Making the Decision to Downsize
After a very snowy winter spent mostly indoors, my 78 year-old mother-in-law decided it was time for her to move. Maintenance on her current house was proving cumbersome. She no longer needed so much space or so many rooms to clean. The cold months had made her feel isolated and she realized that her circle of friends in the area had dwindled.
It was time for a change and a senior living facility seemed like an ideal solution. A new eldercare community had opened nearby that offered both independent (which is what she was looking for) and assisted living options. Without much hesitation she decided to sell her home and move there.
After buying her new home, she now had to clear out her old home and get it ready for sale. While finding a senior living facility proved easy, purging and packing up her old house was more difficult. In the 20 years she had lived there, she had accumulated a lot of stuff. Although her new home was a comfortable size, it was clear she needed to do some serious downsizing.
Why Downsizing Can Be Hard
Although my mother in law was happy about the impending move, she was upset at the prospect of getting rid of any of her belongings. Her reaction is not uncommon.Pam Carlson, professional organizer and owner of Ready, Set, Organize in New Jersey says, “I think it’s a generational thing, for the most part. The children of the depression held onto more because they had too. While some senior adults are better at letting go than others, many have a difficult time parting with an item because of a memory or success story that it provokes.”
This was the case with my mother in law’s sewing machine. Even though she had not used it in over a decade, when I suggested selling or donating it she shook her head “no” and began to cry. Upon further discussion she explained that it had been a wedding gift to her from her own mother. She then reminisced about how she sewed clothes and Halloween costumes for her three children when they were young. Getting rid of the sewing machine felt like parting with a piece of her mother and a piece of her kids’ childhood. So even though she understood she didn’t need it, letting go was hard.
In addition to holding on for nostalgic reasons, older adults might also not want to discard items because they believe these pieces are valuable and could be worth a lot of money. Carlson explains, “The sentimental attachment to their possessions can cause them to have an inflated value of the worth of their items. They also may believe that their kids will actually want this stuff some day, which they probably do not.”
How to Make Downsizing Easier
When helping older adults to downsize it is important to have patience and compassion. Carlson says, “Change is difficult for everyone but especially more so for some seniors. It is important to make the new space feel familiar to them.”
Downsizing takes time so get started early. It’s better to tackle the project in stages rather than try to complete it in a few days. Offer seniors assistance or suggest hiring a professional organizer to help make the project run smoothly.
Make lists of what items are really needed in the new home. For example, if moving to an assisted living situation that does not allow residence to cook, there is no need to bring pots and pans. If an item is chipped, broken or stained, toss it. If you are unsure of an item’s value, bring in a professional to assess.
Space planning is key. Furniture from a larger home may not look right or be functional in a smaller setting. Try to get floor plans in advance and lay everything out on paper before deciding which pieces of furniture to keep and which to donate, sell or discard. Carlson says, “You have to consider falling and tripping hazards so you shouldn’t cram too much furniture into a space.”
Understand that when it comes parting with possessions, Carlson says, “Everyone has ‘something’ that they can’t part with and should, and so items need be evaluated on an individual basis”. If your senior is having real difficulty parting with an item, try to find out why. It’s a great opportunity to hear stories from the past and to connect. Once I understood the importance of the sewing machine, I was able to find a solution (sale to another family) that made my mother in law feel better about parting with it. Offer to photograph sentimental pieces or storage in your own home if you have the space. Be sure to bring a few sentimental items that make the new space feel like home.
The Upside of Downsizing
Even though downsizing can be difficult, it can also be rewarding. My mother-in-law’s old home sold the first week it was on the market because it was completely de-cluttered and looked even bigger without so much furniture. Her new home in the senior living facility also looks great too and is filled only with items she really loves and uses. Even better, she needs less stuff because she is home less often now that she has so many activities she can do in her eldercare community.
Randi Mazzella is freelance writer and blogger. Her work has appeared in many publications Parent.com, Grown and Flown, The Fine Line and The Spruce. She draws inspiration from her life with her husband and three children. To read more of her work, go to randimazzella.com or follow her on twitter @randimazzella.