Downsizing Your Home? 5 Tips to Pare Down Your Stuff

At age 68, Mary knew the time had come to sell the family’s two-flat on Chicago’s North Side that her grandfather purchased in the 1940s. She grew up with her siblings and parents on the first floor. After her grandparents passed away, Mary moved to their second-floor apartment where she was joined by her partner, Sue.

Mary, who asked that their last names not be used for privacy, cared for her ailing mother on the first floor for years. When her mother died in March, Mary knew it was the right time for the family to sell the two-flat. “It’s sad, but it’s time to go, and that’s okay,” she says.

The partners turned to Elderwerks Educational Services, a free service for older adults, which helped them find a new place to live in Del Webb’s Sun City Huntley community for people 55 and older.

They also enlisted move managers certified by the National Association of Senior & Specialty Move Managers. Professionals from Paxem, an accredited Senior Move Manager, helped them decide which possessions to move, discard, or donate, and assisted with packing and scheduling movers.

Mary’s major challenge was sorting through the multitude of items stored in her basement, such as holiday decorations, lawn furniture, gardening tools, and an extensive Wizard of Oz collection.

The task of decluttering can become a major stumbling block for many older adults. “Most people have emotional ties to their possessions, so it is very difficult for them to think about parting with them,” says Jennifer Prell, an accredited Senior Move Manager, president of Paxem, and president of Elderwerks Educational Services.

“They think that if they get rid of the objects, they will lose the memories associated with them, so we have to convince them that the memories remain a part of their heart,” Prell says. “They need to be realistic and separate their emotions from their belongings, knowing the memories will always last.”

A personal organizer experienced in planning, downsizing, and moving can assist with tough decisions because they’re not emotionally tied to the possessions, says Nan Hayes, chief revenue officer of Moving Station, which offers relocation and real estate support services to older adults.

Hayes and Prell recommend five tips to help older adults declutter:

1. Keep the familiar

When downsizing, it’s helpful to make the new setting look like the old one to maintain a sense of continuity, Hayes says. She suggests moving not only the necessary belongings but also cherished items that define the person as an individual.

When Hayes recently helped her mother move from her long-time home to an apartment, she arranged her mother’s new bedroom to mimic the old one, with an easy chair near a window, a TV nearby, a small table with necessities, and a beloved piece of art in clear view.

“There is security in the familiar,” Hayes says. “When a new place feels like home, the individual typically assimilates to their new surroundings faster. With that sense of security, they are more likely to venture out and enjoy the amenities a community has to offer.”

2. Start early

Start the decluttering process as far in advance of the move as possible, Prell says. She recommends starting with the easiest room and perhaps just one area of that room, such as a coat closet or even a single drawer. “If you start small, the project isn’t as overwhelming,” she says.

3. Set a deadline

Prell recommends outlining a clear schedule to alleviate the problem of adult children who say they don’t want to keep anything and change their minds once you’ve donated the object. Family members might claim items that you’d never expect. “Once a box is full, give them a deadline so they can retrieve any object they decide they want,” Prell says. “You never know what someone will want; it may be a work of art or a butter knife.”

4. Measure carefully

Among other things, Hayes recommends taking the linear measurements of the old bedroom closet and new one before sorting and downsizing. Knowing the available space will show you how many clothes need to be eliminated. If necessary, double hanging rods and a variety of special hangers can add some extra space.

Prell recommends measuring the floor plan of the new rooms, including noting the location of doors, windows, light switches, and electrical outlets. This will help determine what furniture and possessions will find a place in the new, smaller home and which belongings need to be sold, donated, or recycled. “If you don’t want to pay to have it packed and moved, then you should donate or gift it,” Prell says.

5. Pare down collections

If the person who is downsizing cannot part with the artwork their children made long ago, Prell suggests making it into a collage and framing it. This will keep the memories alive more than storing it in a box. She suggests arranging precious heirlooms in a shadow box that can be placed on a shelf and recommends keeping only one or two of the best pieces of a large group of collectibles.

Mary and Sue made tough choices, although they admit they kept a large number of their Wizard of Oz collectibles. Now they are looking forward to a simplified living arrangement. With less to worry about, Mary plans to enjoy the activities and amenities in the 55+ community.

Downsizing is physically and emotionally exhausting, but it has many benefits, Hayes says. “The move,” she concludes, “is supposed to improve the lifestyle of the individual and make their life easier.”


Elderwerks Educational Services, 855-462-0100

Moving Station, 888-337-7676

National Association of Senior and Specialty Move Managers, 877-606-2766

Paxem, 847-829-4437

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