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Scaling Down To A Smaller Home

Art Aiello |
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Art Aiello is a writer and editor based in Waukesha, WI. 

Recently, my parents moved from the home where they had lived for 35 years into a smaller, newer, more cost-effective apartment. It was becoming too much work for my father, — nearly 70 years old at the time — to cut grass and shovel snow, and my mother — with her two artificial knees — had had her fill of going up and down the basement stairs to do laundry.

The challenge for them? Taking 35 years of accumulated “stuff” kept in what was a full-size home and whittling it down to a manageable level for transport to a smaller apartment.

Downsizing and moving into smaller accommodations, whether they be apartments, assisted living facilities or shared spaces with children or other relatives, can be a daunting task for seniors. If you’ve lived in your home for decades, as my parents had, you likely have accumulated many possessions. Knowing what to keep and what to dispose of — and knowing where to start sorting — can seem like an impossible task. As someone who went through it with my parents, however, I can tell you that not only can it be done, but it can be a rewarding, and even an enjoyable experience as you move into a new phase of life.

My first word of advice as you begin your downsizing project is to start as early as possible. My parents were fortunate in that they had a couple of months to organize their approach to start going through their possessions and begin working on eliminating things that weren’t absolutely necessary for them to bring to their new living space.

As do many married couples, my parents complement one another. My mother is the organizer; she manages the finances and keeps the household on track. My father is the “brawn,” as it were; despite his age, he’s in good physical condition and is the one who makes mom’s plans happen.

Having said that, I recommend sitting down and coming up with a plan of attack for sorting through your belongings — one that gives each of you something to do that plays to your strengths. My parent’s approach was to go room by room; starting with the basement and the garage, because those two places contained the most items that were likely disposable. Additionally, since those areas where were they stored most of the things they didn’t use on a regular basis.  Knowing how limited their storage space would be in their new apartment, they were able to define limits on what they could take and store.

Next, they began working on their project a little bit each day. My father has a part-time job that keeps him out of the house for a few hours each day, so my mother would begin sorting through their belongings. Things that she could dispose of easily, i.e., throw in the garbage, she would do. Other things she would stage for my father — the “muscle”— for him to physically handle when he got home. He gradually moved things to the garage and put them in groups depending upon what was going to be done to them.

So what can you do with the belongings you no longer want or need? My parents began by donating much to Goodwill and other thrift shops. They also asked my sister and me what items we wanted. I took my father’s tool chest and snow blower while my sister took many household items.

My parents knew the time would eventually come for them to move into smaller accommodations, and I talked with them several years ago about things I would take if they would; my sister did the same. Thus, when they did move, we already had long-standing plans in place.

My son talked me into taking my parent’s ping-pong table, which brings me to my next word of advice — rely on your children, grandchildren or other friends and relatives to help you dispose of really big items. My father is capable of moving a lot, but he was nearly 70 years old at the time, and he couldn’t move anything that was to large. I chose a weekend to drive to my parent’s house — they live two hours from me — with a borrowed pickup truck to help take large items, like bicycles and even window air conditioners, to thrift stores as well as the local dump. And I was able to bring that tool chest and ping-pong table back home with me, as well.

Because my parents were moving in the spring, they were also able to take advantage of another popular and profitable phenomenon for disposing of unneeded items — the rummage sale. Their friends helped them price in advance and run the rummage sale on the appointed weekend, where my children cam and helped them as well. As part of their planning, they had made the decision to use the rummage sale money to help pay for rent and utilities during those first couple of months in their new apartment. If you choose to sell your belongings this way, I recommend having plans for the proceeds. Otherwise, as so often happens, the extra money might just burn a hole in your pocket.

A brief word of advice regarding selling items on Craigslist: enlist the help of a friend or relative to ensure that you don’t get conned by someone who is unscrupulous. My parents chose to sell a few items on Craigslist, and even though I live some distance away from them, I made sure that I reviewed their postings and made sure they only met buyers in public places during daylight hours to ensure their safety. There are many people out there who would like nothing better than to take advantage of a senior. Take steps to protect yourself.

When you have gotten rid of all those things you no longer want or need, you can begin packing. Actually, you can pack as you go. Make sure to label boxes based upon the room in which it will be going in your new home. This will help tremendously on moving day.

As for the move itself, I’d recommend putting some of the proceeds you get from the sale of your personal items toward hiring a moving company. Although I’m only in my late 40s, I had no desire to lug and lift all of my parents remaining possessions to their new digs. Instead, I hired a moving company for them. They arrived at 9:00 am to begin moving my parents, and by about 1:00 pm, they were done. Furniture was where it was supposed to be, and boxes were staged in the rooms where they needed to be. We had time to have lunch and enjoy my mom and dad’s new accommodations. My parents were able to begin unpacking and organizing within hours of leaving their previous house, and even better — they got to sleep comfortably in their own bed on their first night.

As with my advice about Craigslist, make sure that you aren’t alone on moving day. Have your children or grandchildren with you. While I’ve never been hoodwinked by a moving company, it’s best to remove the temptation that they could get away with something because you are a senior citizen.

Hiring movers might be a foregone conclusion if you are moving to another state — or at least somewhere several hours away. Nonetheless, I’d recommend them even if you are moving across town. Your family and friends — and their backs — will thank you for it.