Downsizing Dilemmas

Downsizing Dilemmas

Easing seniors’ transition to a smaller space

Dorothy Beatty was an anomaly when it came to downsizing, says her son, Stanley Beatty. Dorothy, from Kansas City, Missouri, took her time making the decision to downsize from the home she lived in with her husband and children to an apartment in a senior community. But once she made up her mind, everything happened pretty quickly.

“Once the wheels were in motion, the process took about a month,” Stanley says.

Many seniors take much longer to move through the downsizing process, says Francie Stavish, owner of Francie Stavish & Associates, a business that helps seniors make the overwhelming transition to a smaller home, retirement community or senior care facility.

Stavish, who has worked with older adults at every level of mental and physical preparedness, says it’s important to implement strategies for a smooth transition.

Careful preparation is key when helping a loved one move to a smaller space, agrees Jennifer Pickett, associate executive director of the National Association of Senior Move Managers in Hinsdale.

Keep the following tips in mind, say Stavish and Pickett.

Sort through belongings

When faced with the need to clear out years — or decades — of personal belongings, begin with the problem areas, Pickett says. “The attic, the basement, the garage and cabinets are key places to start.”

The process of organizing, evaluating and clearing out property can feel overwhelming, Stavish says. To help, sort belongings into various categories.

For example:

Take with. These items easily transition to the new residence. Some will hold sentimental value, but almost everything will be used in the new living space.

Give to family. This can be a more challenging category, as family members may not want some of the items set aside for them. “Some seniors get upset because their adult children do not want their antiques, silver or fine china. I gently remind them that our generation does not entertain the way they did,” Stavish says.                         

When Betty Blume, 73, and her husband decided it was time to downsize, they found it helpful to have a discussion with family before beginning the packing process. “At Christmastime, the kids came to the house and let us know which paintings, vases, china and little statuettes they would like to have, so I was sure not to give away things that mattered to them,” she says.

Sell. Appraisals, estate sales, consignment stores and auction houses can help when it comes to disposing of material possessions with great value. Reputable third-party services can facilitate the process. Be aware, though, that estate sale companies often have high minimums. Companies generally look for at least $15,000 worth of possessions before they will consider taking on an estate, Pickett says.

Donate. Companies such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army will pick up furniture, decor and gently used clothing, free of charge. Note that they won’t take anything broken or stained.

Throw away. Once you have sorted items into categories, it will become more clear what to discard. Working through the process helps release items that have no place in the individual’s future. “Mom had no problem with this part. It was easy for her to discard things she knew she didn’t need,” Beatty says.

Being supportive during the move and afterward is one of the kindest ways that relatives can make the process less challenging.”

Allow appropriate time

For seniors who are moving, going through possessions might take a while due to the delicate nature of downsizing. Emotions can run high. Unless it’s an emergency, don’t rush an individual through this process, Stavish advises.

“The sheer magnitude of the task [necessitates] that there shouldn’t be a time frame. It needs to take as long as it takes,” Stavish says.

A new, smaller residence can be framed positively, as a way for the individual to live in an age-friendly way, freeing them from household responsibilities, says Rani Snyder, MPA, program director of The John A. Hartford Foundation in New York.

“Moving to a smaller space can [provide] more independence,” Snyder says. Family members can help by being sensitive to what can be a traumatic transition. “Being supportive during the move and afterward is one of the kindest ways that relatives can make the process less challenging.”

Presenting the positives can help. Blume says she felt empowered by making the move while she and her husband were still healthy and in control of their lives. “Move in while you’re still young and healthy,” she says, “so when you do get old, you have a network that is already in place [to help you].”

Downsizing Resources

AARP. The organization’s “Home Fit Guide” gives room-by-room lists, tips on hiring a contractor, worksheets and resources to help people design a home that is more livable as they age.

Eldercare Locator. This service of the U.S. Administration on Aging connects you to services for older adults. Search by zip code or by topic to find resources that help families access needed services while downsizing.

Family Caregiver Alliance.This organization provides caregivers access to services that can help them aid an older adult in the downsizing process.

National Association of Senior Move Managers. This organization facilitates the emotional and physical aspects of relocation for older adults. “Move managers” — experts who know the nuances of moving — help seniors and their families downsize, navigate move-in details and set up and organize their new home.

Originally Published in Fall 2017/Winter 2018 issue