Helping seniors downsize to a smaller home can be a big challenge. Let’s face it. Moving is tough for anyone, but if you’re over a certain age it can be completely overwhelming.

Purge, Purge, Purge Ahead of Downsizing

Many people wait to purge their parents’ furniture, artwork and belongings until after they’ve passed away. It can be enormously tempting to put off going through old files, clothes, photo albums, knickknacks and heirlooms until you absolutely have to.

But the reality is, the sooner you and your parent reduce the amount of “stuff” in their home, the better off you’ll be in the long run. If your mom or dad decides to move to a smaller condo, apartment or retirement home, you’ll be way ahead of the game.

Take clothes, for example. Make a concerted effort now to go through your parent’s closets with them to purge anything they don’t wear anymore. Just exactly when will those 1980’s jackets with padded shoulders come back into style? Even if they do, they probably won’t fit anymore.

Old photo albums can be particularly tricky when it comes to purging. Take the time to sit down with your parent and go through their photo albums with them. Ask them to identify the friends and relatives in the photos. Once your parent is gone, you won’t have a chance to inquire about the people in the photos from their early years, high school days or college experiences. Decide which photos to keep for posterity and which can fade into memory. Make this a treasured time you both enjoy.

Why Downsize?

Seniors downsize to a smaller home for several reasons. Maybe your parent has mobility issues and needs a walker for support. A smaller space with universal design could be easier for them to navigate.

Stairs and steps can also loom large. Have you noticed your loved one spending more time downstairs, maybe even sleeping downstairs? Going up and down the stairs may not be that easy anymore.

A smaller home can also reduce the expense of home maintenance. The cost for regular gardening and housekeeping as well as exterior painting, roof repairs and other major improvements can be substantially decreased – especially if your parent moves to a condominium, apartment or retirement community where these overhead costs are usually built into the rent or monthly agreement.

An added bonus to this scenario is your parent won’t have to vet and hire contractors directly for these improvements. The condominium owner, apartment landlord or community management oversees the work, and the opportunity for unscrupulous vendors and contractors to take advantage of your mom or dad is greatly reduced.

Downsizing Can Be Overwhelming

Once your parent is ready to downsize to a smaller home, major decisions will still need to be made. Seniors who downsize are often leaving a home they’ve lived in for decades. In many cases it’s the “family home” where they raised their children. The house may still be full of memorabilia from when they lived at home.

Physically, some seniors may not be able to sort and pack their belongings. They may even need help hiring a moving company and supervising the move itself.

So how can you assist your loved one if they decide to move to a smaller home or a retirement community? Fortunately, the world of senior living has attracted many terrific companies that can help with the transition.

Moving is More Than Physical

Moving is more than physical change. It’s emotional as well, according to Lucy Donaldson, founder and president of PRC Senior Transitions.

Lucy’s company helps people manage the entire moving process, from sorting and disposing of sentimental possessions to designing a floor plan for the new home. Her team helps seniors decide which furniture to keep, where to place it in the new home, and which items will be sold or given to charity. Once everything has been moved, the PRC staff helps people unpack their possessions, hang pictures, make sure television, phone and internet services are working, and other tasks.

Downsizing is difficult so adopting a decisive, if not ruthless, mindset is important. If your parent is facing a move, here are Lucy’s tips for making the process as smooth as possible.

10 Tips to Help Seniors Downsize to a Smaller Home

  • Go through the easy and obvious areas of the house first. This could be a second bathroom, an office or a guest bedroom.
  • Be happy to downsize a little at a time. Start several weeks before your parent’s scheduled move. Don’t try to do it all over a weekend.
  • When sorting their belongings, ask your mom or dad first if they want to keep something. They may not be as attached to it as you think. Decide later what to do with the unwanted items.
  • Move only the clothes your parent actually wears. Most people only wear about 20 percent of the clothes in their closet.
  • Use colored dots, stickers or post-it notes to identify which items will make the move, which will be given to family or friends, what goes to charity and what can be disposed of altogether.
  • Take only the furniture and other items that are the right size for the new place. That beloved breakfront may not fit or could completely dominate the new space.
  • Avoid furniture shopping before the move. Use the furniture your parent already has in different ways in their new home. The decide what needs to be purchased.
  • For sentimental items like framed photos and travel mementoes, bring as many as your mom or dad wants provided there’s adequate space for them. Books should be considered sentimental items.  
  • Moving is NOT a good time to go through family photos. This should be handled ahead of time.
  • Ask your parent’s tax advisor which records you need to keep and for how long. Use a professional shredding service rather than try to shred everything yourself.

Downsizing is an Art

According to Lucy, downsizing for seniors is an art.

“Some people would like to bring the whole house, but that just isn’t practical when you move to a smaller home or a senior living community,” she says. “Our goal is to help seniors decide what they really use and what they should leave behind. We also make sure the items they bring are the right size for the new place.

“No doubt about it – downsizing for seniors is difficult,” she adds. “On the other hand, people often feel revitalized after they’ve moved. They’re ready to take on new activities and experiences because they feel liberated from the old way of doing things. They’re ready for the next stage of their lives.”

A huge thank you to Lucy for her professional advice. For a downloadable PDF of her tips, click here. And for a lighthearted look at what can happen to items that don’t make the “cut,” go to “Downsizing for Seniors: Taking Care of Family Heirlooms.”