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How to make downsizing a good experience

Sarah Macnaught, founder of London-based home organising company Rightsize, shares her hints and tips for helping your parent decide what to keep, what to sell and what to give away when it comes moving their belongings from the family home.

When downsizing becomes a pressing need for a parent, due to illness, bereavement, finances or desire to be closer to family members, it’s no longer just about relocating from one home to the next. It’s a move that needs to recognise the fragility of growing old and the letting go of time- honoured possessions with compassion and thoughtfulness.

For anyone who has lived long term in a family home, the process of downsizing isn’t always obvious. An older person can often feel overwhelmed and helpless as they realise the sheer size of the task ahead. If you don’t live nearby then supporting your parent as they begin this process can be difficult.

Extensive qualitative research into the practical aspects of downsizing in later life has been undertaken at the University of Kansas Lifespan Institute. Its findings have really helped me in my work as a National Association of Senior Move Managers (NASMM) qualified Senior Move Manager here in London.

Understanding what’s important
If you want to support your parents, first you need to understand the three basic reasons why we keep things:

– sentimental (strong memory association)

– useful (is useful, could be useful, could be valuable)

– aesthetic (simply pleasurable or beautiful)

Understanding the reason behind holding on to the possession allows us to deal with the emotional issues faced by the downsizer. A bit of empathy can go a long way here.

Conversely, many items are just simply stored because the amount of energy required to sort through and discard them would be far higher than the energy taken to put it away somewhere for another time. We are energy conservers, by nature.

Now for the downsizing process
The contraction of a family home brings about a series of processes that need to be sorted through no matter what the time frame.

It’s important to ensure you’re assisting your parent’s decisions rather than asserting your beliefs. Self-determination for the person in transition is fundamental to my work even if there is still too much stuff by our own standards: do not judge.

Here’s the process I’ve adapted from The Life Span Institute research to ensure the most successful downsizing experience.

Help make a list of those items your parent absolutely must keep. These are the things that bring joy on a daily basis or are essential for healthy living.

Study the floor plan and measurements of the new home and carefully select only those items of furniture that will fit in well and still leave good clear circulation areas – with room for further adaptations as required.

The art of giving and receiving needs some very close examination and practice here. If belongings have been kept with someone in mind, ensure that it will be received with thanks and appreciation.

If it’s inappropriate for the recipient – great grandma’s mahogany sideboard for the 20 year old student! – then discuss the likely outcomes with your parent and find a more suitable recipient or solution (see below).

Gift again
I cannot stress the importance of giving and receiving. The art of storytelling, the creation of memories, safe passage of personal objects, and the building of a lasting legacy creates incredible peace of mind for the ageing population. In short, they will be reassured that they will not be forgotten.

It is time for the stories to be told, the photo albums to be described, the 35mm slides to be viewed on a borrowed lightbox and sorted. These are lovely activities that should be shared with family. If onset of dementia is an issue, this memory creation phase is critical to both the parent and their relatives.

Sometimes your parent’s perceived value of their possessions, unless your parent is an avid ‘Flog It!’ viewer, is much higher than its true market value and this can be a crushing blow. Managing the financial expectations of my clients needs a lot of tact and diplomacy. Hence I try to “Gift Again”. The outcome is so much more positive than a few pounds in the bank for 50-year-old “too good to be used” wedding presents.

Okay if you must. This is usually the most tedious and unrewarding part of the downsizing process. Sometimes I have seen big wins with wines going to auction beyond expectation. On the other hand I’ve seen people try to sell beautiful antique books without success to specialist dealers from Charring Cross to Oxford and reputable auction houses in between. You could also try your luck with listings on eBay and Gumtree but this may be something you’ll have to make time to do for your parent.

The American and Australian market for garage sales is brilliant for brisk business at home. In the UK though we have to lug our stuff in cars and vans to carboot sales and markets at ungodly hours of the morning. Fun as these sales can be, the lurking early traders and clientele demand that you are vigilant with your goods and drive a good but fair bargain for sales – while keeping an eye on your car… don’t do it alone.

Here is the fun bit. Each of my clients determines which charity their goods will be donated to. With an end sight in mind, there is very active selection and dispersal of possessions in this way. I ensure my clients complete Gift Aid forms whenever possible for additional funding.

In general older people love to give back to those who’ve supported them in some way or who they have previously helped in their own charitable works – hospices, cancer research, homeless centres etc. I love this part of my work. It’s time consuming if more than one charity is chosen but so worthwhile. Goes hand in hand with gifting: appreciation is key!

If your parent doesn’t need a certain item, the chances are you don’t either. If it can’t be donated or sold then the last move here is to discard it. Thankfully our recycling centres are very sophisticated in how we dispose of our goods, so do expect to have to separate the wood from the batteries, and the small electrical from the mattresses.

Living in Kenya for three years taught me that rubbish isn’t for collection, it’s for redistribution. Recycle responsibly. The occasional sobering trip to the tip might help all of us consume a little more responsibly and see the worthlessness of too much stuff.

There will be an extraordinary array of decades old bank statements, cheque books, headed stationery and insurance claims. They need to be shredded. Personal identity theft and data protection are very real issues. Shredders are cheaper than law suits – get two if needs be or contact a data management company to have them commercially shred documentation on site. They will always issue a certificate of destruction.

It’s a good idea to try to enlist the help of a professional home organiser through apdo-uk or NASMM qualified Senior Move Managers in the UK. They can manage the entire move process for your parent(s) and help with unpacking and resettling issues when you can’t be there. Transition management is a huge industry in the US and set to expand rapidly here in the UK once we all realise that such services exist.

Start now – before it’s urgent
Meanwhile, you do not need to wait until your parent’s willing to move home to start the downsizing process.

Try this simple idea. For Christmas, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and birthdays give them a large empty box, with a note that says “Fill Me”. It’s time for them to fill that box with all the things they have been saving for you, hoping that you will love to have it back one day.

If you or your parent would like Sarah’s help downsizing in the UK call 07792 298 595 or email [email protected]

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A few more articles you may find useful:

What are the retirement housing options for my parent?

Would a homeshare scheme suit your parent?

Retiring to the country – 8 things to discuss

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