter, they feel relieved, satisfied and empowered, according to researcher and author David Ekerdt, who wrote Downsizing: Confronting Our Possessions in Later Life.

At the same time, more than 60% of older adults in Ekerdt’s research said they had too much stuff. The first challenge is to get past the emotional turmoil parting with things can cause.

The emotions you face – and how to handle them

You can understand why cherished belongings stirs up anxiety and difficult emotions. Someone special gave you some times. You acquired other items because you dreamed of them and worked hard. In other cases, you received items at important points in your life such as marriage, vacation, birth of children, etc.

“Finding a new home for your … belongings or clearing clutter offers a host of benefits to encourage healthy aging like boosted mental clarity, lower stress levels, and lower risk of injury,” says Lori Ligorio, Owner of Caring Transitions of Scranton. “The benefits can extend quality of life now and in the long run.”

But in the short term, you’ll want to recognize the emotions associated with letting go of cherished items – and be ready to handle them. Older adults will likely face sadness, happiness, regret, rejoice and even confusion as they unearth items and decide to let go.

The items bring back memories.

That’s the first step in handling the emotions: Recognize that it’s usually memories associated with items that carry the meaning. The actual item doesn’t cause the emotions. So you might keep a journal to note items and the experience and emotions associated with it.

Another tip: Give yourself a time limit with items – enough to note the memory, but not enough to overthink it. Schedule a time to donate, give away or toss items and set high goals for the space you’ll clear before then so you don’t have time to get overly emotional.

5 tips to start, follow through

Once older adults recognize the need to let go of belongings that don’t fit in their aging in place lifestyle – and are emotionally prepared to do it – they can take these steps to get started.

  • Give yourself time. The physical work of decluttering, downsizing and cleaning out cherished belongings will likely take more time than you think. That’s another reason it’s important limit the “walk down memory lane.”
  • Start small. Don’t plan to tackle the whole house in a weekend. Instead, focus first on a small room or two that likely have the fewest “treasures,” such as a spare bedroom or laundry room.
  • Make just two piles – “Yes” and “No.” You don’t want any “maybes” because it will only prolong the process and likely leave you with items you don’t need and family members don’t want. One caveat: Make two “No” piles – one for the trash and one for donations (more on donating below here).
  • Call in some help. Garages, attics and basements tend to hold many of the cherished belongings. So you might want to ask an unbiased person to help you sort and let go. One route is services like Ligorio’s. They usually charge an hourly rate to help older adults sort through years of possessions. They can give guidance on what to keep, dispose and donate to charities.
  • Keep your camera handy. Many older adults find it easier to let go when they know they have a little piece of their cherished belongings. So take photos of collections, heirlooms and other special items. You can look, reminisce and share as much as you want without the actual items on hand going forward. Some older adults even take it one step further and create an album of the photos and include other sentimental items that fit there such as letters, cards, previous photos, etc.

Donate, feel better

The best part about getting rid of “good stuff” that family members don’t want is there are others who want – and often, more importantly, need – them. It gives you the opportunity to help others, pay it forward and, essentially feel good for doing so.

Fortunately, many organization can take your items and get them to others who need them. Even better, almost all of them can pick up your items, which can really be helpful with furniture and other large household items.

You can find more information on these organizations in the Greater Philadelphia and Delaware area by clicking on each:

  • Habitat for Humanity provides homes for people who can’t afford traditional financing options. Volunteers work alongside the recipients to create “sweat equity” in the home. Habitat’s ReStore sells used items to fund the cause. You can find out more about arranging a pick up here.
  • Philadelphia Furniture Bank helps create a pathway to housing for people in need. You can find out more about the organization and the pick-up process here.
  • GreenDrop is a central donation organization that partners with the American Red Cross, the Military Order of the Purple Heart, the National Federation of the Blind and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Philadelphia. You can find a list of acceptable donation items (it’s quite inclusive) and details on arranging pick up here.
  • The Salvation Army Thrift Stores support the organization’s Adult Rehabilitation Centers, where people struggling with drugs and alcohol find help and hope. You can arrange pick-up services in the Philadelphia and Wilmington areas using their online form here.


  1. David Smith says:

    This is a very helpful article. I particularly like the yes/ no piles to put stuff. My wife has started on a huge task with token donations. I must be careful not to create stress by encouraging a more concerted effort.
    At 80 I’m concerned it may take an “ event” to accelerate the process.

    • Maria Buehler says:

      We’re glad that you enjoyed the blog post. Yes – it can be challenging to declutter. Hoping that you do not encounter any negative events, of course!

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