Moving is at the top of every list of major life stressors. Especially when seniors begin downsizing possessions, this task becomes daunting. They must sort through and get rid of a lifetime’s worth of memories. This reality can make downsizing for seniors an emotional minefield.
Whether your goal is to help a senior with downsizing or simply do some decluttering, the situation is delicate, and the stakes are high. Fortunately, we have seven downsizing tips for seniors you can employ in advance to make it easier for them—and you.
1. Plan Ahead
Waiting to discuss the issue of downsizing won’t make things easier. Whether you're moving, cleaning, or finding out what Mom and Dad want to do with their stuff, start talking and planning now.
Talk to seniors about where they'll be living and their budget for moving. Compare costs considering the new space's size and how far away it is. For a big move, it could be cheaper for them to buy larger furniture at the new location rather than packing and moving their old items.
If you know you need to have this conversation but aren't sure where to start, check out some of our tips for communicating with parents.
2. Consider Your Motivations
After objectively weighing your options, turn to your feelings. Ask yourself if you're doing this for Mom or if it's really about you.
If Mom has immediate health problems, that’s one thing. However, if Mom wants to stay and can do so, don’t fight her. Your worries aren’t worth ruining your relationship.
But if health and safety are your main concerns, leverage experts. Having a healthcare professional or social worker initiate a move or cleaning is optimal. With a professional breaking difficult news, you can be the good guy. You won't be the one forcing Dad to uproot himself and abandon the life he worked so hard to create. You’ll be the daughter who’s helping him deal.
3. Get A Floorplan
Once you choose a new living space, get a floorplan of the unit or create one yourself with graph paper. Make it as close to scale as possible so you can have a conversation about which possessions to downsize and how to arrange furniture.
Especially for smaller homes or rooms, focus on the practical use of space based on physical needs and abilities. When seniors try to cram their old stuff into a new space, it can make it seem smaller and prevent the use of walkers and other medical equipment.
If possible, move to the new space before emptying the rest of the house. Bring some favorite pictures and knick-knacks to make the place feel like home quickly. This part of the downsizing process is especially important if seniors are hesitant to move into assisted living or a nursing home.
4. Clean Out The Clutter
Whether your senior is moving or staying put, go through the house with the mission of cutting down as much clutter as possible. Offer to help go through cupboards, closets, and drawers to discard anything to downsize. This can include old bank statements or canning jars in the basement. If seniors are reluctant to let go of usable items, consider donating them.
Before giving anything away, remember that possessions have emotional significance. They're imbued with memories that, when taken collectively, contain the story of a life. If you imply Dad's things are worthless, you’ve effectively judged him as worthless. Instead, invite Dad to tell the story of old photos or objects as you clean or pack to help ease his anxiety and assure him he’s still valued.
At the end of the day, stuff is just stuff. Getting into a heated debate about clutter or too-much-house isn’t worth jeopardizing your 50-plus-year relationship with Mom.
5. Distribute Family Keepsakes
If there are any specific possessions the senior was planning to leave to friends or family members, suggest they make the gift now. You can also ask everyone with a stake in the process to write down one or two items they'd like to have.
If you can reach a consensus on the distribution of some keepsake possessions, have people take them right away. Moving items immediately instead of later is a big step toward downsizing effectively.
6. Start Sorting
Go through each room and use sticky notes or masking tape to label everything that's left. Use the four-pile sort method (save, maybe save, donate, and discard) to sort items. Jump on those last two categories as quickly as possible, and remove those items from the house.
Even after they're gone, it's likely there still won't be room in the new place for everything tagged “save” and “maybe.” That’s when you pull out your floor plan. You'll have to make hard decisions. But by placing parameters around what’s needed in the smaller space, you can help diffuse some of the emotion.
7. Plan For Things To Get Emotional
Nobody can approach downsizing or cleanouts with rationality alone. Each item in the house holds a memory.
Recognize that you'll feel overwhelmed at times, and permit yourself to take a break. Name your emotions throughout the process, and invite Dad to do the same. When he refuses to let go of his rolling toolbox, try something like, “Dad, how are you feeling? I'm feeling overwhelmed.”
This approach allows the two of you to calmly and openly share how you're feeling and is critical for building trust during a difficult transition.
Creating physical space between yourself and a source of friction is another way to neutralize a tense situation. However, instead of leaving abruptly, say, “Dad, I’m getting overwhelmed. I’m going to take a five-minute walk to cool down. Let’s talk about this when I get back?”
Ultimately, respect your parents’ vulnerability. Senior downsizing or decluttering often rides on the coattails of a trauma.
If Mom has recently suffered a drastic change in health status or has lost her husband of 52 years, you need to be especially gentle. This is the least “in control” she’s ever been. When you approach her, speak in a soothing tone, and don’t get frustrated. Remember: this is about her, not you.
Hire WayForth To Help With Senior Downsizing
If this situation seems like a lot to handle, that's because it is. Making changes can be stressful at any time in your life. And these changes only tend to become more difficult with age.
If you feel like you need some assistance navigating this situation, we can help. At Wayforth, we work with families in transition. We can empty an entire house within days, sorting which items to keep, sell, donate, and discard.
Click the button below to learn more about how the WayForth team can help your family with a Senior Move. Or if you'd like to handle the move yourself, be sure to download our downsizing checklist to make sure you've taken care of everything.