Gentle Beginnings When Helping Seniors Downsize

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You know that feeling you get when you have to tackle a big project and aren’t sure where to begin? Imagine it; only now imagine your joints and muscles don’t move like they used to. Your vision is less sharp. Perhaps you even are in physical pain when you move around too much. You have some unspoken anxieties about aging. Oh, and imagine those feelings magnified tenfold.

This is the feeling many aging parents have when their children approach them with the suggestion, “It is time to go through your things and declutter or downsize your home.”

Helping Seniors Downsize

When a parent (or parents) agree that they will begin to downsize their belongings so they can move to a smaller space, the temptation many children have is to grab a trash bag and begin to throw things away.

This is one of the worst approaches to helping your parents downsize.  You need to approach the downsize conversation in an emotionally-friendly way. A gentle beginning is the best beginning.

The first question they likely will ask is, “Where would we even start?”

Before you decide to empty the kitchen or tackle their bedroom, begin small. Calmly suggest to begin with a closet, or a cupboard that isn’t often used. Be patient and start making suggestions, but don’t push too hard. I’ve seen children make the grave mistake of getting ahead of their parents’ readiness and as a result, the parent slams on the brakes and the whole process comes to a screeching halt.

Do you remember the song, “The Old Grey Mare, She Ain’t What She Used To Be”? Well it really applies here. Your parents are not in the shape they used to be. New ideas take more time to soak in. Deciding on the best way to approach a big project can be overwhelming. The gentler and calmer you remain, the more comfortable they will emotionally feel.

Downsize Smart

When you have an elderly parent who is well enough to tackle some of the smaller tasks, let them begin this process with your encouragement. This helps in two ways:

  1. It gives them the respect and dignity that they deserve – it is their stuff and they need to go through it.
  2.  It helps them to realize that yes they could use help with this in some capacity.

Work together side-by-side, one cupboard and one space at a time. If your parent begins to say, “I can’t do this” or they physically are in pain, it is a clue to you that to downsize you may need to help or include another family member or professional who can do the work with the input of the parent. In other words, they have a say in where things end up, without having to be hands-on.

Helen had arthritis in her legs and found that by sitting down and letting me be her hands, she could handle the overwhelming task to downsize.  Being comfortable was the key to going through the dishes in her china cabinet to decide which ones were her most treasured that she would keep.

This can be a wonderful moment in time with your parent if you are willing to let go of trying to control their decisions.  Be gentle in how you phrase your downsize questions.
Instead of: “Are you sure you want to keep all 5 vases?”

Try: “Maybe you only need one or two vases,  which ones are your very favorites?”

If you run into a road block and mom or dad insists they NEED all 5 vases, pack them up and honor the decision. You can again ask your parent to clarify:  “Which vase is your favorite?” or “Is there one you use more than the others?” This helps to remind them that we are in a process of trying to downsize.  However, when strong opposition comes up, stay gentle, pack them up and move on to the next item.

One problem that could come up when you are the adult child is that they may want you to have a lot of the stuff rather than discard it. Again, a gentle approach is best. Set the items aside for the moment and choose a few keepsakes later to keep the peace.
Keep calm and cut the sorting short if you sense any animosity growing.  I found that a 2 hour window is enough in one day for most seniors. Making each session short is much easier for both parties. Remember this task is emotionally draining for your parent as they part with memories of the past. This is where a 3rd party can be very helpful. Usually a senior move manager can go through this process without the emotional baggage it carries for the adult child. The reaction is different as the parent is working with someone from outside the family.

Have your parent sit in a comfortable spot near where you are working so that they can easily converse with you as you are sorting. Many seniors I have worked with find this to be very helpful physically as well as emotionally. The moral support helps them to become more motivated that it will be possible to get the downsize done – one step at a time.  I have seen time and again when I use this type of process the senior perks right up and starts looking at the whole idea of moving as a real possibility. They are not alone, they have help.

If your parent is emotionally not ready to move to a smaller home (and it is not yet a physical necessity), helping them to downsize or declutter is the next best thing you can do for them and yourself. If a crisis should come in the future, you have already prepared ahead and the things your parent most treasures are ready to be packed.

A gentle beginning to this change of life time will save you a lot of time and frustration in the long run and can actually build a stronger bond between you and your parent.


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