Downsizing Dilemmas: How to Help Parents Clean Out

Moving + Downsizing   |   By Annie Zaleski

A wall of belongings in storage.

Michael Norman started discussing downsizing with his parents when they were in their early 70s. But, he explained, they “loved their ’60s ‘Brady Bunch’ split-level in the exurbs of Akron, [Ohio].” They weren’t ready, so he didn't push the issue.

It wasn’t until years later, when his dad started having trouble taking care of the house and his mother developed Alzheimer's disease and other health problems, that his parents decided moving to a three-bedroom condo made sense.

“Putting pressure on them would have been counterproductive and made it even more difficult,” Norman says. “My brother and I treated them as we would want to be treated. As long as they could be safe, whatever they wanted was fine with us.”

His story is familiar to many adult children. For seniors, thinking about downsizing is emotional—and parents may not be ready when you think they should be. And, asking you for help may not be something they are used to doing.

“There is this shift in caretaking because mom and dad have been looking after you for so long,” says Marty Stevens-Heebner, a certified senior move manager (SMM-C) and CEO of Clear Home Solutions.

For adult children, many of whom are juggling careers and families of their own, helping parents with downsizing or moving can be especially stressful. It’s tempting to take a tough love approach and try to get it done as fast as possible. But, as the adult child tasked with helping out, it’s important to think about your parent’s feelings before digging into the logistics. 

Start the conversation off on the right foot.

If your parents need a nudge and you’ve got to convince them that it's time to clean out and downsize their belongings, choose your words carefully. Stevens-Heebner suggests positioning cleaning not as an order, but as something collaborative.

“They can feel attacked if you say, ‘Mom, we've got to do this,’” she says. “You can say something gentler, like ‘I decided it was time to take care of my own garage—and I can’t believe what I found’ or ‘I needed to do this for me—if you’d like, I am willing to help you do the same.’ Try to make it more of their choice.”

Another idea is to think of the process as an adventure, like an archaeological dig, Stevens-Heebner adds. “You’re going in the corners of those closets that haven’t been visited, possibly in decades. You never know what you’ll find,” Stevens-Heebner says. Looking through old mementos together can be a nice way to connect.

Set realistic goals, rally the troops and try to make it fun.

Figuring out where to start can be intimidating, so Stevens-Heebner recommends dividing downsizing into smaller, manageable parts. Set time limits (for example, carving out an hour on a Saturday), or focus on one small area of the house (a single closet or one storage unit) at a time. “Make it finite and accomplishable,” she says.

Taking frequent breaks—and providing snacks and drinks—is a good way to combat stress flares. Playing your parents’ favorite music can also make the cleaning more enjoyable. Norman played his mom’s favorites: Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show.

“We made the process, which took months, an excuse for family fun, with meals and music and reminiscing,” he says. Norman was lucky that his family was on the same page during the downsizing process, and he had plenty of help from his wife, brother and sister-in-law.

Agreeable family members willing to lend a hand aren’t always the norm, Stevens-Heebner cautions. Siblings can be scattered around the globe and, in her experience, one person inevitably ends up as the D.A., or “designated adult,” during the cleaning process. Plan ahead with siblings, just as you do with parents, to make sure everyone is on the same page. Tailor tasks to sibling strengths—for example, one person could be charged with handling paperwork or scheduling charity pickups.

Stevens-Heebner says creating a home inventory on a shared spreadsheet, or compiling a folder of photos in Dropbox, can also make divvying up possessions among family members much easier.

What to do with all of that stuff … that’s more than stuff.

Deciding what to do with the contents of a home can be difficult, especially when you think about the emotional connection parents—and you—may have to many of the belongings.

Asking parents to let go of physical items, which are attached to fond memories, requires sensitivity. Chances are parents’ first choice is to give treasured possessions to their kids. Many won’t understand why you or your siblings don’t want all of their stuff. If items don’t have sentimental value to you, try to help your parents understand that you don’t have the space or that you already own an equivalent item, like your own set of wedding china.

When you do talk about donating items, frame donations in a positive way: Items aren't being discarded but are being passed along so someone else can enjoy and appreciate them. Local charities will also do pickups of certain items; it’s best to call in advance and see what they do and don't take.

Many people also have trouble with the idea of getting rid of anything with monetary value. But it’s hard to know what most things are really worth. Some estate sale companies will come in and do free appraisals. In fact, Cheryll Ruby, who runs Chicago-area Ampersand Estate Sales, says that ideally she comes in and assesses a house before families even begin cleaning.

“Some of the stuff the family wants to get rid of we can sell,” she says. “We can sell everything from the furniture in the house to cleaning supplies, light bulbs, bed, bath and table linens.”

Ruby advises leaving appraisals to experts, as they are more attuned to trends. For example, she says dolls and Hummel figurines are no longer being collected as much, but pre-1970s televisions and modern flat-screens are still popular at sales.

Some items may simply not find a new home. If you need to clear out such possessions, some companies will haul away non-hazardous unwanted goods. And, if your parents have a lot of items that aren’t appropriate for sale or donation, renting a dumpster is another option if there is a secure backyard or safe space to leave it in while you work.

Make a new home, home.

For seniors moving into new spaces, recreating the feel of the homes they’re leaving can ease the transition. For some it’s about where furniture is placed, and for others it’s about décor. For example, Norman said his mother felt more at ease once they hung Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” album cover on the wall of his parents’ new condo. “To her, Bruce’s butt cured all,” he says. 

When space is at a premium, digitizing photos or setting up an e-reader (such as an iPad, Nook or Kindle) are good ways to carry media over. Taking pictures of cherished items and printing them out to make an album, or loading them into a digital photo frame, are also good ways to preserve memories and keep them accessible.

Downsizing can be an emotional experience, as both parents and children are confronting big life changes. Acknowledging that these are difficult conversations and feelings—and being kind to yourself during the process—is crucial. A little patience and understanding on both sides goes a long way.

“Give [parents] hugs,” Stevens-Heebner says. “Let them know that you know this is tough. And let them know that it’s tough for you, too.”

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