You’ve watched your parents getting older. You’ve helped with little jobs they struggled with. You’ve dropped hints from time to time that they might like to downsize to make life easier. Now they have taken the decision and the once distant prospect is becoming a reality. How can you help them in a practical way to prepare for one of the biggest changes they face in their later years? In particular, how can you help them as they sort through the possessions accumulated over a lifetime?
Choose the Moment
The golden rule about downsizing is to start early. That applies to the whole process, as too many elderly people put off the discussion until too late. It also applies to the practicalities, including what to do with all the stuff. Your parents have accumulated it over many years, and each piece has been part of the process of making this place a home. Dealing with these things takes sensitivity and sensitivity takes time.
Before you can start deciding about possessions, you need to know what sort of space your parents will have. There may not be time after the contracts have been signed, so you need a basic decision early. For instance, if they are moving into assisted living, you will need to get a clear picture about the details about senior living in the accommodation you choose.
There may be a certain amount of psychology attached to the moment you start the action. Some people recommend that winter is a good time, just after the holidays, when everyone is desperate for something to look forward to. Whenever you choose, it should be the time when your parents are feeling it would be nice to have a break from routines which are becoming a burden to them.
Start With the Easy Stuff
Some of the decisions will be hard, with memories attached to treasured items. But some will be easy, so start with the things that we all accumulate over time without any particular significance. It may help to focus on the rooms that are most practical, like the kitchen and the bathroom. Search through for multiples and things that have not been used for years. An elderly person or couple probably does not need a stack of casserole dishes, and at the back of every drawer, ou will find things that have never been used at all.
Once your parents have started choosing, they may get the bit between their teeth and go forward with more enthusiasm.
Hand Back Control
No matter what stage your parents are at, make sure that they feel in control of the process. You are there to advise and persuade, but they will rightly resent it if they feel their hands are being forced. You need to give them time to tell you the stories behind items you unearth—it can be frustrating if you don’t have much time, but it is worth it.
Try to avoid the easy path of agreeing to put a load of stuff into storage. You will probably never retrieve it until it is time to dispose of it after paying out needlessly for years. Insist that decisions need to be made now.
Giving vs Selling
A particularly tricky issue relates to the things that your parent regards as having monetary value. It can be very hard for someone to accept that a collection of ornaments which they have lovingly accumulated over years at some expense or, worse, which a canny salesman assured them was a good investment is, in fact, worth little or nothing now. The things that are prized by one generation rarely hit the mark with the next.
A little online research will probably give you an idea about whether this is the case for your parents’ stuff. If, to your surprise, you discover that collectors are still interested, you can easily set up an eBay account. If, on the other hand, it is really not worth the trouble, you may be able to persuade them to give it away. Only agree to take things yourself if you genuinely would like to have them. Otherwise, see if you can track down charity shops that might take them.
Being a Grown-Up
Few things make you realize the passage of time like the experience of having to guide through difficult decisions the people who once guided you. Emotionally and practically, it will be among the most stressful periods of your life. But handled with patience and care, it can be a time of growth for both of you.
Bethany Gardiner works as a family counselor and she loves to provide insights and help to families in need. She also enjoys writing about her experiences on numerous lifestyle and family websites.