Dear Carol: My mom is currently in a short-term swing-bed facility and will soon be moving to a nursing home. Dad is in assisted living where we already moved some favorite furnishings from home. Their house must be sold, so my brother and I are going through what's left. We're stumped by jewelry and assorted items from their lives together. There are a lot of old pictures as well as Dad's military medals that he says he doesn't care about. We're not sure what to do with these things because they are items that have sentimental value. Mom had a stroke that has taken most of her memory and Dad says he doesn't care what we do with the "stuff." My brother and I are both saddened by how their lives have played out and it seems somehow that discarding these items is discarding them, so we're struggling. What do we do with all these keepsakes Mom and Dad don't want or can't use? — LD.
Dear LD: I sympathize with you and your brother. My sister, Beth, and I have been through this with several elders so I do understand how emotional this is.
It sounds as though you've taken care of the big items like furniture, so the smaller, more personal items are your concern. The approach my sister and I used was to keep many of the small items that had emotional value to our parents in our own homes. I stored most of the things since I lived in the same community as our parents, though Beth stored some in her home, as well. That way, when our parents asked about something — which did happen — we could often produce it in a day or so.
If the request was especially urgent, such as when Dad's dementia had him in an extreme state of anxiety, I could run home and dig out the item he was asking about and run it back to him. It seemed to help both Mom and Dad to know that their sentimental belongings were available even if they didn't have them permanently in their rooms.
One example was Dad's military medals that hadn't been a big deal to him before. However, on one particular day, they suddenly became incredibly important. I drove home, retrieved the medals, and brought them to Dad. After that, he spent a great deal of time just fingering them.
We also saved beloved Christmas ornaments so that we could decorate our parents' rooms for the holidays. That seemed to make a big difference. Photos, and yes, jewelry, are good mementos to keep and they don't take up much space. I found that it was well worth finding room in my home for these items so that they could be retrieved when needed.
Remember that there may also be keepsakes that you and your brother want to take to your homes for your own comfort, and to preserve memories. This history belongs to all of you.