Journal of Gerontological Nursing

EMOTIONAL IMPACT OF POSSESSION LOSS

Ann McCracken, PhD, RN,C

Abstract

The change in possessions that accompanies relocation can contribute to loss of continuity with life history, and a loss of a sense of self or identity.

The purpose of a research study, conducted in 1983 and 1984, was to develop and test a multivariate relocation model to explain more fully the relocation process of elderly women. This article reports on one of the 15 variables examined, possession change.

The Lazarus' stress and coping paradigm provided a basic framework for the development of the relocation model. Lazarus suggests that an individual appraises a potentially harmful situation in light of his or her general resources and beliefs concerning transactions with the environment, and in relation to attempts to cope with the specific situation. Bowlby2 has investigated commonalities of all perceived harmful or threatening situations. These commonalities include absence of the familiar or presence of the unfamiliar and the absence of an attachment (responsive, supporting) figure. In relocation absence of the familiar can be operationalized as a change in personal possessions. Thus, based on the model of relocation, a decrease in possessions will lead to a more difficult move.

Review of Literature

The change in possessions that accompanies relocation can contribute to loss of continuity with life history,3,4 and loss of a sense of self or identity. 3,5 Csikszentimalyi and RochbergHalton6 interviewed 82 families in the Chicago area to examine the role of objects in identity and found that "things help to channel skills and shape the identity of their users." Possessions for the elderly seemed to help explain where they fit in, how they are related to the bigger scheme of things. Csikszentimalyi and RochbergHalton stated, "When the elderly see their possessions as extensions of themselves or as a personal record of their memories and experiences, then depriving older people of objects they care about may be the equivalent of destroying their identity."

The findings of Sherman and Neuman7 parallel those of Csikszentimalyi and Rochberg-Halton. Sherman and Neuman, in a descriptive study of 94 elderly persons, found that 81% of the elderly had a cherished possession. For women, the valued possessions were most frequently photographs, whereas for men consumer items were cherished for their material value. Moreover, there were "very few persons with no cherished possessions who had a high life satisfaction score." Baltes and Zerbe8 emphasized that loss of personal possessions is equal to a loss in reinforcing events, which contributes to a change in reinforcement patterns.

Possessions are taken or left, to different degrees for different individuals, when people move, adding to the familiarity or strangeness of the surroundings. Possession change in relocation has not been well examined in the literature, although its importance has been alluded to by Miller and Lieberman9 in 1965. In 1975 Storandt and Wittels10 stated, "The most frequent complaint voiced to the experimenters by those about to move was not of leaving friends or social activities, but instead centered around the necessity to reduce the bulk of personal belongings accumulated over a lifetime to a size which could be accommodated by a one-room efficiency apartment."

TABLE I

IMPORTANT POSSESSIONS MOVED

TABLE 2

POSSESSION MOST MISSED…

The change in possessions that accompanies relocation can contribute to loss of continuity with life history, and a loss of a sense of self or identity.

The purpose of a research study, conducted in 1983 and 1984, was to develop and test a multivariate relocation model to explain more fully the relocation process of elderly women. This article reports on one of the 15 variables examined, possession change.

The Lazarus' stress and coping paradigm provided a basic framework for the development of the relocation model. Lazarus suggests that an individual appraises a potentially harmful situation in light of his or her general resources and beliefs concerning transactions with the environment, and in relation to attempts to cope with the specific situation. Bowlby2 has investigated commonalities of all perceived harmful or threatening situations. These commonalities include absence of the familiar or presence of the unfamiliar and the absence of an attachment (responsive, supporting) figure. In relocation absence of the familiar can be operationalized as a change in personal possessions. Thus, based on the model of relocation, a decrease in possessions will lead to a more difficult move.

Review of Literature

The change in possessions that accompanies relocation can contribute to loss of continuity with life history,3,4 and loss of a sense of self or identity. 3,5 Csikszentimalyi and RochbergHalton6 interviewed 82 families in the Chicago area to examine the role of objects in identity and found that "things help to channel skills and shape the identity of their users." Possessions for the elderly seemed to help explain where they fit in, how they are related to the bigger scheme of things. Csikszentimalyi and RochbergHalton stated, "When the elderly see their possessions as extensions of themselves or as a personal record of their memories and experiences, then depriving older people of objects they care about may be the equivalent of destroying their identity."

The findings of Sherman and Neuman7 parallel those of Csikszentimalyi and Rochberg-Halton. Sherman and Neuman, in a descriptive study of 94 elderly persons, found that 81% of the elderly had a cherished possession. For women, the valued possessions were most frequently photographs, whereas for men consumer items were cherished for their material value. Moreover, there were "very few persons with no cherished possessions who had a high life satisfaction score." Baltes and Zerbe8 emphasized that loss of personal possessions is equal to a loss in reinforcing events, which contributes to a change in reinforcement patterns.

Possessions are taken or left, to different degrees for different individuals, when people move, adding to the familiarity or strangeness of the surroundings. Possession change in relocation has not been well examined in the literature, although its importance has been alluded to by Miller and Lieberman9 in 1965. In 1975 Storandt and Wittels10 stated, "The most frequent complaint voiced to the experimenters by those about to move was not of leaving friends or social activities, but instead centered around the necessity to reduce the bulk of personal belongings accumulated over a lifetime to a size which could be accommodated by a one-room efficiency apartment."

Study Method

Data for the descriptive study were collected between October 1983 and July 1984 in the homes of residents of four age-segregated, not-for-profit retirement villages located near a midwestern city with a population of 385,000. One rural facility was church affiliated, with cottage, apartment, and nursing home accommodations. The second suburban facility, the outgrowth of a merger of three long-standing charities, housed persons in cottages, apartments, and a nursing home. In addition, this facility housed a senior center for community elderly persons. The third rural facility consisted of townhouse-type accommodations, with a building in the complex that hosted a senior center.

The fourth suburban facility, associated with a national religious-philanthropic organization, consisted entirely of apartment accommodations. All facilities, except the first, included some government rental subsidy (HUD) units.

The study sample was a convenience sample of 75 women, 65 to 75 years of age, who had relocated into segregated, independent living accommodations six months to three years prior to October 1983. Subjects were interviewed in their homes by one of two female interviewers using a structured, 73-item interview guide.

Possession change was measured on a scale designed by the investigator to estimate the possessions that accompanied the resident when moving. Possession content areas were listed as bedroom, bathroom, living room, kitchen, and porch. Items included dishes, knickknacks, linens, clothing, plants, pets, photographs, and other. Each respondent was asked if, prior to the move, they had owned possessions in the content areas and if they had moved all, most, half, little, or none of these possessions. In addition, the 75 residents were asked to answer the following questions:

* What is the most important item to you which you moved?

* When and how did you acquire it?

* How is it important to you?

* Which item that you did not take with you do you miss the most?

* When and how did you acquire this item?

* How was the item important to you?

* What did you do with the item?

Findings

Demographic information revealed that the average number of years of school attended by subjects was 13.1 years. One third of the sample had yearly incomes greater than $8,000. Respondents reported an average of 3.7 chronic health problems ranging from none to light conditions. One third of the sample reported problems with each of the following: arthritis or rheumatism, high blood pressure, vision impairment, heart condition, and mental or nervous condition.

The following findings relate to the change in possessions occasioned by the move. It was hypothesized that a decrease in possessions would be positively related to the difficulty of the move. Data analysis resulted in a failure to reject the hypothesis at p<0.05 level of significance. In addition, decrease in possessions correlated with appraisal of relocation as threatening p<0.01. This study supports possession loss by elderly women as a difficult and threatening event.

Descriptive data on the relocation process revealed the following. The most frequent possession categories in which all or most of the items were moved by subjects, in order of frequency, were clothing, photographs, linens, pictures, and knickknacks. The most frequent room furniture to be taken was bedroom furniture, followed by living room furniture. Least likely to be taken was dining room furniture, porch furniture, plants, and pets. Of the nine people who had pets prior to moving, eight were unable to take them to their facility because of housing restrictions. One pet bird moved with the owner.

Data on the most important possession moved revealed the following information. Items of furniture, television sets, and photographs were most frequently mentioned as the most important possessions moved (see Table 1). Furniture was prized equally for its association with people as for its utilitarian value. For example, one woman prized a cedar chest given to her by her husband before their marriage 53 years prior to the interview. She presently used the chest to store family pictures. On the other hand, one subject valued a hospital bed because of the comfort it afforded her despite an arthritis condition.

Explanations for the value of the next most frequently mentioned category, television, included company, entertainment, enjoyment, outlook on life, and a source of news. One woman stated that she would be lonesome without it.

Photographs, cited as the most important item moved by 13 respondents, were described as irreplaceable or valuable in stimulating memories of happy times.

More than half of the women, or a total of 38 persons, mentioned memories of another person or sentimental reasons for the importance placed on the most important item they moved.

Table

TABLE IIMPORTANT POSSESSIONS MOVED

TABLE I

IMPORTANT POSSESSIONS MOVED

Data on the most missed item revealed the following information. Although 35 respondents, or nearly half of the sample, indicated that they either did not miss anything (29) or that they brought it all (6), 40 respondents could delineate a possession they missed (see Table 2).

In the furniture category, nine of the items subjects missed were either associated with a family member or served a family function. Items serving a family function included dining room furniture, which was large enough to serve the whole family, and a second bedroom, which provided a means of offering hospitality.

Several furniture items were associated with the loss of a function, such as decreased drawer space, or attractiveness, such as a white living room set. Not having garden tools or sterling silver inhibited gardening and entertaining despite opportunities to engage in these activities. Not having a specific article affected holidays or celebrations for two women. One woman wanted to use her lace tablecloth at Christmas, and not having baking utensils impeded a woman who formerly did a lot of baking for family celebrations.

For four women, the most important item not moved was a pet. Three of the women had owned cats, one had owned a dog. The three respondents who had owned cats had had their cats 1 1 years, 5 years, and 1 year, respectively. One woman described her cat as a constant companion. Two pet cats had been given to family members. One cat was put to sleep. The dog had been taken to the SPCA.

Thirteen persons had sold the items they missed, and the remainder had given the items away. Only one of the items sold, a dining room hutch purchased by the subject and her husband in 1962, was associated with a family member; the others had been valued for their utilitarian function. Of those subjects mentioning specific persons to whom items were given, those persons were daughters (8), sons (3), people in the family (4), nephews (2), a niece (I), and a daughter-in-law (1).

Table

TABLE 2POSSESSION MOST MISSED

TABLE 2

POSSESSION MOST MISSED

Two women described the difficulty of giving up possessions: one stated that she had to give up a lot she didn't want to, the other stated, "You close your eyes, it's got to go. " Giving up possessions contributed to the difficulty of the move for subjects in this sample. Data collected in regard to possessions indicated that possessions were often valued for their association with valued persons, events, or roles in a subject's life. Parting with these possessions was more difficult for subjects than was the change that occurred in social support.

Possession change was statistically significant with difficulty of the move in the relocation model. Change in social support, however, did not reach statistical significance with difficulty of the move. TTiis finding may be due in part to the fact that relocation to age-segregated housing resulted in little change or an increase in neighboring, in confiding relationships, and in family relationships. Whereas social support remained the same or was replaceable, possessions were not.

Discussion

These findings supported those of Miller and Lieberman9 who found negative physiological and psychological changes among a relocated group of women permitted to move only a limited number of personal possessions.

Moreover, Storandt and Wittels10 reported that the most frequent complaint of those about to move was the reduction of possessions. For some subjects in the study, loss of possessions, such as those items purchased with a husband or soon after marriage or given to them by parents or grandparents, contributed to a loss of continuity with life history.

Baltes and Zerbe8 pointed out that possessions serve another important function in relation to reinforcement patterns. This phenomenon was verified in this study by subjects' responses in relation to possession change. The loss of certain possessions resulted in role changes for some women: for example, the woman who missed the second bedroom, for the hospitality function it served, and the woman who missed her dining room table because she had used it on family occasions. It was apparent that the woman who gave up her table had thereby relinquished her role of présider over family functions. She was now a participant at these functions; a far different role for her.

Nursing Implications

Change is stressful at any age but can be particularly so when age has decreased physiological reserves. The growth of the older segment of the population substantiates a need for nurses to assist elderly persons with stressful encounters that could potentially affect their health. A greater knowledge base is needed of those events that are particularly stressful to older persons as well as of the processes of stress and coping . This knowledge can then be shared with students and practitioners to guide nursing practice.

Relocation is one event encountered by a significant enough number of older persons to warrant investigation. To date, the nurse's involvement with relocation has been limited. At times, it is the nurse who carries out a functional health assessment to determine the person-environment congruence prior to relocation. However, the nurse can assume a larger role in the relocation of elderly persons. Carp11 suggested that a living environment counselor be involved in the relocation process. Nurses because of their background in health sciences and because relocation may coincide with health changes are ideal persons to fill this role. Moreover, Carp proposed that the counselor be an agent of the housing seeker rather than the housing provider. Nurses, as client advocates who provide services in senior centers and other nonhousing sponsored groups, are in an excellent position to present educational sessions to older group members prior to their needing or wanting to relocate. These sessions could explore topics such as the meaning of possessions, the need to decrease possessions, and decisionmaking skills.

The results of this study suggest yet another important area to assess when elderly women relocate; that of possession change. An estimate of the amount of change in possessions that will be occasioned by the move is an important determinant of the difficulty of the move for the individual. Meaning of possessions is also important to consider. Possessions that support memories, that are particularly useful, and that facilitate the continuance of important roles should be moved if at all possible. Although moves to smaller apartments necessitate a decrease in possessions, this change does not nearly approach the change that results when moving to a nursing home setting. It is suggested that the impact of possession decrease be studied in relation to nursing home relocation.

References

  • 1. Lazarus R: The stress and coping paradigm, in Eisdorfer C, Cohen D, Kleinman A, Maxim P (eds): Theories for Psychopathology. New York, S. P. Medical and Scientific Books, 1981.
  • 2. BowlbyJ: Attachment and Loss !Separation. New York, Basic Books Ine, voi 2, 1973.
  • 3. Butler R, Lewis M: Aging and Mental Health: Positive Psychological Approaches. St Louis, Mo, C.V. Mosby Co, 1977.
  • 4. Frankl V: The Doctor and the Soul. New York, Bantam Books Ine, 1955.
  • 5. de Beauvoir S: The Coming of Age. New York, Warner Paperback Library, 1973.
  • 6. Csikszentimalyi M, Rochberg-Halton E: Object lessons. Psychology Today 1981; 15(12):79-85.
  • 7. Sherman E, Neuman E: The meaning of cherished personal possessions for the elderly. Journal of Aging ana Human Development 1977-1978: 8(2):181-192.
  • 8. Baltes M, Zerbe M: Independence training in nursing home residents. The Gerontologisl 1976; 16(5):428-432.
  • 9. Miller D, Lieberman M: The relationship of affect state and adaptive capacity to reactions to stress. J Gerontol 1965; 20(4):492-497.
  • 10. Storandt M, Wittels I: Maintenance of function in relocation of community dwelling older adults. J Gerontol 1975; 30(5):608-612.
  • 11. Carp F: Housing and living environments of older people, in B instock RH, Shanas E (eds): Handbook of Aging and the Social Sciences. New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1976.

TABLE I

IMPORTANT POSSESSIONS MOVED

TABLE 2

POSSESSION MOST MISSED

10.3928/0098-9134-19870201-06

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