Helping Seniors Downsize to a Smaller Space

By Linda Merrill, Hometalk

As our population ages and the Baby Boom generation starts reaching retirement age, issues related to downsizing are becoming ever more important. Since World War II, our country has seen unprecedented growth and unprecedented levels of personal accumulation. Our homes are literally stuffed from basement to attic. As older people are moving from larger homes to condos or apartments, or in with family, or to assisted living facilities, the decisions related to giving up what they’ve spent a lifetime accumulating can be overwhelming.

Luckily, there are many organizations and services out there to help seniors, and their families, work their way through both the logistics and emotional factors involved.  In the following Q&A, I asked Janet LaBerge, owner of Massachusetts based cleanout company Dirty Deeds, to offer suggestions on how to work through the downsizing process smoothly.

After a long career in social work, Janet offers her older customers a unique level of service and understanding about what they are going through. She understands that it’s not just about getting rid of “stuff” ― it’s a major life transition that requires understanding.

Q. What are the biggest fears older people have when they are downsizing their homes and are faced with having to choose what to keep and what to pass along?

A. The biggest fear is usually that they will miss something and throw out a document or picture that they wanted.  They are not usually too worried about making the wrong decision about what to keep or give away, but older people usually have a lot of documents and often will tuck important items in unusual places and then forget where they put them.

Q. How do you work with your clients to allay these fears?

A. We look through everything when we are doing a clean out.  We have found old photographs that have slipped behind drawers in bureaus, yearbooks and wedding albums that got put into bins with old Christmas decorations.  It reassures the homeowner that they don’t need to go through each bin because we can do that quickly and efficiently.

Q. If someone is moving from a house to a condo, or condo to assisted living – do you have standard recommendations, based on your experience, about what is best to keep or to pass along?

A. Most facilities, such as senior housing or assisted living, come with room plans that have measurements and there is usually a person assigned to help decide what will fit in the new space.  That’s a good place to start.  I have found that most people want to keep too much, but it doesn’t make sense to pay a moving company to move things and then have to pay a company like Dirty Deeds to go to the new place and take stuff out, because they’re paying twice.  I recommend that people take furniture items that can do double duty, that is, they are functional and sentimental.  They may have a small kitchen set in addition to a dining room set complete with a big china cabinet.  People often want to take “at least” the china cabinet to display their good china.  However, we find that the large size will look out of place in the new condo and the good china, which is rarely used, isn’t proving enough function for the space it may take to display.

Many older people also have upholstered furniture that is at least twenty years old, but still serviceable.  Rather than pay to move those items, it is often more cost effective to leave those behind and buy new pieces that fit the space/style of the new place.  It’s a good way to start fresh and leave behind some memories.  Much of this depends on the person and their situation.

Q. Based on your experience, can you offer some do’s and don’ts for adult children as they are trying to move their parents along to the next place?

A. Understand that this is a difficult process for your parent or parents to undertake.  While it represents a new chapter in their life, most realize that this is most likely the final chapter in their life and as such, they are a little resistant.  They will want you to take all the items that they do not want.  I have met many adult children because I have cleaned out their houses of the items that they took from their parent’s homes but didn’t actually want.  Resist taking all these items.  Help your parents by picking out a few items that you really will use in your home.  You will like the reminders of your family but won’t be overwhelmed by taking in the all of their accumulated belongings.

It’s important to set limits that respect your time and space.  Let parents know that you don’t have the ability – for example: a huge truck, contacts to donation facilities, strong back – to tackle the job of downsizing their whole house, but you can assist them in finding the appropriate company to do that job.  I recommend adult children think of their parents as the Generals and themselves as the Assistant Generals, not the foot soldiers.  You can help to orchestrate the work, but not do all the work.  Encourage your parents to tackle one room or area at a time.  It helps to break a large job into smaller pieces.  Have them set aside items they’re not taking, but are ones they would like family members to have.  Once this is done, set a date to have a family cookout and let family members choose what they want.  Once that event is finished, you are free to call a clean out company to come take the rest away.  This allows all family members a fair shot at something they might like to have and gives everyone a chance to get together in the homestead before your parent moves along.

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Image: CGarbiano/stock.xchng


Holly Lawrence
Holly Lawrence6 years ago

Many seniors are have already been downsized - and not at their request - the economy and lack of care for the elderly has done this to them! And many of our seniors do NOT have enough to even downsize!!! The ones who do should share with those who do not!


Sheri P.
Sheri P6 years ago

i could stand to downsize...

Carole K.
Carole K6 years ago

I'm well into the process of downsizing now. I have found that it's much easier to let go of materials if you can donate the article to someone who can make use of it. It's a long hard struggle to go through the accumulation of a lifetime & decide what to donate, what to recycle & what to keep. I take pride in the fact that I am doing it myself so that my children won't have to deal with the mess later; and that most of my stuff is being donated for re-use or re-cycled so that very little is left to be landfill trash.

KARLOLINA G6 years ago

I know what this is like from both ends of the generation being as I took care of my parents for many years. They never wanted to part with anything and I never pushed them to do so. Knowing the hardship I had at their end here on earth, I learned that I must just start to prepare for what is to come. It is a sad thing to do. I still have things from my parents and I feel like I am throwing them away. It hurts but this year 2011 I am going to start to do this, as I do not want someone else going through this.

Daniel S.
Daniel S6 years ago

I hear the sound of justification. I think it would be more ideal if the needs of the elderly were provided for. Why is there a need to strip the elderly of all their memories and belongings?

They are not just one more group to single out to cut expenses. They spend a life time building a life and sharing it with family. And helping you their children, it would be nice to see the elderly live it out that life in peace, And not be forced out of their homes and possessions.

heather g.
heather g6 years ago

I live in a senior's centre and have found it very difficult to rid myself of some of my good quality possessions. These tiny caves were built long before people had computers and large TVs. Other people don't seem to keep books. Those are the items I need to give to charity. I don't feel like getting rid of everything, considering my parents passed away in their early 90's. I don't understand why seniors are provided with such tiny living spaces to live in for some 30 years. That's a long time to live with only the bare basics! I'm not sure if it is only BC that treats seniors so poorly regarding accommodation space....

Margaret C.
Margaret C6 years ago

Good for you, Shar F.! I have been downsizing my whole life. Since I move around a lot, I have no problem in what I call "getting small." Every time I move, I give a great deal of it away, and make a fresh start somewhere else. At this point in my life, I am now trying to find a place to settle into and call home, but because I can't stand clutter, I will always have something for the Salvation Army, Goodwill Industries, doggie thrift stores and the homeless shelters, to either sell or use. We hold onto so many material items because they hold a memory, but like those items, some of those memories should be let go of, too. These things cannot go with us in the end, and giving them to family or donating them can maybe benefit them. I have a daughter, and I know there are very few things that I have that she wants, so I will continue to "get small" and pass on whatever I have for someone else to use. And at the same time, feel good that I've helped someone and have given myself more space and less worries later in life.

Bonnie M.
Bonnie M6 years ago

We do accumulate too much stuff. While an elderly person is still able, it is advisable to start downsizing possessions- from furniture, to clothes, to collectibles, precious china and cutlery etc.
There are items the members of the clan may be interested in as heirlooms. Start giving these away while you can- jewelry can be passed on . It might be best to donate bulky items and save the familyn the burden to taking these away. It is indeed a sad and depressing when the time comes to downsize. But... nothing lasts forever, learn to let go.

Caitlin Fowler
Caitlin F6 years ago

thanks for sharing

Deborah L.
Deborah L6 years ago

My Mom is 87 & cannot live alone anymore. She has been downsized & moved into a siblings home, but still has way too much stuff in bins & boxes in the garages of 2 of my brothers homes. We ll struggle to help her relinquish the last of her memories. It's very sad & difficult to confront.