The Look and Feel of Downsizing

Published In Aging in a Home Environment

When it comes to choosing where to live as we age, the world seems to be divided into two camps: those who swear they want to be carried out of their homes feet first, and those beckoned to entertain other options.

My husband and I recently became the entertaining types. There are only two of us — rattling about in too much space, not venturing into some rooms for days. The excess suddenly seemed gluttonous, wasteful, wrong. And then there was the “stuff” — things we collected, got as gifts, or inherited and then just kept in the selfsame places for years. It had all begun to weigh us down

We decided to purge.

History Lessons

In the past, I’ve felt the burdens of others’ stuff when called upon to clear out their homes. Years ago, my brother and I were tasked with emptying our family home after our last parent died. It took nine straight days, with only a few breaks when he insisted on eating. My mother had been an antiques appraiser, and the house was filled to bursting with finds collected through the ages: hand-painted plates, ornate silver services, heavy carved wooden furniture; lacy tablecloths. While we honored their history and beauty, it also soon became clear there was precious little market for those things in the current world. Our attempts to find willing buyers — even takers — gave new import to the cross-stitch sample hanging in the kitchen that snarked knowingly: “Only Your Grandfather Wanted What Your Grandmother Had.”

A few years later, I helped my friend Mary clear out her mother’s house: two floors of stuff. Mary’s mom had been the organized type, so her stuff was painstakingly packaged. In the clothes closet, we found boxes neatly stacked, each one with a label: “Blue Pants,” “Brown Pants,” “Yellow Tops,” and the most endearing label of all on one box: “Empty.” Still, with the intermittent help from a few neighbors, it took the two of us more than a week to get the house mostly emptied and ready for sale — and Mary wasn’t the type to take a break to eat. It was hard, constant work.

Cleaning Up After Yourself

As we age, the reality that someone, somewhere, will need to sort through and distribute our belongings after we’re gone begins to haunt. And even the feet-firsters start to entertain the notion if not the immediate impetus to downsize, to get rid of stuff while they can.

A letter recently arrived from a prescient friend, a former foot-firster, who was worried about just that. She wrote: I’ve been thinking a lot about downsizing and whether the time is right, and have felt I’m not quite there yet. But I stumbled across an estate sale this past weekend on a neighboring street that gave me pause. The home belonged to a couple in their 80s. She had died four months earlier, and he was selling — and I mean selling everything. There was furniture, dishes, racks of clothes and endless sketched and paintings; she had been the painter. I felt like an intruder, pawing through their personal effects. Made me want to go home and set fire to personal letters, journals, and any personal miscellany.

I recently read a gentle description that make the chore of downsizing seem more practical than daunting, penned by Scandinavian author Margareta Magnusson. “I am death cleaning, or, as we call it in Swedish, dostadning. Do is ‘death’ and stadning is ‘cleaning.’ In Swedish it is a term that means you remove unnecessary things and make your home nice and orderly when you think the time is coming closer for you to leave the planet,” she wrote. “For me it means going through all my belongings and deciding how to get rid of the things I do not want anymore. Just look around you. Several of your things have probably been there for so long that you do not even see or value them anymore.”

The considering, sorting, and donating is ultimately easier and more satisfying than setting fire to it all.

Where to Begin?

For me, the purging began with books. They were some of my most treasured possessions, but after decades of buying and reading them, then generally stuffing them higgledy-piggledy onto the shelves, the collection became a bit overwhelming. At first, my husband and I vowed to follow a rule: We could each take out candidates we absolutely wanted to keep and leave the other in a pile for the other person to assess. Even that loose rule soon fell away; we became grateful to whichever one of us took the tomes down off the shelves. And at heart, there was a deeper question to answer, and to answer honestly: Which ones would we ever actually consult or read again?

In short order, we accumulated 50 bankers’ boxes full of books to donate to the city’s annual book donation drive. That felt good. And those 50 boxes broke some kind of logjam, as the sentimental ties to “stuff” gave way to the desire for less of it.

Then donating became a sort of a game and a fulfilling challenge. Many pieces of furniture went to a group seeking to equip newly-built hospice rooms with “homey” furnishings, some tables and chairs to a rare young couple with a taste for antiques who had just inherited his grandmother’s big old Victorian, the piano to a childhood prodigy who said he couldn’t afford the instrument now, my costume jewelry to a teenage godchild. And Pammy, my treasured doll from childhood, went to a precocious four-year-old visitor who put down her iPad and perked up when the two met. Pammy’s new mother promptly renamed her “Summery Din Din,” but if you love something, you have to let it go free — no matter what its name becomes.

This feels like the beginning of a less laden life, somehow easier to live.

Sources for Help

There is no shortage of advice on the One Right Way to downsize your belongings — much of it preachy and judgmental. (Looking at you, Marie Kondo.) But a few recommended resources recognize the need to proceed as gently as possible — in a way that fits your personal style and mindset. They might be good places to turn if you’re considering that less might be more.

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