Downsizing can set you free – now get started

A couple looking back at their house from the street

It’s a chore just to clean out a closet. What if you need to sort through a house full of belongings, while coping with the emotions that accompany any big life change? It’s enough to make you seek professional help.

As a transition coordinator for Seniors on the Move (a Portland Real Estate Company), Jennifer Jones is just that professional. She specializes in helping adults who are downsizing from longtime homes into new, usually smaller settings. Jones frequently partners with Willamette View, a Life Plan senior living community southeast of downtown Portland, which sponsors her services for incoming residents.

A couple sitting on their porch with boxes and a "For Sale" sign

WV: Why is downsizing so hard?

Jones: We all get excited to buy a home and make it our own. But when it’s time to downsize to apartment living or retirement living, we find ourselves “un-housing” all those items and it’s not as fun. Few adult children can or want to inherit all the items we’ve spent a lifetime accumulating, and so we are left to disperse our precious belongings back out into the world. That’s totally overwhelming for a lot of people. But there are ways to make the process easier and even liberating.

WV: How can you make it easier?

Having to make difficult emotional decisions about every item you are shedding is daunting. When you focus on the items you want to keep, that removes some of the painful emotions of letting go. I encourage people to think about keeping only the items that fit their lives now, that make them comfortable and bring them joy, versus what they think they should have. For example, if you love to spend time at your kitchen table, sipping coffee or reading, keep it – and instead let go of the formal dining room table you use twice a year.

WV: How can adult children assist with the process?

Respect is key. Remind yourself that we all have a relationship with our stuff. Don’t judge your parents if they don’t want to get rid of grandma’s old skillet, because that’s no less sensible than you wanting to hang onto a stuffed animal from your childhood or a CD collection from when you were in your 20s.

Second, communicate with each other. A lot of people get trapped for years in a home that is bigger than they want or need because they’re holding onto items for kids who don’t, and may never, have the space or lifestyle for them. Parents need to be open and honest about the items they want to keep versus give away, and the ones they want to stay in the family. Then, families should set deadlines about when kids will take possession of the items that are meaningful to them.

WV: What is a common misunderstanding about downsizing?

I wish people understood that the value of their stuff just does not hold up. The next generation of purchasers are living very different lives than you did when you acquired your furniture and valuables, which means those items are likely worth a fraction of what you paid for them, if that. One of my clients was shocked when she learned that her antique doll collection had no resale value, but it was because no one is buying those dolls anymore.

WV: For someone facing a big downsizing effort, what are practical steps to get started?

First, get a roll of painter’s tape and start labeling the items you want to keep. Then sit with those decisions for a week. How often do you sit on that couch? How meaningful is that giant mirror that’s hung on your wall for ten years? Really thinking about what you want to take with you into a new home and what it will require to live comfortably there often means you don’t take as much as you thought you would. Second, have those honest conversations with your family. Third, meet with professionals. When I meet with new Willamette View residents, for example, I help them write a plan of attack, with a resource list of people and services that will help them succeed.

Home comes in many shapes and sizes. Explore the range of residential options at Willamette View: