There are all kinds of benefits to downsizing including lower energy bills, a smaller space to clean and maintain, and the potential of moving closer to loved ones. But downsizing can be a difficult and sometimes painful experience for seniors. Saying goodbye to the home they’ve raised a family is not always easy, even if it’s the most logical decision.
This guide is designed to simplify the downsizing process for seniors and their loved ones. It will help prepare both the house and the senior for the transition, as well as offer advice to loved ones on the duties they can help perform. The important thing is to plan ahead as much as possible so that no one feels rushed and decisions can be made thoughtfully.
Determine Where You or Your Loved One Will Be Going
It’s important to establish exactly where the senior is headed. Not only will it affect how much they will need to downsize, but it can add an exciting element to the process if a downsizing senior can look forward to their new home. Where the senior goes will depend on factors such as mobility and ability restrictions, care-giving needs, location of loved ones, and budget. The senior’s preferences are crucial to the equation, and should be taken into consideration at each step. There will likely need to be compromises, especially if budget concerns are an issue, so there may need to be multiple conversations to work out all of the details. Many retirement communities and assisted living facilities offer personalized options to meet any need or comfort so it’s important to make sure to discuss wants and needs in detail. Consider consulting with a Senior Real Estate Specialist (SRES®) who can help to sell the existing home and provide recommendations regarding downsized housing www.sres.org
There are five main options for downsizing seniors:
Buying a smaller house or condo
Renting a smaller home
Moving in with a loved one (adult child, sibling, friend)
Moving into a retirement community
Entering assisted living or a nursing home
The sooner the discussion regarding what downsizing will look like, the more time everyone will have to evaluate all of the options. Unless there are urgent medical or caregiving issues that require an immediate change, the conversation should not be forced with the senior. The topic can be brought up over a period of time in order to give everyone the time they need to adjust to the potential changes. It should never be an intervention or anyone trying to make decisions for the senior, but loved ones working together to help figure out a positive solution.
Whether it’s cross-town or cross-country, to a small apartment or a large suburban home, moving is a high-stress life event and tackling the organizing, packing, discarding, cleaning, paperwork and the myriad of other tasks is a major endeavor. Sorting through decades of family history and possessions can feel overwhelming—even paralyzing. On the positive side, a move may offer a sense of “lightening” to reduce the clutter of a family’s history, fewer home and yard chores and can help reduce feelings of isolation of living alone. More often, however, an upcoming relocation can be an unwelcome admission of frailty, loneliness, possible serious illness, and a loss of independence.
This guide offers some tips to save time, energy and sleepless nights. Most importantly, it provides a tool to help organize the move and help it progress as smoothly as possible. Since every situation is different, select the areas that apply to you, and add your own notes.
If you are facing a crisis, such as moving a parent into an assisted care residence after a caregiving spouse dies, or into a nursing home after a devastating medical incident, the process will be condensed and planning time will be minimal. This will likely be the most challenging experience of all, and loved ones are encouraged to engage as many resources as are available, whether it be friends, family, religious communities or social service organizations.
If you have the luxury of time, think about beginning to de-clutter before a move is on the near horizon. Six months or a year prior to moving is not too early to start this process, regardless of where the senior is planning to move, or even if the family is still deciding.
Shred, toss or give away obvious items such as old cancelled checks, outdated food or medications, clothes, or extraneous household items that just take up space.
If you’re not sure, ask an accountant or tax person what records need to be retained.
Continue this de-cluttering process monthly until it’s time to start the major activities of sorting and packing for the move. You’ll be surprised at how much you can eliminate before you get into the emotional quandaries of dealing with prized possessions.
Collect and keep together important papers: deeds, wills, Durable Powers of Attorney, medical records, military records, diplomas and degrees, birth certificates, passports. These can be in a file cabinet or safe-deposit box, but let key family members know where they are.
Try not to allow grown children to use the home as a storage unit or museum. Now is the time for them to claim their keepsakes and remove them from their parent’s house.
Throughout the process, try to limit sorting and packing activities to no more than two hours per day if timing allows. Try to keep it relaxed and companionable and take breaks.
Where to Start
Make lists: start a separate notebook just for the move. Keep it with you, and whenever you think of something—anything at all related to the move—write it down. Include to-do lists, a calendar/timeline, things you’re likely to forget, questions about the new residence, floor plans. Even anecdotes or historical notes about possessions, or offhand remarks like “Oh, Aunt Judy would love this tea set.” Although the notebook may not be particularly orderly, at least you’ll know where to find the information.
Find and get estimates from moving companies. Some fees may be negotiable if you plan ahead and schedule the move for nonpeak times.
Set a firm date for the move.
Make a floor plan or template of the new home, whether it’s one room or something larger. Be sure measurements are accurate, and reflect placement of doors, windows, appliances, built-in shelves, linen storage, heater vents, etc. You now know precisely how much space you will have; you don’t need to guess. Many retirement or assisted living communities can provide floor plans.
Make a preliminary plan of where major furniture will go in the new place—bed, couch, table and chairs, TV, bookshelf, dresser and desk, for example. Again, measure carefully.
If finances allow, think about hiring a move manager, senior relocation specialist or organizer. Fees vary across the country. A real estate agent may be a good referral source to find this specialist, or get recommendations from friends, seniors’ residences or senior centers. You can find a Senior Move Manager at the National Association of Senior Move Managers www.nasmm.org. If you live in the Metro Atlanta area, Change of Place is ready to help with everything from downsizing, selling the old home and helping to find the new on
Whoever you choose to work with, they can help with all or part of:
sorting and decision-making
arranging the move
arranging for charity pick up, garage sale, estate sale or consignment shops
unpacking boxes and arranging new home.
If pets are involved, be sure to have a plan for them to be moved and accommodated in the new home.
Complete address changes:
◦ Credit cards
◦ Bank accounts, lawyer, insurance agent
◦ Investment/retirement accounts
◦ Medicare & Social Security
◦ Voter’s registration, post office
◦ Family & friends
◦ Driver’s license/car registration
◦ Newspaper/magazine subscriptions
◦ Social clubs & places of worship
Sorting & Decluttering
Plan on going through one room at a time. Start with the easiest. Don’t try to pack now, just sort. Divide furniture and possessions into categories. Try to avoid a ‘maybe’ category as much as possible, but it is often unavoidable:
Definitely Save (these are the most useful, most beloved, most meaningful items)
Maybe save (revisit later)
Donate, sell or giving away
Use colored tags or stickers to indicate categories, e.g., green=save, orange=maybe, blue=donate/sell; red=discard. This is the time to designate items to be given to specific people. Make a list.
Items that have sentimental value but are not likely to be taken can be memorialized in photographs. Later, you can put these into an album.
Don’t try to sort paperwork or photos at this point, unless it’s immediately obvious certain items are not needed or wanted. This kind of decision-making takes too long and is too draining. Pack it up and it can be sorted in the new home. Shred discarded paperwork.
The number of kitchen items should be greatly reduced if the senior is going to a residence or facility that serves meals.
If possible, and if the move is not far from the family home, move the senior out first, taking only the designated furniture and items he/she wants and needs. Leave the rest of the household goods and clean-up to be dealt with after the move. (Also, items will be available for retrieval if it turns out they’re missed.)
Be patient and allow time at this stage for a senior to talk about memories, to reminisce about family activities or relatives no longer with you, to acknowledge emotions. This can be a nice opportunity to remember the stories and incidents that are part of your history and that make each family unique.
Don’t go overboard purging items to take—you can keep some collectibles, especially if they’re small. You want the new residence to look like a home, not a motel room.
It’s amazing the number of things you can acquire over the course of a lifetime. From an endless array of dishes to closets full of linens to the many mementos and knickknacks of a life well-lived, addressing these items quickly feels overwhelming for seniors and their loved ones. It’s also an incredibly emotional process for the senior involved. These aren’t just objects, they’re memories; they’re what’s made the house a home for all these years. Whether it’s you or a loved one downsizing, it’s important to acknowledge and respect this loss. Go into the process prepared to part with plenty, but giving yourself room to keep the items that mean most.
The most straightforward way to sort through items is to ask yourself four questions about the item:
Do I need it or want it?
Does it have sentimental value?
Do I use it often?
Do I have another item that performs the same function?
Discard items that are so marked. You may need to call for extra trash pick-ups.
Give away items as designated. Offer friends and family members additional keepsakes.
Before selling items, get an appraisal from an expert such as a jeweler, art collector or someone knowledgeable about rare books if you’re not sure of the value.
Furniture and other items can go to:
Estate sale companies
Auction or “want ad” websites such as eBay or craigslist
Garage sale, if someone has time and is willing to organize and operate it. (It may be distressing to your parent to see people going through their possessions.)
Donate the remainder of items to charities that will pick them up.
Do I need it or want it?
You don’t have to throw out everything you can literally live without, but you should be pretty strict about your definition of need. If you have a bread maker that’s been sitting in the cabinet untouched for years, don’t feel like you “should” keep it just because it was a Hanukkah gift. Think realistically about the years ahead: will you use it more than a few times? Are you genuinely excited for the few times you’ll use it? Will it make an important difference in your life to hold onto the item? It’s OK tosay yes, but skip the guilt if the answer is no. Downsizing is about simplifying, so make a decision and feel confident in sticking to it.
Keep in mind that even if you plan to leave someone an item in the future, it can be a beautiful gift to actually watch them appreciate it in the present.
Does it have sentimental value?
The hardest items to part with will be the ones directly tied to beloved memories with your family and friends. Still, if you kept absolutely everything of sentimental value, downsizing would be impossible. Use the packing and sorting process as a way to reflect and let go. As you and a loved one go through your things, talk about them and the memories they conjure up. If you’re working solo, it can still be therapeutic to say these thoughts out loud — you can even tell your dog about the items. Just letting yourself really look back and appreciate the good times can sometimes be enough to help you let go of the mementos.
Do I use this item often?
There are going to be some items you’re simply used to having around, but ultimately don’t use very much. Think about your day-to-day routine: which items do you use the most? When you look around your house, which objects have been merely functional décor? Additionally, consider whether where you’re going will have a valuable replacement — just because you’ve always used a traditional toaster doesn’t mean you can’t adapt to your daughter’s toaster oven, for instance. Continue to be realistic about the future, keeping in mind that there might be someone else who would get much more use out of the item.
Do I have another item that performs the same function?
Whether it’s two blenders or a dozen winter coats, duplicate items are the easiest way to downsize. Choose the newest or best-functioning electronic (don’t forget to test them out to ensure everything’s in good working order), and a reasonable amount of more practical items like towels, blankets, outerwear, and other clothing. Use the opportunity to clean out your closet. Embrace the opportunity to minimize: if you really only ever wear the same three cardigans, keep those and donate the rest. Make sure you’ll have everything you’ll need, but be willing to see a smaller wardrobe.
Moving expenses can get to be pretty pricey, especially if you hire a professional moving company or consult with a senior move manager. Yard sales are a great way to make some extra money to help fund the move, and a great way to find new homes for your things quickly.
Choose a day that’s likely to be nice, even if it’s somewhat far in the future. It might feel frustrating to wait a few months until fall, but having a yard sale in the dead of summer can be miserable in hotter regions. Plus, shoppers will be eager to get out of the sun and probably won’t have much patience. You may need to check with your neighborhood association or city zoning about having a yard sale, so find out what’s required in your area ahead of time.
Don’t underestimate the power of signage and advertisement for your yard sale — place them throughout the neighborhood, even several streets over. You never know who might be looking for bargains! Price items low and be prepared for people to negotiate. It’s more important to clear your yard of as many items as possible than to get a couple more dollars, so use your best judgment when it comes to bartering. And don’t forget to put your most valuable items in clear view so people can see all that your yard sale has to offer.
Donate any remaining items. Many charities and organizations can even pick up boxes directly from your home. It can feel impersonal and somewhat distressing sometimes — even with a yard sale, your items tend to go to neighbors you’re familiar with — but it’s important to focus on the end result. Someone in need will truly benefit from your donation and appreciate it each and every day.
Welcome others to help with packing chores: family members, friends, the move specialist or moving company. With everything pre-labeled, the task is easier and fairly mechanical.
Label all boxes with their destination room/area in the new residence.
Moving companies can supply specialized containers, e.g., wardrobe boxes, so you can leave clothes on hangers.
Pack “open first” box(es). The contents are for setting up sleeping accommodations and the bathroom. Include items such as fresh bedding, soap, toilet paper, toothpaste & toothbrush, comb, nightclothes, towel, plate and utensils, one change of clothes, flashlight, tape, scissors.
Pack other important items to be kept accessible during the move: new lease or residence contract, keys, medications, legal documents, checkbook, cell phone, address book, first-aid kit, extra cash, relocation notebook. Label this container. Valuables such as jewelry should be in a safe-deposit box unless items are worn regularly.
Be sure you have a written contract from the moving company and clear idea of coverage for lost or damaged possessions.
Get a firm time for their arrival, at both the old and new residences.
Check inventory lists.
Check payment options: credit card or check?
Have someone assigned to meet the movers at the new residence. Be sure they have a key. If this is a facility, be sure the manager is expecting you.
Ensure that all boxes are properly labeled.
Use the “open first” boxes to set up the bedroom and bathroom immediately.
Prepare to spend a few days unpacking and organizing. Get someone to help if you can. A Senior Move Manager can help with this. Work as quickly as you can to make this new home feel home-like.
Making the Transition
No matter where the senior is headed, the new home won’t feel like home right away. Do what you can to bring in the items that will make the senior feel especially comforted first. Move-in day should be a family affair, even if you hire movers. Any member who is able to should stop by to help out, bring food and refreshments, troubleshoot issues, and simply make the occasion a happy one. Keep the mood as light and exciting as possible: focus on the fact that it’s a new beginning rather than an end.
Just as the senior had to say goodbye to their possessions, the time will come to say goodbye to the house, as well. It will be a difficult process, one with plenty of love and support from family and friends.
The truth is, there’s not necessarily a right or wrong way to say goodbye to the family home. It can start even before items have been packed away, as the senior walks through each room and reflects on the many memories created there. Some seniors might appreciate taking photos of all of the rooms that they can look back on while the new home feels foreign. Others may prefer to move out early instead of seeing their beloved home taken apart. Discuss what will work best for your family in an open and honest setting; don’t feel ashamed if you’re having trouble. It’s vital that the entire family supports one another throughout the downsizing process, so don’t be afraid to ask for or offer help.
However the goodbyes are said, make it a point to bid farewell. You’re closing a major, important chapter of your life. It’s OK to feel sad, even as if you’ve suffered a loss, but don’t lose sight of the exciting next step that lies ahead.
Adjusting to the new surroundings may take days, weeks, months. Individuals’ reactions differ after such an upheaval in their lives. Many people feel relief at not being alone and not having to maintain a large house. Others may be withdrawn and hesitant about making new friends. Many grieve the loss of their old community and friends. And sometimes, the reaction is: “I should have done this years ago!”
Seniors and their loved ones should check in regularly to discuss how things are going. You don’t have to stop by every day, but a nightly call for the first week or two can certainly make a displaced senior feel less lonely. It’s especially important if they’ve just moved to an assisted living facility or nursing home, but shouldn’t be overlooked if they’ve moved in with a loved one. Just because they are with family doesn’t mean it’s been a seamless process, and there could still be underlying emotional trauma from the move itself. Find the balance between hovering and checking-in, even rotating responsibility among family members.
Give everyone time to adjust. It’s going to be a process for everyone to get used to the new routine, and you can’t rush the adjustment. The most important thing is to keep communication open and address issues right away. Don’t let things fall into an unhealthy or unhappy pattern; even if it’s an uncomfortable conversation initially, solving the problem is always better than turning a blind eye and hoping for the best. Downsizing is often one of the best choices a senior can make, but it’s their decision in the end. Ease into the idea and keep the conversation ongoing. It will be painful, but the inevitable sting of leaving the family home should never stop a senior from simplified, happier living.