Bringing Calm to the Chaos — Helping Your Parents Downsize

It is one of those things we know is inevitable and yet we procrastinate. Our parents are well into their retirement years and they are still in the home where you grew up. The taxes, insurance and maintenance are eating up their disposable income each month and sadly, the home that once brought them so much joy has become a burden. They would love to downsize, but the task before them looks insurmountable. Yes, tackling the job of downsizing can be both mentally and physically draining or as a client of mine once described it, “the experience was rather like a combination root canal and colonoscopy.” It can be stressful, but it doesn’t have to be.
Whether the anticipated move is next month or next year, the sooner you get started, the better. Here are three simple steps that you can work on with your parents to make their down-sizing easier.
Step 1 — Sort all personal papers and photographs. Take this a room at a time and pitch as you go. If your parents kept everything neatly in a file cabinet, this task will be simple. Sadly, this is often not the case. In many of the homes where I have worked there were mementos, old check ledgers and appliance instruction booklets stuffed in boxes and drawers throughout the house. Tools you will need to assemble include a shredder, trash bags, a sharpie and several large plastic storage tubs with lids.
A good place to start is the least used bedroom. Check drawers, closets, desks, file cabinets, and under the bed. All photos go in one tub, all current medical records and insurance papers in a second tub, all bank statements and tax returns in another, etc.
Essentially, this chore comes down to a balancing act between practicality and sentimentality. Don’t be afraid to pitch the unnecessary, but don’t discard those things your parents deem of value. Obviously you don’t need to keep the instruction booklet from every appliance your parents ever purchased or an insurance policy that expired in 1963. The tricky part comes with those things that fall into a gray area. While the boxes full of Christmas cards from many years past may seem like they just take up space, they may be of great importance to your Mom. Make a separate container of these types of items and set them aside to go through later with your parents.
Step 2 — Thin down the closet and the cabinets. Sort the clothing into three categories; things that can be worn, things to go to charity and those items that need to be discarded. Box the clothing to be donated and call a thrift store for pick up, bag up the things to be discarded and set them out for trash day and sort the remaining clothing by seasons. Use the same approach with the kitchen cabinets and the linen closets. Keep commonly used items toward the front of the shelves, seasonal items toward the back and discard things that are past the freshness date or no longer usable.
Step 3 — Discuss the division of family heirlooms. Recently, I worked with a lovely woman from Hancock County who had seven children, all of whom live out of state. At her request I did an inventory of the items in her home that she thought her children might want. Upon receipt of the the list each of the children marked three things that they would like to have and returned the list to their Mom. She now keeps this list with her will and other important papers.
One final piece of advise. This can be a stressful time for all parties involved. Keep sorting sessions short, take occasional breaks, keep the mood light and as much as possible, be the “assistant” and let your parents take the lead. Until next time . . . Linda

Linda Kennett is a professional liquidation consultant specializing in downsizing for seniors and the liquidation of estates and may be reached at or 317-258-7835.