WRITTEN BY PATRICIA LEE
When the child is the one charged with helping the parents downsize, these guidelines can smooth the process.
Many seniors eventually need to downsize to a smaller space, whether to a retirement community, a nursing facility or a room in a family member’s home. Often, the task of decluttering and packing falls to their children.
If you’re the person faced with going through an aging parent’s belongings, it may be tempting to rent a storage unit and just pack it all away. However, that can be an expensive way to merely delay the inevitable. Instead, I recommend you start the decluttering process as soon as possible. Here are some tips to help you through it.
1. Acknowledge the true magnitude of the task. Moving from a home filled with years of memories can be a very emotional process for your parents. Not only do they have to downsize the physical memories of perhaps as long as a lifetime, but moving may also summon unwanted reminders of their mortality.
For both parent and child, decluttering takes patience. And for the child especially, it can be difficult to stay motivated, since you won’t directly reap the rewards of a tidier space. Further, your decluttering standards may be different than those of your parents. What you consider trash may be your parents’ treasures, and this can sometimes lead to friction. It’s important, though, to involve your parents in the decision-making process rather than taking over completely. Soliciting their input and accommodating their desires is a way to show them you value their decisions and respect their belongings.
So before you get started, mentally prepare yourself for what’s to come. Know that some items may be easy to declutter, such as clothing that doesn’t fit. Others will take more time, patience and thought.
3. Understand your parents’ lifestyle. Getting a snapshot of how your parents plan to live in their new home will help you narrow down what they keep – with the goal of retaining only what they actually love or need. Even if you think you understand their lifestyle already, it can be helpful to sit down together and sketch out a few details that can serve as guidance as you sort.
For example, if your parents typically launder their clothes once a week, then 10 to 14 sets of clothing for each season would be more than enough to last between washes. If they won’t be entertaining at their new location, they may feel confident donating their punch bowls and tablecloths. If formal events are few and far between, then three to four comfortable formal outfits may suffice.
- What type of clothing do you need? (Daily comfort wear? Weekly church outfits? Occasional formal outfits?)
- What is your current range of clothing sizes? Is it OK to donate all clothing outside of this range?
- To what extent will you be cooking and baking?
- Will you be entertaining? If so, what would be the maximum number of guests?
- Which suitcases and bags are no longer practical for travel (too large to manage, lacking wheels)?
- Will you want to decorate seasonally?
- Which books do you still read and which music do you still listen to?
4. Start with the least sentimental items. As with most things, practice makes perfect. My clients have found that the decision to keep, toss, sell or donate becomes easier the more you practice. Starting your decluttering process with the least sentimental items, such as linens and clothing, and working your way toward the most sentimental, such as photos and letters, can be a helpful way to ease into harder decision-making territory.
5. Declutter by category rather than room. Separating your decluttering into categories is helpful in terms of keeping your parents – and yourself – motivated and focused. It’s easier to make decisions when items are grouped, as this helps you see all at once how many belongings you’re dealing with. Also, you can all feel a sense of accomplishment with the completion of each category. I recommend separating items into the smallest categories possible. For example, instead of creating a category of tops, separate the items further into short sleeves, long sleeves, sweaters. Accessories can be separated into belts, hats, scarves and handbags.
One possible way to ease the permanence of losing sentimental items is to take photographs of them. However, I don’t recommend this in cases where the photograph can’t be filed away immediately, whether in a digital album or a physical scrapbook. If there is no defined location for the photograph, whether digital or physical, then it becomes clutter. Also, if it’s likely that looking at these photographs will bring on feelings of regret for your parents, I also don’t recommend this method.