Ask Unclutterer: Helping parents downsize

Reader Amanda submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

After over 40 years in their home, [my 73 year old parents] … have decided to sell and build a house in a nearby community where HOA fees will pay for things like taking care of the yards. I am delighted for them.

… my mother has already expressed:

A) Anxiety about having to clean out their house to get it ready to sell. This also includes having small repairs made and staging the home.

B) Excitement about this being a chance to go through the things that they’ve collected over 40 years and toss/donate/sell the things they no longer want. She sees this as a chance to dump the unwanted and move forward only with what they want, need, and enjoy.

Do you have advice and resources I could pass on to my mother? … Any help you can offer would be welcome! Thanks.

Question A is easy to answer because good real estate agents have contractors and stagers on their staffs who do exactly these types of projects or they have a short list of trusted professionals they recommend using. When we sold our house last year, our agent’s team patched small nail holes, replaced a broken latch on a window, brought in a professional cleaning crew, mulched our flower beds, and staged the whole house. If the agent your parents are considering working with doesn’t have quick access to these services, they may want to interview some more agents to find one who really knows what he/she is doing. Since your parents are planning to move in just six months, now is a great time to start working with an agent.

Question B is terrific news because it means your parents are already thinking about the uncluttering and moving process in a positive way, too. You can help your parents by researching names of local charities and what types of donations the charities accept and how to make donations (drop off times, days of weeks, locations) to those charities. You can research what types of trash your parents’ waste management service collects for those things that really do need to be purged, as well as the area’s hazardous waste policies for any chemicals you parents won’t want to move into their new space. You can set up a Craig’s List account for your folks, if they’re interested in selling items. You can also find out names of local professional organizers who are specifically trained to help move people over age 65 through the National Association of Senior Move Managers.

If your parents are interested, you can also help them to unclutter, drop off items at charities, and pack. Work out a schedule with them so each day a little work can be done, and so you’ll know when you’re welcome to lend a hand and when they would rather privately work. Most of all, be prepared to listen. Downsizing from a family home can be emotionally difficult — even if it is a welcome move — and the difficulty is often alleviated through the sharing of stories about the memories that were made in the home.

Thank you, Amanda, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Good luck to your family over the next six months. Also, be sure to check the comments for even more advice from our readers.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

30 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Helping parents downsize”

  1. posted by Angie on

    One tip I’ve read and found helpful is that if there something that you are emotionally tied to but still want to get rid of, you can take a picture of the item so you still have a momento of it, but it isn’t something taking up physical space.

  2. posted by Ann on

    I helped my parents with this when they moved to a retirement community near me. I hadn’t lived “at home” in 35 years, so I didn’t really know what was important to them. What I learned: Let them make the decision on what to keep for sentimental and decorative purposes. Example: My mother hauled all her knick knacks out and displayed them on a big table. I saw a pair of Russian Peasant dancer figurines and kind of snickered…had never seen them before, not in a cabinet, not displayed, not mentioned, not in a picture. So I asked, “Keep or toss?”. My mom looked up and very softly said, “Those were the first frivolous things we could afford after WWII in our first apartment in Chicago. Before your brother was born.” I felt so foolish. Obviously, she kept those. Not displayed, just kept. Let her decide.

  3. posted by MelD on

    Re. B – just the thought that my MIL could be so positive is insane, I can only say think yourselves lucky that they are willing to do this!! Let it be a lesson to all of us as we age. The horror of what is before us whenever my MIL’s time comes gives me nightmares. At 68, she lives in a mansion, owns the smaller one next door and a luxury appartment and all three are exquisitely decorated with valuable and valued heirlooms we will NOT just be getting rid of, even if we do eventually sell the properties. She does not understand that everything she and her husband “built up” and collected in their lives is not in demand for our lives: as young parents and grandparents, we younger generations have built our own lives and aren’t holding our breath for her inheritence!! Much as we value family history, our inheritence will be an enormous burden 🙁 She is adamant that she will die in her home and never give up a thing, but is already paying for the maintenance of it all from her capital…

  4. posted by Jeannette on

    One technique that I have found truly helpful for difficult items (I think I read it here on Unclutterer) is to work in tandem. The helper holds up an item, and the person making the decision decides without touching it. Physically touching the item seems to make a connection that subverts the rational decision.
    My husband and I have used this successfully, most recently when he needed to sort through his accumulation of his sketches and watercolors. I held each one up, he decided, and only then was he allowed to touch (sometimes he wanted a closer look). It worked.

  5. posted by Susanna on

    My parents are also in the process of downsizing. They are planning on having an estate sale once they move out. The company that handles the sale will then take care of donating anything that is left behind. I think this is going to be helpful. Now it’s not so much about getting rid of stuff, but they can instead focus on what they want to keep.

  6. posted by sjcottrell on

    One thing we did was take lots of pictures and then make a scrapbook for all those memories. You might also consider doing a video or audio recording of the stories this might bring up. Even people who have a hard time sharing personal stories feel more willing to open up if they are sharing the histories of their collectibles. Passing down the information seemed to help my granny let go of the actual physical things.

  7. posted by DawnF on

    I think the biggest blessing in the world would be if my in-laws would decide to downsize, declutter, clean and organize their stuff. Every time I think about their current living situation I literally want to sob. The packed house, garage, shed and off-site storage units are overwhelming physically, mentally and financially to them and their discontent spills over into all areas of their life. Yet, they continue to fuss, fight and bicker over it all ~ rather than making a plan to move forward.

    My countless efforts over the years have been a range from begging, calmly discussing, suggesting carefully, crying, offering ideas/plans/assistance and arguing ~ all to no avail.

    I can only imagine how things will be when their “estate” is handed over to my husband and his brother & sister to fuss, fight and bicker over ~ further straining their already tense relationship.

    Best wishes to your parents, Amanda! What an exciting time for your family! One thing your parents might need assistance with the Change of Address process ~ involving lots of phone calls and/or online updates.

  8. posted by Jeannine Bryant on

    Thank you so much for mentioning NASMM (The National Association of Senior Move Managers), Erin! I am part-owner of a senior move management company in Lincoln, NE and can attest that these are precisely the kinds of issues professionals in our field love tackling. We understand that it is “so much more than just a move” at this stage in people’s lives, and truly have the heart for guiding seniors and their family members through this sometimes trying process.

    Readers can easily find a senior move manager near them by going to the NASMM website:

  9. posted by Kari on

    I helped my mom downsize, first before my father died, and then after, as she was preparing to move to TX (from OH) to be close to my sister and her kids and grandkids. My mom kept a LOT of stuff and didn’t want to part with any of it and even when she decided to part with some of it, wanted it to go to someone who would use it (when we started this process, her basement was packed with piles that “just” needed to get to people who would use it). I modified the Peter Walsh process. For my mom, I’d go in every few weeks, and we’d go through stuff and sort it into Keep, trash, donate, and revisit. We would let the revisit stuff go for a few months and then she’d look at it again. Generally around the third time or so, she would be able to decide what to do and we would try to help her get that done. She got rid of stuff without (for the most part) regret…which is really important as people face such enormous changes.

  10. posted by Another Deb on

    I have helped my folks downsize twice in the last three years. Once was to allow them to sell their home of 40+ years and move into a senior apartment. Then this winter they regretfully sold their unit in a retirement park in Arizona because they cannot continue driving back to the midwest and back. This represented a very big loss in their lifestyle. It’s not just a move, it’s an admission that life will be different. My folks now consider themselves “homeless” because they do not own a home even though they are in a very nice complex with at least 8 close family homes in the same town. The stuff they have refused to part with is packed into their apartment, but they need it, for now. It represents the stability and autonomy that they are grieving. Kari is right about letting some time pass and then revisiting the piles of stuff. I think they need to get oriented, get tired of shoveling stuff around and finally be able to let some of it go.

  11. posted by nicole 86 on

    My parents (91 year old)are hoarders, as an only child it is a nightmare. Last month they were both sent to hospital before moving to a home for disabled. They felt compelled to do so and they do not want to donate anything ! I think I will need several months to sort things out. My parents are nearly insane about stuff and it is a real burden for me.

    As for me, after my divorce and my retirement, four months ago I had to move across France, I sold, gave, threw away half of my stuff. I know I will move once more in a few months and I decided to part from all my pieces of furniture (except two ?) because they are antiques and fragile and buy only light pieces from Ikea. I think I will feel better then.

  12. posted by Maureen on

    You are so lucky that your parents are willing to go through their own things. We had to have my mother declared mentally incompetent just to get her into assisted living and out of her home where her dementia made it an unsafe environment. Then myself and two other sibblings had to go through fifty years of stuff. The emotional toll this took on us was rough. As a minimalist, I of course didn’t want anything, but my hoarding sibblings argued over furniture,paintings, etc. in the end they insisted on a very expensive appraisal of the valuables which are now sitting in storage. Not wanting things is true freedom.

  13. posted by Candace on

    This is wonderful timing. While I don’t consider myself elderly (I just turned 60), my husband and I may be facing a move to another part of the state, and downsizing in the process. I know what I NEED to do, and this has given me goals and ideas. Thank you, both for the column, and the comments.

  14. posted by Tim on

    I just finished cleaning out my parents home also after 40 years. The basement, garage and closets all full of stuff. My mother passed away 7 months ago and my Dad 5 years prior. Mom was able to clean out his clothing and nothing else. I tried for years to get them to clean out and make a plan with them. It never happened.
    My siblings were not interested or couldn’t help…I am the executor as well as my mothers’ caretaker. This task seemed daunting 7 months ago. But as time went on and I knew I needed to list the house I began to slowly throw away obvious junk first.Those items were thrown away with the trash – in bags or for large pick up day.
    I decluttered the home little by little. and staged each room simply.
    The realtors I interviewed all had “people” that could do some assorted jobs. I had to replace a bathroom floor, install new lighting fixtures, freshen the landscaping as well as mulching all beds, painting the house and patching holes, etc. The realtors I spoke with didn’t offer these services. I had to do the calling and organizing and oversee each contractor. Some had been used -like the landscaper for years. Others were from neighbors recommendations as well as friends.
    The major tasks were the packed garages and basement. I hired a hauler with 2 assistants and had a 20 yd dumpster brought to the home. Then I began pointing and having it all thrown away. It was very emotional at first, but as the process began it moved quickly. Of course there were weeks before that I saved anything sentimental or what I thought the family would want into plastic bins.
    A word of advice that I received from a friend- do not go through or open boxes of photographs! Just place albums or pictures in boxes immediately. These can be very emotional and will just slow the process down or even shut it down due to all the emotions attached.
    Later hired professional cleaners that also steam cleaned all carpets, washed all windows in and out and would even republish wood floors if needed. There are services out there that do all of these things. It was a large group of people in the house but they were generally very careful and did a great job.
    Now the house was just listed and I feel a great weight off of my shoulders. I live 2 hours away from the family home and just the trips back and forth as well as the time it took was exhausting..
    Pace yourselves but stick with your plan and move forward! Best of luck to everyone going through this process.

  15. posted by Linda on

    When my Mom sold the home she was raised in I secretly thanked God that the task of it would be over while we were young enough to go through everything. One think I remember tho is a sense that nothing was being accomplished…meaning, so many things you have to go through and can spend hours doing it…but the physical space when you are done really doesn’t look different…that can make you feel helpless…so keep that in mind…somedays it is the small stuff that gets to you. Your parents are going to love the lack of responsibility and hopefully, like my Mom, will feel they are on vacation for a while!

  16. posted by Susan on

    You mentioned some great points in finding the time and places to take things for donation. The rest of it sounded a bit “canned”…. as it is what you do every day. Just because they want to move, does not address the questions to ask themselves when “purging”.

    On a separate note: I noticed when a friend did this…and her helpful granddaughter had three boxes out on the floor. Give away – throw away – take. And take was way smaller than the other two. So many many many things were not taken and within six months some had been replaced as grannie really wanted certain things. period. and you know what that is OK – it is ok if some things are bought again for the new place.

    Now back to those questions? how to look at this “stuff”????

  17. posted by Kathe on

    Another consideration is having a full turnkey Estate Sale service facilitate liquidation of items they do not plan to move with them, as I produce these for many clients in similar situations in the Kansas City area.

  18. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Susan — It’s not Amanda’s place to make decisions about her parents’ stuff. Amanda asked about what resources she could pass along to her parents, and the ones I provided are the most appropriate for her situation. From my years of experience, I can attest the best way to create a riff in the family and start a feud is for a child to go in and sort her parents’ stuff for them. Her mother and father need to deal with their stuff and Amanda can only help if her parents request her help.

  19. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Tim — Since Amanda’s parents are still alive, I strongly recommend she not clean out the house for them. It’s very important for their happiness that they are able to sort through their own things. Your advice is very good for when children have to go through their parents’ things after the parents have passed away.

  20. posted by Habitat for Humanity ReStore on

    Going through your belongings and donating the reusable items to a good cause can help you feel better about parting with items that have been in the family a long time. Great post!

  21. posted by Heather B. on

    In addition to Erin’s wonderful book/guide, I found much inspiration and help in Ciji Ware’s book, Rightsizing Your Life: Simplifing Your Surroundings While Keeping What Matter Most”. Ciji also recommends photographs to capture the memories. I used Ciji’s book when we moved from our home of 23 years to a new home, in a new town and state.
    Excellent Ask Unclutterer column!

  22. posted by Elizabeth on

    One thing that hasn’t been mentioned is when parents or other elderly relatives are downsizing and take the opportunity to insist on passing on items that they always had earmarked for you (or one of your siblings). Whether or not you want it.

    Sometimes you may have known well in advance that something would be coming your way in due course but now is the crunch time for that conversation. Other times the parent/relative doesn’t want to waste something by sending it out where a stranger might or might not want it. The ‘make do and mend’ generation (eg my mum) are very much like that.

    In some ways it’s easier when clearing out after a death because you don’t have to be tough on the individual’s hopes for an item.

  23. posted by pamzella on

    I’ve worked for some senior move managers, after working with some offered to my family when my grandparents needed to downsize to independent/assisted living. Yeah, I learned so much from them I went to work for them. And I think it really does help to have the consultation of an outside party, esp. if you’re reaching a stalemate over something or need help developing a plan. Some tiny tips- it takes twice or three times as long to go through everything as you think, in part because the mental processing can be exhausting and they’ll need to take breaks. Time to revisit an item isn’t always making a new attachment but letting it go, but I like Jeannette’s suggestion of letting the owner not touch the item. If you do an estate sale and they are sad to see their stuff go for the kinds of prices that get things gone, offer/encourage them to do something else while you and others work it. If you can put things that are going to a sale/be donated completely out of sight when ending for the day, it can help with feelings of accomplishment and like there is is less to tackle every subsequent time. Places you can be particularly useful as someone with likely better eyesight and sense of smell- purge bathrooms of all expired medications, prescription and otherwise, but also inspect toiletries (collected lotions, etc) and makeup older than a year old. One last detail- give thought to the furniture that fits in the new space. If it’s lovely but not right for the space, allow time to sell it to the right person or for the right family member to make arrangements to get it. Good luck!

  24. posted by DivaJean on

    Dang this seems timely. My in laws live in a 5 story home filled to the rafters with clutter (I have seen with my own eyes the Barbie Malibu camper my sister in law had when she was a girl. She turned 47 this year). Last year, my mother in law had bilateral knee replacements. Stairs are not her friend, yet here they are. My fater in law is considering a total hip replacement this year- stairs have not been his friend for a while either. I fear for the day when either one or both pass- we live in town so the brunt of the work will be on me and my spouse. That side of the family is very sentimental about physical belongings- so I have no idea how it will all pan out. I do know that we live in a small bungalow (2 adults, 4 kids) w/ less than 2000 sq feet of space and only 3 bedrooms.

  25. posted by Sharon on

    What a timely post for me! This past weekend I drove 500 miles to visit my parents and they are in the process of going through all of their possessions in anticipation of downsizing and moving back to my Dad’s hometown in a different state. They are in their early 70’s want to build a new house and only move the furniture and household items that they truly need and want so that they can enjoy their later years. My Mom gave me several boxes filled with my baby clothes, birthday cards from my childhood, old Brownie uniform, wedding gifts they received way back when, and other odds and ends from the past 45 years. I did not mind taking what she wanted to give me. It will be fun to sort through it all and only keep the few items that I find to be sentimental. I have found that a lot of times it is easier to take items from them if they are offering and decide myself whether to keep or get rid of it rather than saying ‘no, I do not want it’. If I say no, then 9 times out of 10 my Mom will put said item back in a closet or other out of the way area instead of disposing of the item herself.

    I am so grateful that they are willing and able to sort through their belongings at this time. It will make it much less daunting when the time comes for my brother and I to decide what to do it all.

  26. posted by Karyn on

    Sharon – If you don’t want to keep it, and if it’s in decent enough shape, that old Brownie uniform might be of interest to your local Girl Scouts and/or to a museum that collects vintage uniforms. That’s another option for some of the items we might no longer want to keep personally, yet feel might be of interest as a “piece of history.”

  27. posted by Sharon on

    Karyn – thanks for the suggestion! I really have no reason to keep my Brownie uniform and it did not even occur to me to see if the Girl Scouts would be interested in it. I’ll check it out. The uniform is in perfect condition and I even have the badges and old Girl Scout handbook to go with it. Alas, I have boys, so no daughters who might want to play dress up!

  28. posted by kelly on

    Great post! I helped my parents move a few years ago and it was a nightmare. My mom is a hoarder/spending addict and refuses to throw away truly worthless items…has packed her new house and it will be an incredible burden for me someday. The suggestions in this post will help me, thank you.

    Just a caution to be careful with craigslist. We recently posted an item for sale and received several “phishing”/scam inquiries, which could be potentially problematic for those who aren’t savvy in such things!

  29. posted by Constance Rademacher on

    My sister and I are looking at dissolving my parents’ home of 50 years. My father is blind and my mother has late stage dementia. Neither is capable of taking care of themselves, let alone going through the detritus of living. The house has several serious problems which are going to require professional help, not the least of which is a pipe installed by some plumber in the downstairs bathroom that was installed during a plumbing crisis and needs to be removed. Also, the yard is an ivy and bamboo nightmare that just needs a backhoe!
    Our goal is to get it presentable and ask a reasonable amount, but we are prepared to accept less.
    Everybody’s situation is different. And the only way I can even deal with this upcoming task is to literally get my own house in order. I did a couple of things, I set a goal of throwing 10 things away daily, then I made a list of 45 areas where I might find 10 things to throw away, typed it into Word and move the items into the finished list as they are completed. It really helps my motivation. Good luck to you and to all of those who are on this journey.

  30. posted by Amanda on

    Hi, I am the original letter writer. Just to answer a few of the comments up above, my parents live in SC and I live in MD, so me cleaning up their house for them was never an option. They wanted to do it themselves, I was just looking for guidance for them!

    Things are going so well, they really dived into this with enthusiasm…I guess having to move to a smaller place and wanting it to be NICE helps get rid of things that no longer serve you. Each week they’ve been taking masses of things to the Salvation Army, Goodwill, and other local thrift stores. They’ve been decluttering, cleaning, repairing, and fixing up to get ready to list the house.

    I am very thankful my parents are taking this step now. I helped my mom when she had to clean out my Grandma’s house after Grandma died. It was very stressful for all involved. I cleaned out a tiny bathroom from which nothing had ever been thrown away, and as I stood holding a STILL SEALED bottle of aspririn that had expired 17 years before, I said to myself, “I do not want to do this when MY parents die, and I don’t want anyone to have to do it for me either.” It was a watershed moment and has encouraged me to unclutter my life.

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