7 Steps for Helping your Parents Downsize


Maybe your parents are moving from the four-bedroom house where you grew up to a two-bedroom apartment, or from an apartment to an assisted living facility, or even in with you. Whatever the situation, they’re going to have less space. That means it is time to downsize.  While “downsizing” can sound negative, there are all kinds of upsides: simplifying, getting paperwork in order, and even the opportunity to see the next generation enjoy the family heirlooms.

Even when your parents are ready and willing, downsizing can seem overwhelming. How to tackle a home filled with decades of memories and accumulation? In twenty years of professional organizing, I have helped scores of people to downsize. Each situation is unique, but I use these seven steps to make the task manageable and less stressful.

Step 1: Get rid of the garbage!

Downsizing, like any kind of organizing, is a series of passes.  It’s easiest to start with what I call the “low hanging fruit.” It’s the stuff that has no emotional attachments, that probably isn’t even good enough for the thrift store.  Grab a garbage bag and head for someplace easy: the linen closet, the junk drawer in the kitchen, or the pantry, where there are probably a lot of expired items lurking in the back. Depending on the size of your parent’s home you may want to consider getting a Dumpster, if zoning laws allow it. (Related: Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Declutter Your Home Before You Die)

Step 2: Decide what to take

Now that you’ve gotten rid of the obvious garbage, your parents need to decide what they are keeping. Think of it like this: If they’re moving from 4,000 square feet to 1,000 square feet, they can only take one quarter of their stuff (don’t forget to include the stuff in the attic and basement in that calculation).

Don’t think in terms of cramming stuff in. Think in terms of making their new home a lovely and comfortable space, not a shrunken version of their old place. Take measurements to make sure the furniture they are planning to take will fit. And keep in mind that just because they can technically fit all six pieces of their bedroom suite into the new space doesn’t mean it’s going to be comfortable or look good.

Step 3: Give the good stuff

They’ve tossed garbage and decided what they are taking: Now it is time to focus on giving the real heirlooms to those who will appreciate them. My daughter recently asked me if she would get my diamond earrings when I died. I told her that if she played her cards right, I might even give them to her before that.

It is wonderful for parents to see beloved things used by the next generation, but let’s face it: Some of us are the minimalist children of maximalist parents—or we just have different tastes. Zeroing in on things with real sentimental or monetary value, send pictures, emails, and measurements (if it’s a piece of furniture). Suggest your parents offer the items first to your siblings, then grandkids, then cousins or friends who might enjoy that antique desk you no longer have space for.

Hopefully, this can be done in the spirit of generosity. You don’t want to feel you have to take your mother’s Hummel collection. Remind your parents that if no one wants their stuff, it’s okay—just because people don’t want your stuff doesn’t mean they don’t love you.

Step 4: Sell the decent stuff

Your parents may have a lot of nice things they aren’t keeping but that aren’t of particular sentimental value. The grandkids might love your sectional sofa for their college apartment, but it’s no heirloom. Clients I’ve worked with often want to sell the furniture they aren’t taking with them, but it depends on the quality and age of the pieces. Fashions change, and what was all the rage 30 years ago may be better off at the thrift store.

If there is stuff that’s worth selling, go for it. One place to start is a decorator or antique dealer you’ve worked with in the past. Some people have luck selling locally: Try Craig’s List, post a sign in the neighborhood coffee shop, or list the pieces on a community website. Digital pictures are key in all of these situations, and if you are looking for a way to get your kids involved, this is a great job for teens. A yard sale is another great option.

Price stuff to move. Anything they sell, no matter how undervalued, is one less thing you have to get a charity or a junk-removal company to take.

Step 5: Donate the rest

If your parents don’t want to deal with throwing a yard sale or the other hassles of selling their stuff, charities may be happy to take a lot of items off their hands. But beware: Charities are picky! Many charity shops are selective about what they will and won’t accept. Some now have websites where they can submit pictures of furniture and they will tell them if they are interested. Think creatively: A local house of worship may know of a family in need who would love the sofa or those extra pots and pans.

Step 6: Move the junk

Now that they’ve purged, given and donated: What do they do with what’s left: the yellowed, melamine bookcase, the dented file cabinets, even the curtains? It’s a sign of the times that junk-removal businesses are thriving. Junkluggers and others are companies that you can pay to come and empty your house. They will donate what they can to charity, and sell anything saleable. It’s great they exist, especially if a Dumpster isn’t an option for you, but they are an expense, so if you can sell or give your stuff away, do it.

Step 7: Enjoy the new space!

To me, this is the fun part. It’s new, it’s shiny, there’s less to clean. As you help your parents to unpack, keep weeding. Often things they were attached to in the old place seem worn or unnecessary in the new place. A new home is a new beginning, so encourage your parents let go of the old and embrace their new, streamlined life.

Amanda Sullivan is a professional organizer, founder of The Perfect Daughter, and the author of Organized Enough: The Anti-Perfectionist’s Guide to Getting—and Staying—Organized.

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