11 Strategies for Downsizing for a Move to Assisted Living


For most seniors, moving from their home of many years into an assisted living facility is difficult. For some, it's nearly paralyzing. Even if they are moving to a very nice assisted living environment, the move will likely mean a significant loss of space, especially if they are leaving a house. Downsizing – the term often used for weaning ourselves from long-time possessions – can be hard for anyone. When it's more or less forced upon someone because of age or infirmity, the process becomes even tougher.

My parents had moved from a fairly large family home to a smaller house, and eventually to an apartment, before my mom and I looked at assisted living facilities for her. By then, Dad was in a nursing home. Those gradual moves forced my parents to part with furniture and other collected belongings, yet there was still a lot to jettison when the need for a final move became apparent. My heart goes out to elders and their families when they are leaving a house that has been home for decades to move into a small assisted living room. How can you help your parent or parents through this downsizing?

  • First, do your best to accept and understand how hard this is emotionally for your parents. They have to part from a home and belongings that symbolize years of their lives, while adjusting to the reality that they are now in a vulnerable position with their health.
  • Think before you speak. Don't say things like, "How come you hung onto this, anyway?" Some people are just savers. Additionally, many of our elders grew up during the depression or other financially hard times and are afraid to throw anything away in case they will need it someday.
  • Make a rough scale drawing of the new room or rooms they will occupy. This will help everyone to be more realistic about how much room there will be and what furniture will work.
  • Don't make it harder on your parents by getting sentimental about your old basketball jersey that's still in their closet. You need to either take home your own reminders of the past or get rid of them. Do your best to cope with any existing grief of your own when you are away from your parent.
  • If your parent needs time to think before putting something in a discard pile or a donate bin, provide a third "undecided" option. Sometimes this is a necessary step. Keep compassion above your need to get it over with. Gently remind your loved one that there will not have as much room as at home, but understand that your parent may need to weed through belongings more than one time. Once their things are cut in half, you can go back and start again.
  • If both parents are involved, don't play into their marital dynamics if the stress leads them to argue about who needs to throw out what. Acknowledge that what they are doing is difficult, but remind them that they have a new life ahead of them with less work, no more hiring out home upkeep, additional friends and opportunities for group adventures. In other words, you can concentrate on the positive part of their move even if they are stuck in the negative.
  • Display the colorful brochures most assisted living facilities use for marketing. These visual cues will remind your parents that this move is not the end of the road, but a transition to another kind of living.
  • If your parent is fond of helping others, take advantage of this mentality. Do some research into local thrift stores. Many of them are run by charities. If your parent knows that what they donate may help troubled children or homeless families they may not feel quite so bereft over having to part with some belongings.
  • Make certain that there's a safe place for photo albums, gifts from grandchildren and other precious possessions. Try to make space in the assisted living. If your parent won't have room, store the items yourself.
  • Pictures and books can be very personal. Try to keep as many of these items as you can. Of course, keep family heirlooms even if you have to store them. 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. Holiday decorations may fall into this category.
  • If your dad loved his tools, try to keep his tool box. Let him know that you'll keep it safe at your home. If your mom has hobbies from the past, try to preserve some of her craft tools for the time being.

We often hear that it's the little things that count. There's something to that saying. Your parent will likely get over leaving behind furniture, some clothing and even decorative objects. It's the items that preserve memories over decades that should be kept. Let your loved one be your guide, but stash away items that you think they'd want even if they don't say so. You can always weed through those things 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 how they acceptance this move.

Carol Bradley Bursack

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Over the span of two decades, author, columnist, consultant and speaker Carol Bradley Bursack cared for a neighbor and six elderly family members. Her experiences inspired her to pen, "Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories," a portable support group book for caregivers.

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Two suggestions for downsizing. Create a photobook or scrapbook of valued possessions that need to go as a result of downsizing. Take good photographs and write a blurb about each item, using you loved one's memories about the items. Your loved one can take the scrapbook or photo book to the assisted living facility. They can se the book to share memories with others or reminisce by themselves. These books provide a way to tap into their long memory.
Many items can be sold on eBay or Craigslist with better results than estate sales, where good items go first and lots of bargaining on the last day. You can donate the results of the sales to a favorite charity. If you live in a large city or larger town, there are often sellers who specialize in craigslist and eBay sales. Do check their references if you decide to use this method of disposal. Consignment stores are also a way to dispose of items. Bt do understand their pricing and markdown policies before you turn over your items.
Something to factor in: If your mom/dad is moving into memory care, please be aware that many things turn up "missing" all the time only to be found weeks (months?) later in another residents room. Avoid bringing any valuable possessions (jewelry, etc) and understand that anything you bring is at risk of loss or damage. I am just speaking from experience. I wish you a peaceful transition.
Perfect timing. We're in the middle of choosing the best of two good choices for mom's assisted living and she's in the middle of going through *all* of her stuff. I need to be reminded periodically that it is compassion, first and foremost during stressful times.