Why are you downsizing?

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It’s in the weekend papers and Boomer magazines—top tips for downsizing and de-cluttering. Useful advice, of course, but what is it really all about? Is it just another to-do list, a rite of passage or a major life event?

In truth, downsizing is often a symptom of some major eldercare issues. How can seniors and their families recognize and deal with downsizing’s true significance and manage its impact? Let’s learn from the experience of three families.

Maintaining independence and control

Marla Kittredge, a retired home economics teacher, is fiercely independent. After a mild stroke, she decided to take matters into her own hands and selected her retirement home. The house was sold and the closing date loomed—but she refused to let her niece help her move. After a frustrating Sunday afternoon of clearing and sorting out the old house, she left her niece a voice message—“You’re fired!” But what now?

Marla had moved into her home with her parents when she was a student teacher. She stayed on while all her sisters got married and looked after her parents until they died. She was proud of her career and her ability to run the house to perfection, pay her bills and make all her investment decisions. When she left her niece that message, here was the real issue: No one was going to boss her around! She was used to being listened to and respected, and was extremely sensitive to any hint of condescension or advice. Marla was also depressed about leaving her spacious home, perplexed about transposing her life into a tiny studio suite and beginning to panic.

The downsizing strategy: Respectful assistance

The first step was to ask Marla to outline her daily routine. She then used her home economics training to objectively assess the areas of the house she was actually using, noting the furniture, equipment and its functions. Which domestic activities were being performed and in which “zones” (rather than in which room)? We used graph paper to plot these zones onto the retirement suite’s floor plan to experiment with the flow of activities. In this way we calculated the actual number of square feet required.

From the flow, Marla could see that all her daily activities were possible and actually more efficient in a much smaller space. The bathroom would be closer to the bedroom; food preparation would be nearer the eating area; and the TV would be accessible from both her chair and bed. Her scale drawing was a work of art!

Marla had used the same furniture all her life, so we asked her to use her design training to re-assess each piece on its merits. She was then asked to separate its current use from its potential function. For example, a bedroom chest of drawers would now hold a new and compact flat-screen TV; nesting end tables would replace a bulky coffee table; and a china cabinet would house books and a mini-stereo.

Things were great until packing day and then she dug in her heels again. What was all this extra stuff? Once again, we reviewed the actual need for an item versus its previous functions. She was gradually able to let things go. The tea wagon became a side table, so the silver tea service could be given to a great-niece; a new mini-stereo meant that the turntable, speakers and records could be donated to Goodwill; and when five identical sweaters made it onto the moving pile, two of them were re-sorted and sent off to charity.

The life lesson

Independence is precious and it takes courage to accept help. A frank assessment of a loved one’s values and operating style, as well as a gradual and tactful introduction of help, can prevent an elder’s pride forcing them to do it alone, becoming overwhelmed and exhausted when starting their new life.

Sibling rivalry

Mrs. Stanfield had always loved antiques and, as a popular minister’s wife, she had amassed an impressive collection of silver, china and porcelain—all gifts from grateful parishioners. When her retirement home “respite stay” became permanent, her family gathered to plan her new home. Her two adult daughters were fondly reminiscing over cups and saucers when their sister-in-law shouted, “I saw her Blue Willow tea-set on Antiques Roadshow—don’t tell me she’s so senile she’s given it away!”

Mrs. Stanfield’s friends had given her lovely things because she showed an interest in them as people. She had, in fact, given away the tea-set and several other treasures to caregivers and friends, perhaps not wisely. But, after all, they were hers to do with as she wished. Moreover, she had calmly informed her family that she was trusting them to look after her best interests and take, share or sell her possessions as they saw fit. Any hints for us as we help her make the move? Unfortunately not.

The downsizing strategy: Total transparency

All families have entrenched patterns and roles that are often complicated by the new dynamics of in-laws joining the clan. Add the “stress mode” of a family crisis, sibling rivalry, old resentments and outright greed, and it’s an explosion waiting to happen.

An objective approach was essential to keep this family on speaking terms and achieve the result their mother desired—and deserved. Each family member (a couple being considered as one member) was given stickers in a specific colour, as well as blue stickers representing their mom. Independently, they placed stickers on the items they wanted and a blue sticker on items they thought their mom would need or want. During a final walkthrough, items with duplicate stickers were set aside—and some were well covered! In all cases, a blue sticker took preference and was packed up for Mrs. Stanfield. Items with multiple non-blue stickers were placed on the dining-room table.

The next step was to contact an antiques dealer for a professional valuation of all items, especially the multi-stickered ones. The dealer was friendly but frank—most of the items, although lovely, weren’t rare, complete or in optimum condition, and only had a low market value. So much for Antiques Roadshow! Each family member did a rough dollar-tally of what they wanted, then concentrated on working their way through the disputed items until each felt they had amassed goods of a fairly equal value. It was interesting—some of the most popular items had the lowest appraised value! When they bogged down over a cut-glass vase, the eldest sister grimly affixed a blue sticker—“Mom should have this, anyway.”

The life lesson

Do you own your possessions or do they own you? Start thinking about your own attitudes towards “stuff.” Encourage your parents to talk about their possessions—make a video of your mom and dad telling family stories about them—and ask them to consider identifying or distributing things they would like their family to have now. And remember: It’s their choice, not yours!

Unacknowledged grief

Mrs. Schwartz’s peaceful death at the age of 98 years was certainly not surprising, even to her 75-year-old daughter, Alina. Alina’s Florida condo was bursting with tasteful furnishings. Why, then, was she so upset when her mother’s will left all her furniture to her granddaughter (Alina’s niece)? “She eats in front of the television—why does she need the dining room set?”

Alina Schwartz’s hardworking immigrant parents had kept their fine things “for company only,” so she never felt they were ever hers to experience, much less to own. Her father had died young and her mother, although proud of Alina’s professional success, was critical of her daughter’s life and marriage. As her mother’s executor, Alina meticulously packed the items going to her niece and supervised their delivery. But as the movers began to unpack she lost her composure, crying and pulling things from sealed cartons, as she oversaw their placement in her niece’s apartment.

Many adult children find dealing with their parents’ possessions far more emotional than expected. Their grief over the death resurfaces and they feel vulnerable. “I still feel like child and now I’m an orphan. Who will comfort me?” These emotions don’t recognize age or logic.

The downsizing strategy: Acknowledge the stages of grief

Alina was well aware of the issues to confront, especially the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. “I know it’s irrational, especially at my age, but seeing her things again reminds me that I never had the chance to be part of my mother’s later years. Now she’s frozen me out again by passing me over and giving everything to the grandchildren. Didn’t I matter at all?”

Alina sensibly sought the advice of a professional counsellor to explore her feelings of abandonment and being second best. She realized that despite 25 years of long-distance phone visits, she was out of touch with the daily realities of her mother’s life. She connected with her niece, and learned of the close relationship she had enjoyed with her grandmother for many years.

She learned to appreciate that her mother’s possessions would be among family who would enjoy and take care of them. She spent time with her niece, reminiscing and documenting the history of the family pieces, many of which came from her own grandparents’ home in Europe. Heeding her therapist’s advice, she selected a few treasured things for herself—she may have been 75 years old but she was still a child who had lost a parent. As a final step, Alina honoured her mom’s devotion to opera with a special donation to an opera company in her name.

The life lesson

Regardless of your age, start thinking about losing your parents in terms of the stages of grief. Where are you in the process? If you’re angry or in denial about the prospect, honestly examine your feelings, past and present, and develop a way to make the most of your remaining time with your parents. Look clearly at your attitudes toward “stuff”—what it means to your personal history and how it triggers your emotions. Take time to create a remembrance—maybe photograph favourite items while your parents are still using them.

Summing up

Downsizing is part of the eldercare journey, with its own challenges and rewards. The process is unique to each family, but if you are guided by the principles of honesty and respect, you’ll be on the right track. Have a look at the sidebar for some practical advice.

Practical tips for downsizing

  • Be inclusive
    Seek your parent’s input at every stage—new home-space planning and sorting items to take, give to family, sell, donate and toss. Take digital photos of everything—otherwise you’ll forget what went where.
  • Focus on the benefits
    Downsizing opens up more living options, such as a small condo, rental accommodation or retirement suite.
  • Think it through
    Be realistic about the functions, space and possessions you’ll really need. Think creatively! Visit model suites and friends who have made the transition for ideas.
  • Accept expert help when it’s needed
    You can’t do it alone—and you needn’t. Get expert help from an eldercare planner, professional organizer, mediator, antiques appraiser, mover or decorator. “Rent” the expertise that you need.
  • Expect emotions
    Change is painful for everyone. Even welcome changes can invoke grief, so expect complex feelings and make allowances for each other. Manage your own relationship with your “stuff” and prepare to let things go.
  • Allow sufficient time
    Time pressure can lead to panic, poor decisions and regret. Schedule a family reunion to photograph and disburse items and share stories.
  • Respect a person’s possessions
    You may not wish to sell a lifetime of memories at a yard sale. Consider an auction house, contents sellers or consignment sales, but don’t expect to make a fortune. By all means, donate to established charities, but note that most Canadian charities do not issue tax receipts for charitable donations.
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About Pat Irwin

Pat M. Irwin, BA, CSA, is president of ElderCareCanada and has recently been certified as an eldercare mediator. Visit www.eldercarecanada.ca.

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