Moving is at the top of every list of “major life stressors.” When most people move they take their stuff with them. But when seniors begin downsizing possessions they must often confront the daunting task of sorting through—and getting rid of—a lifetime’s worth of memories. That can be an emotional minefield for all involved, even when parents are the ones driving the change.
If you are an adult child or caregiver for seniors who haven’t yet decided to downsize, but you think they should, we’ve got some suggestions for how to broach that challenging conversation. But if your parents have already decided to make this transition, here are five strategies you can employ in advance to make it easier for them—and for you.
If your parents have initiated this move, it’s likely that they are still healthy enough to help make most of the big decisions themselves. So, it’s important to start the conversation around downsizing possessions early. Talk to your parents about where they will be living and their budget for moving. Then compare costs in light of how far away the new space is, and what size. For example, if your parents are moving across the country to be closer to you, it may be cheaper for them to buy larger furniture at the new location rather than move their old items.
Clean Out the Clutter
While you’re still considering options, start going through the house with an eye toward eliminating as much “clutter” as possible. You don’t need to talk about who gets Grandma’s good china yet. Just offer to help them go through cupboards, closets, and drawers to pull out the obvious possessions that won’t go with them, such as the file cabinet full of old bank statements and the case of canning jars in the basement. If your parents are reluctant to let go of usable items, consider donating them.
Get a Floorplan
Once a new living space has been chosen, get a floorplan of the unit, or buy some graph paper and create one yourself. Make it as close to scale as possible, then sit down with your parents to talk about what possessions to downsize, and how to arrange furniture. The focus should be on the practical use of the space based on your parent’s physical needs and abilities. We’ve seen too many cases in which seniors tried to cram so much of their old stuff into their new space they couldn’t move through it with walkers or other medical equipment.
Distribute Family Keepsakes
Ask your parents if there are any specific possessions that they were planning to leave to someone, then suggest they make the gift now. Perhaps your parents would also be willing to ask everyone with a stake in the process to write down one or two items that they would like to have. If you can reach a general consensus on the distribution of some keepsake possessions, have people come and get those right away. Moving items right away instead of “later” is a big step toward downsizing effectively.
For everything that’s left, go through each room and use sticky notes or masking tape labels to sort items into four categories: save, maybe save, donate, and discard. Jump on those last two as quickly as possible and remove those items from the house. When all of that’s gone it’s a good bet that there’s not going to be room in the new place for everything tagged “save” and “maybe.”
That’s when you pull out the floor plan. Hard decisions will still have to be made, but placing real-world parameters around what’s actually needed in the new space can help diffuse some of the emotion.
Finally, if possible, move to the new space before emptying the rest of the house. And don’t forget to bring some favorite pictures and knick-knacks. Making the new place feel like home as quickly as possible can help put the focus on the positives of the move instead of the loss of their old life.