Many of today’s boomers are finding themselves caught in the middle of a generational vise: their kids are coming into young adulthood in a weak economy, burdened with student debt, while their aging parents are finally deciding that it’s time to leave the big old family home and downsize. We’ve covered the issue of helping your kids in the past here on the AgingOptions blog; but in many ways the task of helping your folks clean house and move can be even tougher, possibly one of the biggest emotional challenges you’ll face.
That’s why we found this 2020 Washington Post article so compelling, a story we originally brought to you last year. In it, professional organizer Nicole Anzia reveals the secrets of downsizing without drama. We found the topic so timely that we felt it was time to bring it back for another look.
How Do You Downsize a Parent Who’s a Lifelong Collector?
Anzia describes her mom as “a huge collector” of household stuff. “She cherishes the items that have been passed down by family members, has always loved little knickknacks and has been known to splurge on holiday decorations,” Anzia writes. “She has also lived her entire life near a town in Wisconsin where antiques and little tchotchkes are sold in abundance, making it easy to expand those collections. In short, she has a lot of stuff.”
But as it happens eventually with all aging parents, the time finally came to downsize Mom, moving her from a three-level home to a two-bedroom apartment. “The task seemed daunting,” says Anzia, “even for someone who organizes people’s homes for a living and has helped many people move to smaller homes.” However, the process actually went surprisingly well. “Despite the physical work that was required, the process went much more smoothly and quickly than I would have anticipated,” she states.
Here are Anzia’s three keys to downsizing without drama.
Downsize a Parent by Remembering the Importance of Timing
“Although it’s not ideal to make a huge life transition during a global pandemic,” Anzia writes in the Washington Post, “this was the moment when my mom finally felt ready to take the leap. My sister, brother and I had been trying to get her to move for years, without any luck. But this summer, she found an apartment she liked, in a location she wanted, and we were off to the races.” The timing had to be just right.
But don’t wait too long, Anzia advises. One big key to a successful downsizing process lies in talking through the options well in advance – not when ill health or some other emergency demands a quick decision. These advance discussions “give [parents] the opportunity to look around at different options and consider their priorities,” says Anzia. “It also allows them to be in charge, instead of feeling like they’re not in control.”
If Mom or Dad doesn’t want to move, you’re going to have a hard time persuading them, especially if their ability to make big decisions on their own is impaired, so start talking about the process early. “All of this takes time — sometimes years,” says Anzia — “and I find that families get most stressed and frustrated when they try to do something as significant as moving an elderly relative too quickly.”
Downsize a Parent by Being Inquisitive and Intentional
As Anzia writes in the Washington Post, her mom’s excellent memory actually made the process of downsizing go more smoothly. “It was helpful that she could tell me where items had come from, and with some of her antiques, what they had been used for,” she states. “I could also ask whether she had used something in the past year to determine if she really needed it, and I was able to make sure that my siblings and I could each have something we wanted from past generations.”
Make sure your adult sibs are involved to avoid hard feelings or misunderstanding. “Talk with siblings and other family members about whether they are interested in any furniture, collections or heirlooms,” Anzia says. “My siblings and I had discussed what each of us wanted years ago. Some people may think that dividing up someone’s possessions while they’re still alive is morbid, but it actually creates peace of mind for everyone and helps to avoid conflict over valuable items in the event of a health emergency or death.”
Downsize a Parent by Practicing Shared Decision-Making
No matter how great the need to downsize, kids need to approach the process with understanding. “I have found that it’s important to try to avoid making judgments about every decision,” Anzia writes, “and to instead have some empathy for all that the person who is downsizing is giving up.” This tension can be aggravated when the kids already have “a clear idea of what they think should be kept and what should be given away, often without knowing the history behind an item or why it’s sentimental and something to be kept.” The result can be a tense situation where a parent feels ashamed and defensive.
Instead, Anzia emphasizes, enter into downsizing with an open mind. “When people are downsizing, they’re not only saying goodbye to valued possessions, but they’re also saying goodbye to a certain part of their life. That is hard. But if everyone acknowledges what makes the process difficult, it will go more smoothly.” The important elements are compromise and compassion, not acting dictatorial or demanding toward your parent.
“A move is never easy,” Anzia’s article concludes, “and when it involves downsizing a parent, it is even more fraught. Not everything with my mom’s recent move went smoothly. There were some arguments and some tears, as well as healthy doses of both sadness and happiness. But I believe it went as well as possible, because the timing was right, and it was done deliberately and with understanding.”
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(originally reported at www.washingtonpost.com)