Part of what makes downsizing later in life challenging is the complicated relationship we have with our possessions. Some of our things hold special meaning for us, but a lot have simply accumulated in our homes over the years. In fact, as it comes time to sort through our stuff, we may encounter many items we forgot we had.
Some people are downright dismayed by all the things they have stored away, rarely if ever seeing the light of day. Of course, when they first put them away, it may well have been with the intent of pulling them out again someday. But that day never came.
And so it is, as they prepare to downsize, they’re faced with hundreds (if not thousands) of trying, little decisions about what to do with each thing that won’t fit in their new, smaller home.
Asking for help can leave you feeling vulnerable
Sorting through your belongings is an enormous task. It can take months. And if you approach it without help, it can easily overwhelm you, both emotionally and physically.
But there’s a certain vulnerability that comes with seeking help. Belongings that remained private while they sat tucked away in our homes become open to scrutiny by others, observes David J. Ekerdt, author of Downsizing: Confronting Our Possessions in Later Life.
What we own says something about us. Consequently, we may be concerned what people – including our adult children – may think of us when they uncover all the “junk” we’ve amassed over the years.
Trying to delay the inevitable
Now, you may think this makes perfect sense, but you’re not entirely confident that your parents will take your advice to plan ahead. After all, for most of your life, they were the ones giving you advice. Advice that may have sounded somewhat similar. Advice that you may not have always welcomed
For some people over the age of 65, the thought of going through all their possessions can be so intimidating it scares them off the idea of downsizing in the first place. But this may simply be delaying the inevitable.
At some point, they may have no choice but to move from their current home for health reasons. And if that happens, it may fall to their adult children to go through their belongings, often in a rush. And so, they themselves may have little control over what stays with them, finds a new owner, or ends up in the dump.
On the other hand, if they manage to live out their days in their current home, they will have effectively saddled their children with the huge task of sifting through everything they own after their death.
For these reasons, it’s usually in everyone’s best interests to start the process of thinning out your possessions now, while you have the time, energy, and physical ability, even if you’re on the fence about downsizing.
Sorting and packing is a much bigger task than many people anticipate
If you’ve have already made the decision to move, be sure to give yourself plenty of time. Many seniors that Ekerdt and his colleagues interviewed said that sorting and packing was a much bigger task than they anticipated. Some spent six months doing it and still felt rushed in the final week.
Mind you, if you don’t have that much time, it can still be done. In fact, some would say that having a looming deadline can make you get things done in a shorter timeframe and keep you from dithering or procrastinating.
On the other hand, rushing through the process can take an additional emotional toll, ramping up your anxiety and worry. According to Ekerdt, this can be especially difficult for someone already feeling “beaten down” from doing other things like being a caregiver for an ailing spouse.
If you can afford to hire someone like a senior move manager to relieve you of some of the emotional and physical work, it can certainly be worth it.
Where people sometimes get stuck
It’s normal to want to find a good home for possessions you can’t take with you, especially if you believe they still have value. For instance, you may give something to a relative to “keep it in the family.” Or you may feel good about donating an item if you believe that someone will be able to find a use for it. Or you may derive satisfaction from selling something for a good price.
The trouble is things might not live up to your expectations. Maybe none of your kids want to take your dining room set or silverware. Goodwill won’t accept your TV because it’s too old. An antique dealer offers you a fraction of what you think a precious heirloom is worth.
And when all is said and done, you probably spent much more time and energy than you planned achieving what turned out to be disappointing results. For example, your adult children kept putting you off when you asked whether they were interested in certain items because they didn’t want to come right out and say no. As a result, the process ended up taking months rather than days.
For this reason, Ekerdt warns people not to try to find “good homes” for too many things. “Homes that are good enough will do.”
But sometimes this is easier said than done.
Why we become attached to certain things
It’s easy to be caught off guard by how emotionally attached you are to somethings – even items that no longer serve a purpose.
Ekerdt relates a story of a woman putting an old crib out to the curb on trash day. Her children had grown up and left home long ago, but when she looked out her dining room window and saw the arm of the garbage truck crush the crib, she was overcome by grief. In that instant, she recalled her babies teething in it.
Possessions sometimes become part of your extended self, and when they are disposed of, so is a part of yourself.
You may become conflicted about belongings you consider special. For instance, a prized shelf of books that you thoughtfully acquired over the years says something important about who you are. But when it’s time to decide whether to move them, you can’t ignore that they sure are heavy.
If you’ve lost your spouse, you may at times be comforted by things that remind you of them and, at other times, deeply saddened. Should you hold on to them or let them go? Often, there’s no easy answer.
Three criteria for deciding what to take with you
In the face of these complexities, we tend to rely on mental shortcuts or rules of thumb to get us through. Ekerdt describes three of these.
- Fit. When deciding what to bring, you may ask yourself whether an item will fit in your new home. In this way, you’re using the space available as a reality check.
- Usefulness. Is an item useful or necessary in your new household? This will include practical things like cutlery, linens, or lamps. Do you need a car at my new home?
- Me/Not-Me. Is this thing “me?” In other words, does it say something positive or important about me as a person? Or is it an important part of my life story?
Preparing to downsize
All sorts of books, websites, and TV programs provide advice on downsizing. And while many people consult them, rarely do they follow the advice they contain. That’s because knowing something and applying it to your situation are two different things.
You probably understand this from other difficult things you may have tried to do in your life. Lose weight. Become a parent.
No matter how much information you absorb on the topic, actually doing it is ultimately up to you. Chances are you’ll encounter setbacks along the way, possibly something the books, or websites, or TV programs didn’t talk about.
Or maybe you’ve collected all sorts of good general advice on how to downsize, but when it comes to figuring out where you can donate and sell specific items in your community, you have to start from scratch.
That’s when you’re left to your own devices, to figure it out for yourself. Unless you know a trustworthy “old hand” or expert you can turn to, that is.
This is another reason why paying a local expert in downsizing can be a good investment. Depending on the type of expert you choose, they can
- quickly identify what to do with all your possessions after you sort them, potentially saving you many hours trying to figure this out for yourself.
- save you time and effort by transporting these items wherever they need to go.
- help you with the sorting process and suggest ways to get unstuck as you run into any roadblocks.
- create a step-by-step downsizing plan with you, thus breaking down what may feel at the outset like an overwhelming undertaking into a sequence of more manageable tasks.
Selling your current home
There’s also the matter of selling your current home. And you may still be looking for your new home. A real estate agent can help you there.
The thing is, selling a home when you’re over 65 is a lot different from selling or buying a home in your 20s or 40s. That’s why looking for a realtor with expertise in downsizing is usually a good idea.
In Canada, one way to identify a real estate agent with that sort of expertise is to look for someone with an ASA or Accredited Senior Agent designation.
Accredited Senior Agents tend to be a different breed. They’re more likely to spend time helping you explore your downsizing options than standard real estate agents. They’re also more tuned into issues related to wills, estates, finances, and taxes that seniors need to pay special attention to.
And they often have connections with other local downsizing experts who can help you – senior move managers, lawyers, tax specialists, stagers, and tradespeople.
Some Accredited Senior Agents will work with you even if you’re uncertain whether downsizing is really for you.
I’m Lisa Sinopoli, a Master Accredited Senior Agent in the Vaughan area. Whether you’re just considering downsizing or you’ve actually decided to get the process started, I can help you avoid mistakes that many other downsizers make.
I’m happy to give you a free, no-obligation consultation. You can reach me at …