The Lowdown on Downsizing: How to Help a Parent Prepare for a Move to Senior Living

Downsizing before moving to senior living

There are many reasons why people often choose to downsize in retirement. Maybe after the kids grow up and move out, they don’t want to continue with the upkeep of a larger home. Maybe their health situation has changed, making housekeeping more difficult than it once was. Or maybe they’re moving to a senior living community and need to reduce the amount of possessions they bring with them.

Downsizing can be an emotional process. After a lifetime of collected memories, almost every item in your home has some memory or feeling attached to it. This can make it difficult to part with even seemingly unimportant items. Seniors and their adult children can find themselves butting heads over what can be tossed, and what is a treasure worth keeping through the move.

If you’re helping your parents downsize in preparation for a move to a senior living community, here are some tips to help you go through the process with as little stress and conflict as possible.

1. Give the process plenty of time.

The process of downsizing should start months before the actual move. Rushing the decisions will increase stress and anxiety, potentially causing unnecessary conflicts. Making the decision to move to an independent living apartment often takes a time. Start the process of downsizing at the same time that you start the conversation about senior living. The earlier, the better.

2. Work through the house in small sections.

There are several good reasons not to tackle the whole house at once. Working long hours to get the job done in a matter of days is both physically and emotionally draining. Break the house into small sections, and work for just a couple hours a day. Taking it slow will prevent your parents from feeling overwhelmed, and will allow them to assess each item with a calm state of mind.

3. Use the new space to set parameters.

As soon as you know where your loved one will be moving, use that space as a guide for downsizing decisions. Draw or print out the floor plan of their new home. Having a visual reference will provide concrete parameters for how much stuff they can possibly fit into the space, making it easier to negotiate if they get stubborn over something that just won’t fit.

4. Frame decisions as yes/no questions.

When you leave things open-ended, it’s actually harder to make firm decisions. Asking your parent, “Which dishes do you want to keep?” will almost certainly result in the answer, “All of them.” It’s easier to take things one item at a time, asking for a yes or a no. Refrain from starting a “maybe” pile. Postponing a decision allows sentimental attachment to build, and will only open the door to resistance down the line.

5. Minimize duplications.

In an independent living apartment, there is little room for “multiples”—extra pots and pans, a backup hairdryer, or even your parents’ personal collections. Eliminating a duplicate frying pan is one thing, but it can be much more difficult to talk your dad out of bringing his full collection of vintage baseball cards, or your mom out of her collection of decorative teapots. Simplify the discussion by asking them to choose a couple favorites. If the collection is truly valuable—emotionally or monetarily—you can put the remainder in a storage facility for safekeeping.

6. Discourage keeping things for a future purpose.

Sometimes, seniors will hold onto items with the intention of one day bestowing them to a family member or loved one on a holiday, special occasion, or in their will. If you encounter this situation, encourage them to gift the item now, rather than holding onto it (and letting it take up space) until the intended milestone.

7. Know when to avoid a discussion.

Some items—such as old magazine issues, outdated medications, unused toiletries, etc—don’t really require your parent’s approval to discard. Dealing with these and other replaceable items yourself rather than opening it up for discussion will make the process more efficient and will forestall deliberation. It’s up to you to know which items deserve your parent’s consultation, and which items it’s easier to handle on your own.

Downsizing is never an easy process, but approaching it with the right frame of mind and a few useful strategies will help you both get through it with minimal bumps in the road. Then you can both look forward to the more exciting process of settling in to a new senior living community!

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