For most seniors, moving from a long-time home into an assisted living facility is difficult. For some, it’s nearly paralyzing. In addition to countless other adjustments, the move to senior living typically comes with a significant reduction in living space, even at high-end assisted living communities. Downsizing can be challenging for anyone, but when it’s more or less forced upon a person because of age or infirmity, the process becomes even tougher.

I was fortunate that my parents had chosen to move from their large family home to a smaller house and then an apartment before the thought of senior living even crossed their minds. Those incremental moves forced my parents to part with furniture and other collections of belongings in stages, yet there was still a surprising amount of stuff to dispose of when the need for a final transition became apparent for my dad first and then my mom.

My heart goes out to elders who must leave a house full of a lifetime worth of personal effects to move into a small assisted living apartment. My heart also goes out to families who struggle help their elders through the time-consuming packing and purging process that precedes this move. Emotions run high, sacrifices must be made and patience often wears thin. How can you help your parents through downsizing without reliving every memory an item evokes, being insensitive or rushing them along?

Downsizing Tips for Family Caregivers

First, do your best to understand how hard this move is for your parents. They are leaving behind a home and countless belongings that symbolize years of their lives. At the same time, they are adjusting to the reality that they are losing a bit of their independence by making this move. Empathy and gentle encouragement are crucial for ensuring this process goes smoothly. The following tips can help you respectfully move things along.

  • Think before you speak. Don’t say things like, “How come you hung onto this anyway?” Understand that some people are just savers. Additionally, many of our elders grew up during the depression or other financially trying times, so they’re are afraid to throw anything away in case they might need it someday. Being critical of a loved one’s possessions and decisions to keep or toss certain things can bring the packing process to a screeching halt. The goal is to build trust and support your parents’ move however you can.
  • Plan for their new home and needs. If possible, ask the assisted living facility for the layout and specifications of the residence your parent(s) will be moving into. Making a rough scale drawing of the new room or rooms they’ll be occupying will help everyone be more realistic about how much space there will be and what furniture will work in it.
  • Avoid getting overly sentimental. Don’t make it harder on your parents by getting sentimental about your old basketball jersey or pair of ballet shoes that you found in their closet. If certain things hold emotional value for you, then you need to either take home your own mementos with your parents’ permission or get rid of them. Save space in their new home for their most treasured keepsakes. You don’t have to hide your feelings about the situation, but do your best to cope with any grief and anxiety discreetly on your own—at least until the move is behind you all.
  • Don’t make keep/toss decisions black and white. If your parent needs time to think before putting something in a keep box, a discard pile or a donate bin, provide a third “undecided” option for them. Sometimes this is a necessary step, especially if they have a lot to go through. Prioritize compassion over your need to get things over with. Gently remind your loved one that they will not have as much room as before, but understand that your parent may need to weed through belongings more than once to make confident decisions.
  • Emphasize the positive changes to come. If stress leads to bickering, hurt feelings or anxiety, help everyone involved focus on what lies ahead. Acknowledge that what your parents are doing is difficult, but remind them that they have a new life waiting for them with less housework, no home upkeep, additional friends close by and opportunities to enjoy new hobbies and group adventures. In other words, try to concentrate on the positive aspects of their move even if they are hung up on the negative ones.
  • Use visual cues as incentives. Display the colorful brochures most assisted living facilities use for marketing on a prominent wall while packing and purging. These will serve as reminders to your parent that this move is not the end of the road but rather a transition to another kind of living where countless opportunities await.
  • Appeal to the senior’s charitable nature. If your parent is fond of helping others, take advantage of this characteristic. Research local thrift stores and charities that might be able to use any of the items they must dispose of in the downsizing process. If your parent knows that their donations may help troubled children, homeless families or veterans, they may not feel so upset over having to part with their belongings.
  • Safeguard special memorabilia and keepsakes. Make sure that there’s a designated safe place for photo albums, gifts from grandchildren and other precious possessions while cleaning out your parents’ home. In the chaos of moving, invaluable items can get misplaced or thrown away easily. Try to make space at assisted living for the mementos your parents want on hand and store anything they won’t have room for, either in a storage unit or at your own home.
    Yes, you’ll be adding to your own storage problems, but it should help your parents significantly if they know that their precious keepsakes are being preserved and kept in the family. Unfortunately, miscellaneous items like holiday decorations, your dad’s ancient toolbox or your mom’s craft collection may fall into this category as well. Let them know that you’ll hang onto these things and keep them safe. Just be sure to set a reasonable limit on how much you’ll be able to store or how much will fit in a storage unit.
  • Consider hiring a professional. If the packing and purging hit a rough patch or failed to take off in the first place, it may be wise to bring in a professional organizer or a Senior Move Manager to help your parents through the downsizing process. A neutral third party can provide sound guidance and help seniors feel safe and supported during this vulnerable time.

We often hear that it’s the little things that count the most. Your parent will likely get over leaving behind favorite furniture pieces, clothing and even décor. It’s the items that represent a life well lived and preserve cherished memories that should be kept. Let your loved one be your guide in this process, but stash away items that you think they’d want, even if they don’t say so. You can always weed through those things again later. Try to be generous with your time and your own storage space, at least for now. Your understanding and thoughtfulness could make all the difference in how they accept this move.

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