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Helping Seniors Downsize

With the aging baby boomer generation and life spans extended by advances in medicine and technology, America’s population has an ever growing predominance of those over the age of 65. Plenty of older citizens are staying in the same homes they raised their families in even when facing medical challenges that used to require a hospital or nursing home setting. For a variety of reasons there are some folks that are interested in proactively downsizing. These seniors and their families are facing complicated challenges when they are dealing with decade’s worth of belongings. The sentimental and emotional aspects are commonly deeper and stronger than say a middle aged person deciding to shed some extra stuff in an effort to simplify. Imagine trying to make decisions about years and years’ worth of holiday, Mother’s Day or birthday gifts, antiques, china and glassware, décor or ephemera that belonged to previous generations or how to divvy up parts of your estate to multiple children and grandchildren without hurting feelings or causing arguments.

Before even considering what is going to who or where, I advise that the downsizing senior give a museum like tour of their homes that is videotaped by someone who can engage and question the tour guide to get the full story and background on specific pieces of furniture, paintings and knick knacks. This serves a few purposes: a video time capsule, potential viewing by the senior who will have a chance to enjoy and “visit” their former home after the move and reference for posterity’s sake. It’s a great time to denote any belongings a senior wants to pass on to whom. A video record can quickly end family disputes when all can clearly see and hear the specific designations of items. Actually, I advise a video tour of all homes for insurance purposes. If video isn’t possible, take LOTS of pictures, close ups of the inside of hutches, sideboards, and cupboards as well as drawers and shelves with accompanying notations before any packing begins.

Taking pictures is something I wish I had done when my brothers and I were left with the task of packing up my father’s home. Despite my pleas for him to participate in the downsizing and packing, he would have nothing to do with it due to the immense sadness he felt in “giving up housekeeping”, as he called it. When the day came for me and my siblings to begin the process of sorting and moving, he got up out of his chair, drove to Spencertown and sat himself down at his new residence and that was that! Had I been more experienced I would have taken pictures of every area of the home, as it was, for future reference. We had to do the best we could with deciding what to keep, who should get what with occasional input from my dad when he requested specific belongings. This was a project that took 5 of us 5 full weekends. When he would call me to ask where such and such went or please bring him the blah blah blah, he would explain exactly where the item had been when he left and it was up to my memory to remember if it had gone to a sibling, been donated or put into temporary storage. Sometimes I couldn’t identify what he was even referring to. Pictures, lists and inventories probably would have benefited me.

The downsizing progression can be somewhat liberating but for those who have lived in the same home for many, many years, there will surely be a lot of emotions to work through. There may be anger at the situation, remorse for not completing craft or home improvement projects, guilt over having collected so much stuff or not worn certain clothing or used something in years and years. It’s an important grieving process but needs to be balanced with any positive aspects about the project. There may be new friends to make in an assisted living facility, closer proximity to family, more time spent with grandchildren or like a recent landlocked client of mine, beaches and the ocean a mere half an hour away from their new home.

First off, develop a plan of action with a timeline and set reasonable goals. Enlist the help of other family members or friends. This is going to be an emotional and physically tiring process so having loved ones helping will be a beneficial support. Adult children or other helpers should never just toss things without the approval of the elder; they need to make all final decisions. Treat your loved one and their belongings with the respect they deserve. Something that may seem insignificant to you could have true value so don’t assume the importance or lack thereof of someone else’s possessions. Here are some more tips that you might find helpful:

• Sooner is better than later. If your loved ones or you are in the later years of life, starting slowly to try to reduce your estate to a manageable level is highly advised. While excellent health may prevail, a crisis may arise that can push time availability to difficult limits. Consider or point out the positives of downsizing such as less stuff equals less stuff to clean, store, or maintain and simplicity can be liberating, allowing people to focus on the goals they’ve set for their retiring years.

• Taking pictures of beloved belongings sometimes helps people let go, pictures provides a forever memory and digitally it’s easy to have a book made of all of the treasures. This technique works well for items like trophies, 3D artwork, crafts and knickknacks.

• There are often stories behind belongings and letting those stories be told help to process the emotions involved with letting go. Be patient, even if there’s a memory behind every little thing.

• It may be hard to accept things that an older adult is offering to pass on to you. You might be afraid that you’ll appear greedy or that by accepting an heirloom you are sealing some sort of fate. If you are genuinely pleased with the item, accept it graciously, expressing your appreciation. Don’t accept anything that you truly don’t desire, if you’re on the fence about something, accept it, you can pass it on later.

• Avoid considering “temporary storage” such as a storage unit. There may be other family members suggesting it to “sort through things properly”. Trust me; it’s a rare occasion that a storage unit is actually temporary.

• If you decide to hold an estate or tag sale, know that it’s a ton of work, creates some chaos and will rarely net what you expect. For an estate sale, people are looking to buy antiques, valuable furniture and plenty of home goods and appliances in great condition. It’s ok to include tag sale items as well. Rarely will everything sell and almost always at a lower price than posted. Pickers, antique dealers, second hand sellers or collectable dealers are looking for specific goods and collections however trying to schedule multiple pickers during a time crunch can be stressful. Selling individual items via Ebay, Craigslist or other online services is a long, drawn out affair when you consider your time and the inconvenience of shipping or multiple pickups. Consignment is a consideration but again, a consigner will probably pick and choose what they think they can sell in their store. An auction house might be your best bet. Take pictures of some of the best items to be offered so you can attract the auction house’s interest and then ask for a complimentary onsite consultation. There are lots of pros and cons to all of these methods so do your research to find out which will suit your situation the best.

• Try to tackle one room at a time. Trying to empty an entire home in one fell swoop is not only almost impossible but extremely stressful. The whole process might take months not days.

• Multiples are low hanging fruit. How many large stock pots or 12” sauté pans will someone need in their smaller home where they will no longer be entertaining large numbers of friends and family? Will Mom need 17 vases in a 2 bedroom condo? Tons of extra pillows and linen won’t be necessary in assisted living. Use the words favorites, beloved, invaluable and terms like “can’t do without” to help discern what to keep.

• Don’t pass on trash to a charity. Chipped, stained, slightly broken, missing pieces or 25 year old tupperware should go straight in the garbage.

• Recognize what might be truly collectible versus 20th century collectible. Letters from a relative, who sailed on the Titanic, mailed a day before the tragedy is one thing. Beanie babies from 1995 are an entirely different thing. I’ve used Ebay in the past to get an idea of the value of an item however you should search for what the item actually sold for; selling price is vastly different than the asking price or bids.

• It’s not uncommon for older adults to be housing the sentimental pieces of their children, even if their kids are in their 30’s and above! I’ve encountered yearbooks, prom dresses, letter jackets, diplomas, and textbooks of client’s offspring. Advice the owners of memorabilia that there is a deadline date by which they should pick up their abandoned belongings or all will be tossed or donated.

• Spend the extra few bucks to have a great supply of boxes for the project. Stick with moving boxes of a small or medium size and I generally like bankers boxes for senior moves. The size is just right to avoid excess weight and there are convenient handles. Boxes that are all the same size stack well. For labeling I encourage people to use painter’s tape or full sticky post-it’s. Black magic marker on cardboard isn’t very easy to read but painters tape or post it’s POP!

Consider bringing in the pros if necessary. Senior move managers and professional organizers like me are skilled and experienced at handling the emotional and practical aspects of a senior’s transition. Professionals might be necessary when there is a crisis and a move needs to be immediate.