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Downsizing – A Guide to Help your Baby Boomer Parents

African American elderly couple with grey hair and their adult children with brown hair stand in front of a large suburban house, looking at a PODS storage container and moving boxes in the driveway, symbolizing the transition of baby boomers downsizing.

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Downsizing a family home goes beyond the mere act of moving or decluttering—it symbolizes the closing of one chapter and the ushering in of a new phase in life. For adult children, assisting their parents through the downsizing process is a profound experience, laden with both logistical challenges and emotional nuances. This guide aims to equip you with empathy, insight, and practical tactics to manage this significant transition gracefully. If you’re weighing the options of deciding between aging in place and downsizing, it’s crucial to approach the conversation with sensitivity and openness to your parents’ preferences and needs.

The decision to downsize is often intertwined with the challenges of aging in place, including home maintenance burdens that can escalate over time, especially for long-distance caregivers.  By understanding these dynamics, you can better support your parents in making informed decisions and moving forward into their next chapter, and home.

1. Understanding the Emotional Journey

The emotional weight of downsizing can sometimes feel overwhelming. As you help your parents sift through years, if not decades, of memories and belongings, it’s important to recognize and honor the emotional significance of this process. Remember, you’re not just dealing with physical items, but the stories, memories, and emotions they represent.

Advice and Tips:

  • Acknowledge Feelings: Openly discuss the emotions involved with your parents. Validate their feelings of sadness, loss, or anxiety about the changes.
  • Share Memories: Take time to share stories and memories associated with specific items. This can help in letting go and celebrating the item’s history.
  • Make Memory Keepsakes: Consider creating digital photo albums and digital archives of items that can’t be kept. This way, the memory lives on without the physical clutter.

Questions to Consider:

  • What memories are most important to you about our home and belongings?
  • How can we honor these memories as we move forward?
  • Are there specific items that hold deep sentimental value, and how can we preserve their legacy?

2. Setting Realistic Goals

Setting clear, achievable goals for the downsizing process can help manage expectations and reduce stress. It’s essential to have honest discussions about what’s feasible in terms of space, time, and emotional bandwidth. Establishing these goals early on can serve as a roadmap and make the process less daunting.

Advice and Tips:

  • Create a Timeline: Develop a realistic timeline for sorting, deciding, and moving. Ensure it allows for breaks and emotional processing.
  • Define Spaces: Discuss how much space the new living situation will have and what that means for the number of belongings that can come along.
  • Prioritize: Help your parents prioritize what needs to be kept, sold, donated, or discarded based on necessity, emotional value, and space constraints.

Questions to Consider:

  • What are our top priorities for the new space in terms of function and aesthetics?
  • How much time can we realistically dedicate to this process each week?
  • How can we make this process feel less like a loss and more like curating a comfortable, meaningful living space?

Author’s Story – Been There, Downsized That

When we began downsizing my parents' home, the magnitude of sorting through decades of accumulation seemed daunting. Instead of tackling everything at once, we started with envisioning the new space and selecting our favorite items that would fit and enrich that environment. This approach not only simplified our initial task but also allowed us to reassure my parents that choosing favorites didn’t mean we had to discard everything else immediately. Much was sold or donated, but we also used a PODS storage for items that needed more time to decide on. This strategy significantly eased the transition by breaking the process into manageable steps, focusing on what we were bringing into the new chapter, rather than what we were leaving behind.

3. Focusing on the New Space

Concentrating on the new living environment can be a positive way to frame the downsizing process. Instead of focusing on what’s being left behind, shift the perspective to the excitement of creating a comfortable, functional space that aligns with your parents’ current lifestyle and needs.

Advice and Tips:

  • Visualize Together: Discuss and visualize the layout of the new space. Use floor plans to determine what furniture and belongings will realistically fit.
  • Choose Favorites: Start with selecting favorite pieces of furniture and decor that will define the new space. This approach ensures that the most loved and used items make the move.
  • Functional Needs: Consider any new needs your parents may have in the new space, such as accessibility or safety features, and prioritize these in the selection process.

Questions to Consider:

  • What items do we see as essential for comfort and happiness in the new home?
  • How can we incorporate cherished belongings in a way that feels fresh and suited to the new space?
  • What new needs or preferences should we consider when selecting items for the new home?

By approaching downsizing with empathy, clear communication, and a focus on the positive aspects of the transition, you can help your parents navigate this significant change. Remember, it’s a journey that, despite its challenges, can lead to a new chapter filled with its own joys and opportunities.

Selling and Donating

Once you’ve sorted through belongings and decided what to keep, the next step involves figuring out what to do with items that won’t be making the move. Selling and donating can be rewarding ways to see items find new life elsewhere, while also decluttering.

  • Selling Items: Consider various platforms for selling items, such as online marketplaces (eBay, Craigslist), local consignment shops, or yard sales. Researching the value of items can help you get the best price.
  • Donating to Charity: Many organizations welcome donations of furniture, clothes, and other items. Look for local charities, shelters, or schools that might need what you’re giving away. Make sure to ask for a receipt for tax deductions.
  • Eco-Friendly Disposal: For items that are neither sellable nor donatable, look into eco-friendly disposal options. Many cities offer recycling programs for electronics and other goods.

Advice and Tips:

  • Research Prices: For items you plan to sell, research to ensure you’re asking for a fair price. Use online marketplaces as a reference.
  • Choose the Right Platform: For selling, consider the type of item to decide the best platform (e.g., furniture might do well on a local marketplace, while unique collectibles might be better suited for eBay).
  • Quality Donations: Make sure items to be donated are in good condition. Charities often have guidelines on what they can accept.
  • Plan a Donation Day: Organize a day to drop off donations or arrange for a charity to pick up items. This helps with motivation and keeps the downsizing process moving forward.

Questions & Conversation Starters:

  • Do you have any items you consider valuable that you’re willing to sell?
  • Are there specific organizations or charities you feel strongly about donating to?
  • What matters more to you: the monetary value from selling items or ensuring things stay within the family or community?
  • Are there items with sentimental value that we should handle with special consideration?
  • Have you thought about how you’d like to dispose of items that can’t be sold or donated, in an eco-friendly way?
  • Is there a preference between selling items online or through a yard sale/local consignment shop?
  • How do you feel about organizing a donation day to take items to a charity?

Empathize and Start Small

Approach the topic with empathy and respect for their feelings. Downsizing can feel like letting go of a lifetime of memories, so it’s important to acknowledge and validate their emotions throughout the process.

And remember, it’s not just about getting rid of stuff—it’s also about finding new homes for cherished belongings. Encourage your parents to pass down family heirlooms or sentimental items to other family members who will appreciate them.

Samantha Odo, Real Estate Sales Representative & Montreal Division Manager, Precondo

Book RecommendationBook ReviewPrice
Moving in the Right Direction: The Senior's Guide to Moving and Downsizing

Moving in the Right Direction: The Senior's Guide to Moving and Downsizing

Moving in the Right Direction" by Bruce Nemovitz is a comprehensive guide that helps seniors navigate the emotional and practical challenges of deciding whether to move from their long-time homes, offering expert advice and real-world examples.

  • Comfort vs. Maintenance: Addresses the emotional attachment to a long-time home and the growing difficulty in its upkeep.
  • Expert Guidance: Leverages Bruce Nemovitz's extensive experience in assisting seniors with housing transitions.
  • Practical Advice: Provides actionable steps for downsizing, overcoming procrastination, and making informed decisions.
  • Professional Resources: Helps locate necessary professionals for the moving process, from realtors to handymen.
  • Family Dynamics: Offers strategies for addressing family concerns and expectations during the transition.
  • Housing Options Exploration: Aids in finding suitable housing that meets seniors' needs and desires for their next life stage.
Buy on Amazon
The Boomer's 7-Step Guide to Downsizing: Overcoming Fear and Discovering Freedom

The Boomer's 7-Step Guide to Downsizing: Overcoming Fear and Discovering Freedom

Vivien Sharon's guide on downsizing addresses the challenges and emotional journey of moving from a long-time home, providing practical advice for those facing major life transitions."

  • Broad Audience Appeal: Tailored for empty nesters, retirees, relocators, or those experiencing significant life changes.
  • Comprehensive Strategies: Offers insights into selling, buying, decluttering, packing, and moving effectively.
  • Emotional Support: Guides readers through the emotional aspects of downsizing to embrace a new life phase.
  • Expert Advice: Delivers real tips from a top real estate professional and downsizing expert.
  • Life Transitions: Ideal for those undergoing separation, divorce, bereavement, or health issues.
  • Joyful Transitioning: Motivates readers to move towards a joyful and fulfilling new living situation.
Buy on Amazon

Adjusting to the New Space

Moving into a smaller or different space requires adjustment. This transition is not just about fitting items into a new home but also about creating a comfortable, functional living environment that meets your parents’ current needs.

  • Space Planning: Before moving, use the floor plan of the new home to decide where furniture and belongings will go. This can help identify what additional items are needed or what still needs to be downsized.
    Decor and Personalization: Encourage your parents to think about how they’d like to personalize their new space. Incorporating favorite pieces of art, photos, or decor can make the new environment feel like home.
  • Functional Adaptations: Consider any adaptations that might make the new home more accessible or safer, such as installing grab bars in the bathroom or ensuring there’s adequate lighting.

Advice and Tips:

  • Measure Twice: Ensure all furniture pieces will fit in the new space by measuring in advance. This can prevent moving day surprises.
  • Functional Furnishing: Opt for furniture that doubles as storage to maximize space. Think creatively about how each piece can serve multiple purposes.
  • Decorate with Memories: Incorporate meaningful items into the decor to make the new space feel like home. Family photos, heirlooms, or a cherished collection can add personal touches.
  • Lighting Matters: Adequate lighting is crucial, especially in smaller spaces or for aging eyes. Consider layering different types of lighting to create a warm and inviting atmosphere.

Questions & Conversation Starters:

  • What are your must-have items that you feel are essential for your comfort and happiness in the new home?
  • How would you like to personalize your new space? Are there specific pieces of art, photos, or decor items you envision there?
  • Are there any accessibility or safety adaptations we should consider for the new home?
  • Have you thought about furniture that can double as storage to maximize space in the new setting?
  • What are your thoughts on the lighting in the new space? Do you have preferences for creating a warm and inviting atmosphere?
  • Are you open to rethinking the layout or decor to better fit the new space?

Building a Support System

Downsizing and moving can be physically and emotionally draining. Building a support system of family, friends, and professionals can make a significant difference in managing the stress and tasks involved.

  • Enlist Help: Don’t hesitate to ask family members, friends, or neighbors for help with sorting, packing, or moving. People often want to help but may not know how.
  • Hiring Professionals: For some aspects of the move, such as packing and transporting belongings, it might be worth hiring professional movers, especially for heavy or valuable items.
  • Emotional Support: Recognize that downsizing can be an emotional process for everyone involved. Support groups, counselors, or conversations with empathetic friends can provide valuable outlets.

Advice and Tips:

  • Delegate Tasks: Be clear about what kind of help you need and assign specific tasks to family members, friends, or hired help to streamline the process.
  • Professional Help: Consider the value of your time and energy when deciding whether to hire professional movers or organizers. Sometimes, the cost is well worth the convenience.
  • Support Circles: Create a support circle of friends or family members who have gone through similar transitions. They can offer invaluable advice, emotional support, and practical tips.
  • Caregiver Self-Care: Remember to take breaks and practice self-care. Downsizing is not just a physical task but an emotional journey. Ensuring you and your parents are well-rested and supported is key to navigating this change positively.

Questions & Conversation Starters:

  • Who in our family, circle of friends, or neighborhood can we reach out to for assistance with the move?
  • Would you be comfortable hiring professional movers or organizers for certain tasks?
  • How can we best support each other emotionally through this transition?
    Are there specific tasks you’d like to delegate to family members or friends to streamline the process?
  • Do you have a support circle or know someone who has gone through a similar transition we can connect with for advice?
  • What self-care practices do you think would be most beneficial for us to maintain our well-being during this time?

We hope this guide has been helpful. This process is universally hard. There’s no one-size-fits all solution and the truth is, this journey is uncomfortable and filled with emotional potholes along the way. 

If that big old house with that big old attic seems daunting, don’t let that stop you and your family from getting started, because it will only get harder if you have to make a move quickly because of a medical diagnosis or a fall. Make the move before you have to.

You got this.

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