Civil War swords. First-edition books. Vintage jewelry. Truckstop plates from all 50 states. Grandpa’s farm tools. Grandma’s china set. Whether they are heirlooms or clutter depends on your point of view.
After meticulously protecting and displaying valued possessions for years, the thought of parting with family treasures is often a torturous proposal for seniors. Whether older adults face downsizing from their homes because of retirement, finances, health, death of a spouse or coaxing from family, letting go of longtime belongings can be a daunting roadblock. Seniors may resist while their families persist.
“For older adults, decades of memories are typically built around their home,” said Gene Lennon, owner of Right at Home of Santa Clara County. “Also, one’s personal identity can be closely tied to a home and belongings, so living without these valued possessions is distressing. Navigating the downsizing process for seniors involves recognizing the emotions and planning for the practicalities of transitioning from the familiar to the unfamiliar.”
Following are tips for seniors leaving a long-term house for the smaller square footage of an apartment or retirement community.
• Plan for the reduced space. Realtors or apartment managers can help with the square footage of the rooms in the new home. Use this to gauge which essentials will fit. Consider the senior’s future lifestyle. If group entertaining is not in the plan, then it’s time to pare down the cookware, tableware and gadgets.
• Recruit family and friends. Moving is meant to be a team effort. Every bit of help makes the process more manageable. Downsizing is often the ideal time to make legacy gifts of special belongings to children, grandchildren, friends and others. Hearing the stories behind the bequeathed treasures is a gift to recipients, too.
• Start small. Reducing years’ worth of belongings can feel overwhelming. Start with the room that is least used in the home and work on a closet or drawers first. Once this room is decluttered or packed up, you can use it to temporarily store items that will not be moved to the new home. Work at a comfortable pace and take breaks along the way to allow your senior to share memories about possessions or the home itself.
• Create sorting categories. Establish piles for keeping, tossing, giving away and donating. Some moving pros discourage a “maybe” pile, but indecision is natural in parting with long-held possessions, so allow some flexibility when seniors express reluctance in the sorting process.
• Sell, donate or recycle. A moving sale attracts more buyers than a yard sale. With bigger items like furniture or appliances, advertise in the local newspaper and on Craigslist. Consider donating items to charities, and for certain antiques and memorabilia, check with museums, schools and libraries.
“Assisting older adults through or after downsizing involves a listening ear and help with adjusting to the new home’s surroundings,” Lennon said. “Sometimes that’s demonstrating how to use the stove or simply sitting down to look through old photo albums together.”
Suggestions for caregivers
Lennon offered the following suggestions for family caregivers helping a senior downsize.
• Communicate openly. If possible, start talking early about the eventual realities of needing to reduce clutter and limit items to fit into the new home. Together, discuss the non-negotiable items to keep. Offer reassurance that the move will prove to be beneficial in the long run – less household maintenance, lower utility costs, little or no yard work.
• Show respect. Many possessions are handed down for generations. What may seem like a pile of junk to some may hold priceless significance to the senior. Honor his or her choices in what is most valuable. Avoid the “let us get rid of all this for you” approach to helping older adults downsize.
• Practice patience. Allow the senior time to process decisions. Many older adults deal with limited hearing and slowed thinking and reflexes. Control your opinions about what needs to head to the trash. Stay calm if the downsizing process takes longer than you’d like. Preserving the relationship with your aging loved one is one cherished possession that can’t be replaced.