Downsizing the Family Home

Happy Senior Couple From Behind Looking at Front of House.I am 76 and my husband is 81. We’ve lived in our 4000 sq. ft., 6-bedroom home for almost 31 years. It was once also home to our 5 children, who were all thrilled to each have their own bedroom after growing up in a much smaller tract home in Massachusetts. However, since they were between 10 and 23 years old when we moved to Utah, they do not consider this home to be the “home I grew up in.” Whenever they return to Massachusetts for a visit, they drive by that home, and 2-3 of them have asked to go in and have a look around. We’ve already gotten through the downsizing that upset our kids.

Although we feel nostalgic about our 20 years in Massachusetts and 16 years in that home, it’s this home that my husband and I will miss the most, if we ever have to downsize or move to assisted living. I’m probably already being unrealistic just by saying “if we ever have to.” We already pay to have our yard work done, and we’ve had help with basic housecleaning for years. I consider myself to be in excellent health, but my husband was diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s disease about 6 years ago. He’s still considered “early stage,” but it’s only a matter of time before we will need more help and/or a lot less to take care of.

Do It Now!

Nine months before my mother’s unexpected death, my parents moved from “the home I grew up in” to a large condo that held most of the possessions they really cared about. They did most of that downsizing themselves. Dad’s second downsizing took place when, after outliving a second wife, he moved into his third wife’s condo. She had a lot to say about what he could bring with him so, thankfully, I and my 8 siblings did not have to make many decisions about what to keep, only who got what, or what was done with the remaining possessions. A sister catalogued everything of value, and we drew numbers to determine the order we would choose what we wanted from that list and other miscellaneous stuff.

It was a big job, but it made the job much easier when, at age 95, we had to move Dad to an assisted living facility, because his wife could no longer care for him and refused in-home care. Until he died at age 97, one room in his wife’s condo remained the repository for his smaller “treasures,” the things that represented many of the memories made during his long, productive life. It was then that we had to make the tough decisions. I still have a closet full of the things the family thinks should be kept and passed on to the next generation or archived for historians in some way.

What I learned from all of this, and what experts advise, is the more we can do with our things while we can still make those decisions ourselves, the easier it will be for our children, when the time comes to clear out our “family home.” We can get rid of things that none of our children will want, or designate beneficiaries for any items of value that we hope they will hold on to. With the help of an attorney, we’ve made it easy for them to sell our home, but deciding what to do with 30+ years of accumulated memories is a heart-wrenching task.

Downsizing the Family Home: What to Save, What to Let go, by Marni Jameson, published by AARP, is an entertaining and very helpful read for anyone facing the task of deciding what to do with the contents of a home that’s been lived in for years, whether it will continue to be lived in or not. The first chapter is titled “A Tough Call: How to Know When an Aging Parent Needs a New Home.” The author begins that chapter with, “My brother and I had a plan for our aging parents. The plan was that they would not age….They had a plan, too. They would manage just fine, thank you.”

Downsizing doesn’t have to be triggered by the need to move to assisted living. When you or your parents reach retirement age, or when age or other circumstances make a safer and more easily maintainable home seem like a good idea, the best choice might be to move to a smaller home that is easier to care for and maybe in a warmer climate. If you sell the house, then rent a new one, you or your parents can use the profits from the sale to supplement retirement income and pay for needed services.

Jameson summarizes the chapter by saying, “When parents need to move from their longtime home…. the path is neither clear nor smooth. Adult children often need to take the reins.” As she evaluated whether a move to assisted living was right for her elderly parents, she considered a set of criteria she’d found. Her parents’ needs met every one: Safety, health, hygiene, housekeeping, meals and social life. She also acknowledged that other older adults may not need the level of care that her parents did and that moving into a smaller, easier-to-maintain home or one-floor town home could be the answer. No matter where you move, life can be made easier by adding in-home care services, if needed.

At Dakota Home Care, the goal is to provide both medical and non-medical services to keep home an option for everyone. I know I am already a senior citizens who would like to stay in my home for as long as I possibly can. My work for DHC has made me aware of the many options that are available to me and my husband for in-home care of all varieties.

However, we are already being asked why we choose to stay in a home that is obviously larger than we need, except for when it comes to family gatherings. We have lots of what we think are very good reasons to stay. So far our children aren’t pushing us one way or the other. But, as I mentioned, they don’t have the emotional attachment to this home that we do. We have a small start on deciding “What to save and what to let go,” but we need to speed up the process.

We need a plan, and so does anyone who is either trying to downsize for the sake of their kids, or if you are the kids who are suddenly faced with the huge task of getting the family home cleaned out and ready to sell. Jameson’s book has lots of great ideas for how to get started and then keep going until the job is done. Putting the task of letting go into perspective is one of her first tips. “To help yourself let go, tell yourself that the important attachment is not to any object but to the person the object represents.”

Jameson’s Guiding Lights for Sorting can help all of us downsize our stuff, regardless of why we want or need to do it:

  • Ask these questions: Do I love it? Do I need it? Will I use it? A no on all three and the item goes.
  • Tackling one area at a time keeps the job from seeming quite so overwhelming.
  • Choose to keep rather than choose to let go. Take everything out of a closet or drawer. Only put back what you choose to keep.
  • Don’t put it off. Purge regularly and often.
  • Unpack your stories. It’s not the stuff. It’s about the stories behind the stuff:
    • I’d feel guilty of I got rid of that.
    • I might need that someday.
    • It has sentimental value….Ask yourself what will become of this item in 10 years if you decide to hang on to it.

You probably already know the tactic of separating items into categories: toss, sell (or donate), keep, and can’t decide. Having the mindset that these decisions aren’t permanent yet will help you go faster. Jameson gives excellent advice on how to determine the value of some of the things you might have to sell, and whether to have an estate sale or a garage sale. There isn’t space in this blog to cover all the things that could be helpful when you’re going through a lifetime’s worth of stuff. You can find Jameson’s book on Amazon, and lots of other good tips are in the AARP sources listed below. Don’t wait! Start now!

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