Helping your parents downsize their home could be one of the hardest things you ever do, both emotionally and practically. There are decades of belongings to deal with – not to mention the inherent tension of a parent-child relationship.
You may even be in a situation where your loved one is not ready to move, but circumstances dictate it. You may encounter anxiety, anger and even a refusal to cooperate. Add to this a possible illness or grief and the process becomes even more challenging.
No matter what the circumstances, here are a few broad guidelines:
Allow plenty of time
You can’t downsize a 30 or 40 year household in a few days. It needs to be done with thoughtfulness and dignity. If possible, work as a team with your parent. The ideal time to do it is before you need to, when they are healthy. Think of doing it with them, rather than for them. Try to do it together, gradually in small areas, each time you visit.
Start with the easy bits
Don’t do the most sentimental items first. Start in a low-stakes area, such as the medicine cabinet, or the linen cupboard. Cleaning out moisturizers or old towels is relatively easy, and rewards parents with instant gratification, inspiring and motivating them to continue. If they love the way the kitchen or medicine cabinets look, they may not need any coaxing to continue.
Save pictures and albums for later. The last thing to go through should be photos. These can easily be digitized by a professional. You can also create an ever-revolving slideshow in a digital frame.
Be encouraging and empathetic
Downsizing can have a huge emotional impact for the person making the change. They may have to let go of possessions that represent their lifelong accomplishments, or go through all the memories of a deceased loved one. They may fear losing control, or feel that their life is no longer their own. As much as you possibly can, be patient, encouraging, and empathetic.
Think of hiring a professional
You might feel obligated to help condense your parent’s belongings and feel guilty if you don’t take the responsibility. However, combining the parent-child dynamic with sorting decades of memories and possessions can be extremely taxing on both parties. If things get fraught enough, it can lead to the entire process being stalled. Downsizing calls upon enormous reserves of patience, sensitivity and kindness on the part of a helper, at a time when emotions and frustrations can run very high. For this reason, it can be extremely helpful to bring in a professional.
A professional does not have an emotional or personal history with the parent. They can be objective and (if necessary), even play a gentle version of “bad cop”, leaving you as the companion, or “ally”. A good professional will have stamina, patience and remain encouraging, no matter what. They will not get triggered or take things personally, even in the face of negative emotions. They will be able to keep things on track, without getting emotionally involved, while still remaining empathetic, kind, positive and supportive.
Give away things whenever possible
Part of the trauma of parting with long-held possessions can be the feeling that the item is being “thrown away” or becomes discarded and meaningless. Rather than selling, try to give away items to new owners who will love and appreciate them, and give them a second life.
Encourage your loved one, but let it be their decision. The more special an item is, the more satisfying it is to hand it off to someone who will really love and use it. If they know the receiver well, this also allows them to feel that the items are “staying in the family”, rather than going to an anonymous destination. Valuable heirlooms or items of special emotional value can even be ceremonially handed over in a special moment.
Think of downsizing as a whole new start
Engage your loved one on the positive aspects of a downsizing move: safety, companionship, no more upkeep on a house and garden; it could be a fresh chance to decorate the way they’ve always wanted. Engage with them in preparing the new space. Above all, be gentle and encouraging, and go at their pace. It can take a while for the idea of downsizing to be accepted and embraced.