Helping your parents downsize is an emotional process for you and for them. With some compassion, tact, preparation, and possibly some outside help, it can be a smooth experience for everyone involved.
Before Helping Your Parents, Prepare Yourself Mentally and Emotionally
Sometimes the emotional aspect of downsizing goes overlooked as you focus on the more practical aspects. Checking in with yourself and setting your perspective goes a long way in creating a more positive experience.
Recognize that this won’t be easy.
Even with a plan, downsizing can bring up some tough emotions. Expect the process to be a little messy and stressful, and be compassionate towards your parents and yourself.
Downsizing can be especially difficult if your parents are leaving the family home, or if an upsetting circumstance triggered the downsize. On top of that, it often takes longer than expected, depending on how many possessions must be decluttered. Put yourself in your parents’ shoes as best you can. A little patience goes a long way.
Don’t try to take over.
Unless there is an issue of impaired cognitive function, know that your parents are ultimately the decision makers. Trying to force them into anything will only be counterproductive. If your parents are losing cognitive functioning, still be respectful and involve them as much as you reasonably can, so they feel they still have some control.
Here are some tips to simplify relocation for parents with memory impairment.
Be receptive to the experience.
Try to have an open mind and find something positive about the experience. What will you discover as you look through years worth of memorabilia, furniture, and photos? It can be exciting to pretend you’re on a quest for treasures from your family’s past.
Have some fun.
Even if helping your parents downsize isn’t exactly the first thing on your to-do list, shift the focus to giving back to your parents and spending quality time with them. You may look back on this one day and find that you made some good memories along the way.
Have a calm-down plan.
In moments of strong emotion, it’s okay to take a break. Maybe you’ll agree to separate for a bit, go for a walk, or get some ice cream. Practice some stress-management techniques and have a plan with your parents ahead of time to mitigate conflict.
Approach the Downsizing Conversation Tactfully
The best-case scenario is to talk before it’s absolutely necessary to downsize. Bringing up the topic in a subtle way can open the doors to conversation, which eventually leads to planning.
Some parents may feel a deep sense of loss when talking about downsizing. Approach the topic empathetically can mitigate hurt feelings and keep things productive.
Here are some examples of how you might bring it up:
- "Have you thought about moving into a single story home sometime in the future?"
- "If you ever want some help going through those boxes in your shed, I’d be happy to volunteer."
- "I’ve decided to take a 30-day declutter challenge before I start my spring cleaning. Would you like to join me?"
Some other tips to guide your conversation:
- Be respectful.
- Don’t use the word "junk" in reference to their possessions.
- Express that you care for their best interests.
- Let them know the final decision is theirs.
- Be thoughtful about when to bring up downsizing. Avoid high-stress occasions such as holidays or an anniversary of a death.
Plan Ahead with Your Parents if Possible
Unanticipated situations often force older adults to downsize. Try to establish a plan and date ahead of time, before a crisis strikes.
Depending on your parents' mental competency, you may need to help them decide whether to age in place, move to an assisted living facility, or rightsize.
Get a clear grasp of how your parents would like to live in their new home. For example:
- Are your parents willing and able to do yardwork? If so, how much?
- Do your parents spend a lot of time outdoors?
- Will any pets be moving with them?
- Are your parents fully retired or do either or both of them still work?
- How many vehicles, if any, will your parents have?
Questions like these are pivotal in planning a successful move.
And finally, determine ahead of time what you will do with decluttered items. For example:
- Where will you donate items, and who will drop off donations?
- Who will remove trash and recyclable items? Will you need to hire a service?
- Are their heirlooms or antiques that your parents want to keep in the family? How will those items be delivered to the recipients?
- Do your parents want to sell any of their items? (If so, Caring Transitions can help.)
- Are siblings or friends available to help? Will you be hiring a third party to help move, declutter, appraise items, or stage an estate sale?
Once a location has been selected and you begin the downsizing process, here are some tips to keep everything moving smoothly:
Stay organized. Keep all move-related information in one place.
Work incrementally. Taking breaks can mitigate decision fatigue. Avoid decluttering every day of the week, and work in one- to two-hour segments. Even if you’re pressed for time, it’s usually counterproductive to work nonstop.
Uphold normalcy. Disrupt your parents’ daily routine as little as possible to provide a sense of normalcy in the midst of this transition.
Time to Start Helping Your Parents Downsize
Begin with the least sentimental items, such as stacks of old bills or expired food in the pantry. Decision-making becomes easier as you get used to it, and that will help you and your parents prepare for the items that will bring up memories.
Sort items using labeled bins or bags—trash, donate, give to siblings, keep, and recycle. Keep a “maybe” section for items that may be too hard to decide right then. You can revisit them in a week or so to avoid regret.
Should you keep anything in storage? This can be an expensive way to delay the inevitable; but it depends on your parents’ situation, what they want to store, and if they can afford storage.
Be patient and celebrate progress as you go, even something as simple as the first item decluttered!
Focus on positive aspects of your parents’ new home.
Take photos of sentimental items that must be decluttered and hang the photos in their new home. Allowing your parents to say goodbye to things can give them closure and be therapeutic, but it could also be distressing and delay decisions. A little sensitivity and judgment on your part is necessary.
Make it fun! Serve your favorite foods and beverages. Find ways to make the ambiance more upbeat by playing music and laughing together.
Discuss moving day. Should your parents be present as the moving crew clears out the house? They might want to say goodbye to the house ahead of time, or they might want to oversee their things being loaded away. Discuss the details of moving day with your parents ahead of time so everyone knows what to expect.
Are you preparing to help your parents downsize? Learn more about how Caring Transitions can help with relocation, downsizing services, and estate sales.