When it’s time to let go … of your stuff

Memorywell News for the Ages

"Downsizing is stressful and grueling," says Cheryl McClellan.

A few years ago, my parents decided to downsize to a much smaller house. Their new place was perfect for the two of them — but not all their belongings. They still owned furniture, dishes and linens for their long-grown family of eight. They’d never gotten rid of the camping equipment, art projects, crafting supplies, tools and hundreds of books that made our childhood so lively and rich.

Shedding a home where memories have been made (and stored) can be overwhelming. But, as my parents learned, there are some tips that can help. These hold true, whether you are the one downsizing or you are helping a loved one.

Make a plan and delegate responsibilities.

A downsizing move, especially one that arises unexpectedly or because of health impairment, can seem to leave families with few choices. But there are usually important decisions to make at the outset, such as:

  • Who will make the major decisions? If an older adult is severely impaired, guardians or loved ones may need to handle most or all decision-making. But it’s crucial not to rob capable older adults of the right to run their own lives. “Downsizing is stressful and grueling,” says my mom, Cheryl McClellan, 69. “But just because I’m older doesn’t mean I’m a fragile flower. In fact, my age means I’ve weathered all kinds of stressful and grueling situations.”
  • Who will provide what assistance? Distribute specific assignments among as many hands as possible. Emotional support includes compassion, respect, a good listening ear and patience. A logistics person may schedule, find packing supplies and arrange for disposal of household items. Physical helpers carry out the plans — and the boxes.
  • How will you distribute unneeded items? In general, there are two categories: “keep” and “don’t keep.” The “don’t keep” pile may be further divided into “give to relatives,” “donate,” and “sell.” The “sell” category will require its own decisions: auction, consignment, estate sale, online listings or some combination of these.

A good downsizing plan requires time. A year of active preparation is ideal, so there’s no pressure to make quick decisions. Of course, that’s not always possible. My parents were largely unprepared when interested buyers for their old house appeared, although they’d been considering a move for years.

The hardest part about downsizing is deciding what to give up. Consider asking a trusted friend to help.

The hardest part about downsizing is deciding what to give up. Consider asking a trusted friend to help – someone with a practical view of things, but no vested interest in the outcome.

Enlist children and grandchildren when possible to wrap, pack and move heavy boxes. If there’s no army of grandchildren standing by, consider getting professional support from estate sale managers or the National Association of Senior Move Managers.

Give yourselves as much time as possible.

Older adults may need time to relive memories as they go through a lifetime’s accumulation of belongings. Planning what to keep also takes time, especially if the new home or health circumstances will require a change in lifestyle. Think creatively about ways to help. You might provide a sketch of the new home’s size and layout; research the new condo association’s policy on gardening (so they know whether to take their tools); or offer to sort unneeded winter clothes for the move to Arizona.

Your loved ones may also need extra time for the physical process of sorting through household items. Again, watch for ways to help without hovering impatiently. Prep boxes for packing; label and tape the finished ones; place the next items to sort within their reach. Pre-sorting groups of items may also be helpful (for example, group sheet sets together, or find the lids to all the Tupperware).

Consider the new home and lifestyle.

Often, older adults who downsize aren’t just swapping households; they are also changing lifestyles. Envisioning a different future — with new daily routines and hobbies, or more limited health, means or square footage — has implications for what to take.

A schematic of the new place with all the measurements is critical. Make sure to look at the storage space in the new closets and bathroom. Measure big furniture pieces and think hard about how many lamps you really need. Do you have 25 boxes of books headed toward one book shelf in the new home? Don’t move anything that won’t fit or that you won’t use. Go through all your bathroom cabinets and dispose of old medications properly.

Think about whether possessions may have a role to play in a hoped-for future.

Think about whether possessions may have a role to play in a hoped-for future. A move to a different climate might mean those old gardening tools won’t be useful. A smaller space might make a gym membership more appealing than a move of the large and heavy treadmill. Think about whether you’re more likely or less likely to suddenly use those hobby supplies that have sat untouched in the basement for years.

“Sometimes you’re not sure where the future will take you,” my mom says. “You just have to give it your most honest guess. It’s hard. But it can also be freeing to give yourself permission to let go of past dreams or plans that you’re never going to get around to.”

Pare down and let go.

The idea of sorting an entire household is daunting. But a linen closet is doable. So, start with that stack of towels. (Better yet, gather all the towels in the house—but just the towels—so your loved one can select just the best ones, using the sort-by-category method popularized recently by Marie Kondo).

Making low-stress choices at the outset helps decision-makers get more comfortable and confident with the process. Save daunting emotional decisions (like grandpa’s stack of LPs) and the dozen boxes of who-knows-what in the attic for later in the process.

Some people instinctively start removing the items they know they don’t want. But a better approach—especially on a time crunch—may be to prioritize first what you do want or need in their new homes. My mom suggests pretending you are in a boat and it’s sinking; you can only choose one of something to take. That approach often leads to a leaner, more-loved pile of things destined for the new home, and a bigger discard pile.

Some people instinctively start removing the items they know they don’t want. But a better approach—especially on a time crunch—may be to prioritize first what you do want.

Items in the discard pile can often be donated to charities; my mom asked around locally for groups with specific needs, such as toiletries for a local women’s shelter. Some organizations will even pick up your used clothing, furniture and other items. Remember to get receipts for tax purposes.

Ask friends and family whether they want certain items. My mom, a professional genealogist, kept family photos and other heirlooms, but offers this plea to others: “If you have no desire to hold onto your family documents and memorabilia, please try to give them to someone who will take care of them.”

Repeating the past—when you don’t give away enough of it

Paring down a household is often a multi-step process, especially when making a change as dramatic as a downsizing move. Many people end up re-sorting their belongings several times, before and even after they move.

My mom freely admits having kept much more than her new home could hold. She says she kept twice as many books as she should have and filled the garage at the new house with boxes that she didn’t open for three years. “When I finally did, I was like, ‘I gave up my parking spot for three years for this?’ It’s funny in retrospect, but it wasn’t funny last winter when I was parking out in the snow.”

My parents’ downsizing proved to be the right decision for them. Their new home is much easier to care for, and my mom says she’s learned to be happier with fewer possessions and a smaller space. But she’s aware some of her peers downsize under more trying circumstances.

“Do the best you can to keep your priorities straight, your relationships strong and your head clear,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help from friends, neighbors or other community members. And remember that you’re investing in a happier, easier future — try to look forward to the good things that future may bring.”

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