After spending lifetimes in their homes and creating countless cherished memories, it’s no surprise that many seniors find the thought of having to relocate daunting. According to the Social Readjustment Rating Scale, aka the Stress Scale, only a spouse’s death and divorce rank as more stressful than moving to a new living space. Add the fact that most seniors will need to downsize their possessions in order to move, and it’s more than many can handle.
“After living for decades in their homes, some people have more than a little discomfort about the idea of downsizing. You may have many years and a wealth of memories that are built around your family and your home,” said Catherine Arendt, an “At Your Service” Manager at Era Living.
A recent study by the Gerontology Center at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, found that about 30 percent of people over age 70 had done nothing to give away belongings over the past 12 months. “Yet more than half of the respondents in all age categories believed they had too many belongings,” notes a report in Reuters. “I was surprised by the finding that so many people say they have more things than they need,” said David Ekerdt, lead author of the report who is gerontology center director at KU. “You wonder, why is that so? Why don’t they get rid of things?”
In his new book, “Downsizing: Confronting Our Possessions in Later Life” (Columbia University Press), Ekerdt proposes “when our lives become more limited, our household should become lighter as well.” He and his team interviewed 100 who went through the downsizing process and analyzed what it meant for them as well as their bond to and management of their possessions.
“Things come and go, and things are more important and less important, but there’s always a convoy of things following us around,Ekerdt said. “And that convoy becomes basically unsustainable later if people need to move to a smaller place.”
His research team found that the family members of seniors are equally affected in dealing with the downsizing process, noting “wouldn’t they like to see their parents living as safely and independently as possible?”
A Few Tips on Making the Downsizing Process Easier
Even if a senior is able to remain in their home, it could always benefit them to downsize and declutter to avoid fall hazards or unhealthy behaviors that could mean they are suffering from an elderly hoarding disorder. If you or an elderly loved one are considering downsizing and decluttering, here are a few tips to make the process easier for everyone.
It’s never a good idea to wait until the last minute to start downsizing. If you or your senior loved one is planning to move to a new space, start at least one month before you list the home for sale, or at the first signs of declining health that may mean a move to an assisted living community in the future. This will help you avoid having to tackle the job all at once. Margit Novack, president of MovingSolutions in Philadelphia and founding president of the National Association of Senior Move Managers recommends two hours of decluttering work a day at the most for seniors. Unless there’s a deadline to make, try to make downsizing a habit to work into your routines. It will seem much easier to organize one drawer per month, or to spend one hour per day on certain sections of rooms, than to spend all hours of the day going through the entire house.
Of course, emergencies happen, and not all seniors (or their families) are afforded adequate time to downsize their belongings. In some cases, professional help from a senior move manager can help families figure out what to save, what to throw out, and other bits of helpful advice for how to transition to a new home.
When beginning the task of decluttering your home, AARP said it’s easier to start at the “heart” – think kitchen, living room, family room. These rooms often have the most clutter to go through, hold the most sentimental items, and also the items that are used every day. From there, work outward through the rest of the house. If a senior is moving to a new living space, start with a guideline for how much can fit in the space. This will make decisions on what to keep around much easier. To keep things simple, create four piles: keep, donate (or sell), give to family members, and trash. It will make the task less difficult if you banish the “maybe” pile as well.
This is where things can tend to get tricky. “To let go of what we have around us is to confront a very different living situation,” said senior-relocation industry leader Nan Hayes, founder of MoveSeniors.com. “People tend to cling to their possessions to avoid dealing with other issues, like stress or fear.” Family members can help their senior loved ones by encouraging them to focus on the most-used items, and letting the rest go. Novack said giving open-ended choices for which items to keep can raise stress levels for a reluctant senior. “Couching questions for yes-no answers provides the opportunity for the parent to feel successful so you can move on to the next thing,” Novack said.
Seniors might find it easier to let go of possessions if they can be donated to help those in need. Thrift stores are a great place to start but during the Covid-19 pandemic, many are temporarily closed or operating under new guidelines and restrictions. Expect to spend more time on organizing this task than usual and identifying local charities or organizations that accept more valuable items. For items that are broken, stained, or don’t work, it’s better to just throw these things out.
Treasures like photos, collections, and memorabilia are sometimes the hardest to part with, but there are ways to make it easier on a senior. Boxes of photos and papers can be digitalized to save on storage space (and also make it easier for family members to have copies). That way seniors can pick a few prints to display on the walls of their new space. If a senior has a collection of items, ask them to pick one or two to keep and take photos of the rest to display. “People sometimes feel OK about giving up the rest if they have a sense of control over the process,” Novack said. If a senior wants to leave something as a gift for a family member, encourage them to go ahead and give it now to save storage space.
“Spring Cleaning: How to Help Seniors Downsize,” was written by Taylor French, Amada blog contributor.