The Old Heave-Ho: Helping a Parent Downsize Without Losing Your Mind

Published In Mental Health & Well-Being

It’s finally happening. After resisting suggestions about moving to a senior care community for years, your elderly father (or mother) has finally recognized that living alone in the family home is simply too much, and too expensive, for him to handle.

Who knows why he changed his mind. Maybe it was the storm that knocked out the electricity for two days, or maybe it was because he fell and was worried he had broken something — a hip or a leg — and couldn’t get up. Whatever triggered the change of heart is not important. He has now asked you to assist with the move.

Your father also confided he would have moved years earlier but one of the things holding him back was his quandary about what to do with all the “stuff” that he and your late mother had accumulated over their lifetimes.

From your most recent visit, you know that “stuff” includes souvenirs from countless trips, a gazillion photos, shelves of books and family albums, and cartons of mementos from your childhood that had been dutifully stored in the attic (perhaps in faint hopes that someday they might be displayed — after your 8 years as President — in your Presidential Library).

Of greater concern, though, are the vast quantities of mail, bank statements and tax returns your parent has neatly stacked in piles on tables, shelves and the floor until he “gets around to sorting them.” Now, that task falls to you.

What you and your father are confronted with is officially known as downsizing, but it also involves the process of de-cluttering. Although scads of books and articles advise how best to do this and outfits variously known as professional organizers or senior moving consultants are more than happy to help for a healthy sum, the bottom line is that you and your father have several basic decisions to make before you even approach this task.

Ask Before You Start

Answers to the following basic questions will guide how you approach the downsizing/de-cluttering process.

Where is Dad Moving and How Much Space will He Have? What will be the size of his living quarters (with careful measurements)? Those answers will determine how much he can take with him. His favorite recliner only, or can he fit in an easy chair or two for visitors? What about his desk? Will he have kitchen space and, if so, how much? What about closet space for clothes, bedding, towels, etc.?

Is Dad Selling the Family Home or Allowing a Family Member to Move In? In other words, are you looking at a huge estate sale to empty the house or the piecemeal disposal of furniture and household items?

Which Collectibles Does Dad Want to Sell and How Much Are They Worth? For this, you probably need an appraiser to look at what your father is not going to take with him and suggest the next best steps: Estate sale, auction, Craig’s List, eBay, gifts to friends and relatives, Goodwill, Salvation Army, Purple Heart, other worthy charities, the parking lot donations box, or several big trips to the dump?

What’s Up With All the Stacks of Papers? Those piles of papers on the desk, tables and floors are easiest to deal with, at least at the beginning. Sort what you can, box them and label what is in each box, then put them aside to go through later, either by yourself or with your father.

The Best, Most Essential Advice

Once the basic decisions, piles of paper, and needed next steps are out of the way, you will be confronted with the actual work of downsizing and de-cluttering. You will no doubt get more advice than you want or can use on how to tackle these chores, but several common themes seem to run through all that advice:

  • Take your time and don’t try to do everything all at once. Sorting through the accumulations of two lifetimes requires patience and thought and maybe extra time to learn the story behind the most treasured pieces, which might give a clue as to where they belong. Did the collection of after-dinner spoons start with a grandmother? If so, maybe it should be earmarked for a grandchild? What about the collection of college yearbooks? Maybe the college library would like them. The collection of Edgar Wallace paperbacks is the sort of thing an antiquarian or rare book dealer would like. You get the idea, but you also can see why the process takes time and thought and may even bring back happy memories for your father.
  • Start small, maybe a bookshelf or a desk drawer at a time. With the one small step at a time, you and your father avoid becoming overwhelmed by the task.
  • When it comes to clothing, the one-year and out rule is a good guide. If it hasn’t been used or worn for a year, even if it is in good condition, out it goes. The seasonality of some clothing — heavy coats on one end or swimsuits on the other — may affect the timeframe, so the rule can be stretched a bit but still, if it hasn’t been worn, get rid of it or give it away.
  • Stick to “yes” (keep) or “no” (out it goes), and avoid a “maybe” pile — a true sign of indecision — as much as possible. If the new living arrangements have sufficient storage space, the “maybe” strategy might buy some time. Otherwise, it pays to be ruthless, and hope that your mother’s old fur coat and formal gowns will find a new home, possibly through a vintage or second-hand clothing outlet.

Using Your Head and Heart to Ease the Transition

As you and your father sort through the remnants of the life he shared with your mother, stay positive. Help him remember the happy and silly times and help him find suitable mementos of those times to take with him. Scan favorite photos and some of the kids’ most memorable artwork so he can look at them occasionally. Let him pick a few (not too many) of his favorite books and maybe a memorable picture or two for the walls.

Then, downsizing complete, help him move to his new home. Don’t just leave him. Help him ease into the transition. Meet his new neighbors and make sure he meets them, too. Remember that moves are difficult at any age, but especially so for a senior citizen who has now lost wife, home and possessions, or at least most of them.

Your downsizing assistance doesn’t end with the move. It includes easing the difficult transition and assuring your elderly father that he is not going to be forgotten or abandoned in his new home, that you and the rest of the family will be there when needed.

This article was reviewed January, 2024.

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