You’ve got a piece of artwork from nearly every grandchild, but also all the artwork of your now-grown children. Plus their trophies and maybe a few boxes of clothes they asked you to store. And a garage full of sports equipment that hasn’t seen daylight in a decade and the wedding dress from your grandmother you thought, just maybe, would get worn again. Someday.
If that sounds as familiar as the sinking feeling from contemplating what to do with it all, it might be time to downsize.
“Seniors are living longer and are more active than they were years ago,” said Karin E. Fried, professional organizer and productivity consultant out of Missoula, Mont. She has 20 years experience, including certification from the Institute of Challenging Disorganization, which deals specifically with elder issues.
“They want to experience new things. They have more hobbies and volunteer more than they used to.”
Fried works with all ages to manage their resources, from time management to decluttering to addressing hoarding.
Her services include seminars for school-age children on the benefits of being organized as well as virtual and in-person consulting for individuals and businesses.
Her advice on downsizing? Start early.
“I’ve seen a lot of people in their late 50s starting to consider moving to a smaller house with less upkeep. Once the kids are gone, a big house is just an empty space to clean for no reason,” said Fried. “Also, more seniors are traveling more and don’t want to be burdened with a large house—they would rather use the money for other things.”
The benefits of downsizing earlier in life—versus waiting until it’s necessary due to a change in financial or physical health—are numerous, said Fried.
You’re more in control and can take your time and involve others in the process. For example, you can ask friends or family to help, or find out what they want to keep for themselves.
According to Fried, you’re not stuck storing stuff…again. Set a deadline for when items must be picked up. Be generous, but firm, she said. After that, be willing to donate or toss the items.
Becca Manwaring of Discover Organization in Idaho Falls, Idaho concurred. “If they don’t want it in their houses, it’s probably not too important, and you don’t need it taking up space in your house or apartment.”
Manwaring, who describes herself as the kid who helped clean up her friends’ rooms, suggestes that part of giving things away to friends and family should involve the narrative behind the objects tying us to the past.
“Have a ‘family story’ night, and talk about some of those things, or at least get the stories written down,” she suggested. Part of that process helps clarify what has the most meaning and whether or not it’s in the “keep” pile.
Of course, significant friends and family should also know about your important documents—downsizing might lead to finally making that will you’ve been putting off—and what goes where after you’re gone. “Laying out your wishes to begin with can help ease family member quarrels and confusion later on,” said Manwaring.
Another reason to start early? Downsizing can be physically demanding. Fried advises taking breaks, working for shorter time periods, or hiring someone to help.
If you get help, advises Manwaring, outline and communicate the tasks you’d like help with, yet be open to suggestions.
“It can be frustrating to invite someone to help, and he or she starts throwing things away right and left and rearranging stuff in ways you don’t like.”
Both Fried and Manwaring acknowledge the emotional impact of downsizing, especially with 30, 40, or 50 years of memories invested in a particular place.
“It can be great to remember all of the good times you’ve had—but it stops the decluttering process, because as you pick up each piece you relive the memory,” said Fried. While that’s not bad, it will draw out the downsizing process.
According to Manwaring, “Tidying up” expert Marie Kondo actually recommends prolonging the decluttering process.
“She talks about holding each item and letting your body react to it, a process she calls ‘spark joy,’” said Manwaring.
A question to ask yourself is why you’re holding onto things, said Manwaring. “The main point of organizing and tidying is that you are confronting yourself—why do I need this? Am I scared of running out? Am I avoiding something? Is it attached to a good time in my childhood?”
Learn to trust yourself on what to keep or not, she said. “Don’t be afraid of losing your past or your identity by letting things go.” ISI