Downsizing and Where to Put All of Those Memories

In this episode, John Ross and Lisa Shoalmire discuss some of the challenges of downsizing, and some of the things to consider before you just jump in.

Episode Transcript
John
Welcome to another edition of Aging Insight. I'm your host, John Ross, here with my partner and co-host, Lisa Shoalmire, and we are elder law attorneys, which are the type of attorneys that specialize in the needs of seniors and people with disabilities. We try to address the issues that people have as they get older, issues like avoiding institutionalized care, avoiding becoming a burden on their friends and family, and avoiding going broke in the process. We want you to age on your terms, and we know that you can accomplish that goal. You can accomplish all those goals with knowledge. Because it's a hard-to-navigate path, but with a little guidance and answers to a few of your questions, we know you can get there, and that's what Aging Insight is all about.
Lisa
Mowing the grass, fixing those broken appliances. And sometimes, as we get into our senior years, those maintenance issues are costly, and as we're looking for our financial security, not really what we wanna be spending our money on. And of course, the other issue comes in if you have a health crisis that you can't stay in that home any longer, because maybe it's not accessible for the equipment or the way you need to move around in that home and you just need to downsize. Today, we're gonna talk about some of the challenges of downsizing, and some of the things to consider before you just jump in.
John
Well, that's exactly right because this is a big decision. When you're talking about moving from a large home to a smaller home, or maybe you're looking at moving into another type of living arrangement, maybe an independent living center, maybe an assisted living, any of these different options. But the fact is, like so many of us, you have a lifetime's worth of accumulation in that house. You got stuff.
Lisa
Really John, one of my first things I tell folks, particularly if they've lost a spouse, and they realize that maybe the home isn't where they need to be any longer, the first thing I always say is, "Economically, if you can stay a little bit, don't rush into anything."
John
That's true.
Lisa
Don't rush, but get a plan, get your head right and then decide where it's gonna be best for you. Because you know what? Sometimes living independently means that we change our housing situation so that we can navigate it and we can live independently, maybe that's smaller areas, that kinda thing.
John
Right. And of course, when we opened the show and we talk about people wanting to avoid institutionalized care and age on their own terms, and not be a burden on friends and family, and things like that, part of the way to do that oftentimes is by having a living environment that you can manage yourself. Being out there alone on the middle of the 40-acre farm just may not be the right place. And so, downsizing, that's really the key. But again, the first problem you run into is you've got a big house full of stuff, and you're moving to a place where that stuff is just not gonna fit. And so the first thing you've gotta look at is how do you sort through all of these things?
Lisa
Well, first of all, don't get overwhelmed. It's so easy to look around and think there's no way I could ever get this down, and so it's just exhausting thinking about it so I'm not even gonna try. So, once you've decided to make that downsize move, and you know that you're going to have to get rid of some of that stuff, that accumulation, first piece of advice, don't tackle it all in one day. It's not gonna happen. And if you do, you're really just setting yourself up for failure. What you need to do is maybe a couple of hours bite-size chunks at a time. Pick that linen closet and pick that front bedroom and spend a couple hours and then get about your regular schedule. And that's why another reason you're gonna need to give yourself a bit of time if you can to make that transition. But forward progress, even if it's baby steps is still forward progress.
John
That's right, yeah. And so the key really is, again, little chunks, a couple hours. And maybe focus on just one room or even just one part of a room. "I'm gonna clean out this closet today and that's all I'm gonna do." And that could be a great way to do it. Now, of course, as you're coming through with all of this, the next thing is to figure out what's gonna go, what's gonna stay. And oftentimes, we see that if somebody is making this move they've got a family member or somebody else who's helping them out and... Making a move like that is already stressful enough and oftentimes thinking about, "Well, I don't know what to get rid of or what to keep," that can be very hard for the owner of those items.
John
Whereas, that person that's helping them move, you're not attached to 'em. And so a lot of times that person, that helper can phrase questions in a way that make it easier to get rid of some of the stuff. For example, instead of saying, "Well, hey, Mom, which of these pots do you wanna keep and which do you wanna get rid of?" It would be a lot easier for that helper to just pick out the best ones and say, "Hey Mom, I've picked out the best ones. How about we just keep these and get rid of the rest?" By framing it is in more of a yes or no, that can make it a lot easier for that person who's having to make all these decisions already. You're doing a lot of the work by sorting for them and then just saying, "Hey, do you want this or not?"
Lisa
Well, and that brings up some interesting dynamics questions. If you are helping that senior downsize so we're gonna take a break. When we come back we're gonna give you some hints to be able to navigate through our emotional attachment to a lot of the stuff that we've accumulated in our lifetime, so we'll be right back.
Lisa
Welcome back to Aging Insight. I'm Lisa Shoalmire and I'm here with John Ross. And today we're talking about when it's time to downsize. And a lot of the times, we find ourselves in a transition period and it means a change in our living situation. The problem for most of us is, we're really comfortable in that home that we're living in and it might be stuck to the gills with 40 years' worth of memories and things that we love. So downsizing is a challenge. Now, before the break, we talked about maybe having a helper that can assist you with that downsizing. And that is a fabulous way to help move the process. But one of the things to also remember is, if you're the helper and you're assisting that senior, a lot of the times we had to use a certain amount of tact with that senior and a lot of times that senior will defer that decision about a particular item.
Lisa
So if you come to the senior with two teapots and say, "Which one of these you wanna keep?" Well, hopefully, that senior can just pick one but sometimes they'll say, "Well, I don't know. Let's put that in the maybe-pile." And if you're like me if it comes to cleaning out the maybe-pile, basically, all I've done is move the stuff out of the closet and into the maybe-pile. [chuckle] So we really need to make an effort to not create a maybe-pile and go ahead and deal with the item right then.
John
Yeah, and this kinda goes along with... I moved around quite a bit especially during my service in the Marines as we've moved around quite a bit. I used to have a rule that was, "If whatever the item was, was still in the box from when I moved in and I'd never taken it out of that box, well then I didn't even need to open the box, it was gone. I just didn't need it." And so pick the things that you... But if there are things that have just been sitting in boxes and they haven't been looked at for years, it's okay to get rid of some stuff.
Lisa
One thing that a lot of us maybe in our... When we got married, younger marriage days, we accumulated maybe some China or some household items from parents, grandparents, things like that. Maybe it's appropriate to keep one place setting basically as a decoration and maybe take a photograph of that China cabinet with all that beautiful China in it and you can keep that photograph, keep that place setting, and go ahead and maybe give away to someone that you know will enjoy and appreciate those household items. Go ahead and give it away now.
John
Yeah, somebody that might actually use it. That's exactly right. Now, of course, when it comes to these things, oftentimes, there is a lot of emotional attachment to it and there might be a lot of items that are very emotional. I have a friend that I have known since I was a child and he is an only child, and I'm not sure that there was a minute of his life from the time he was born probably up until now, that was not photographed by his mother. And there are boxes and walls of photo albums with all of these photos. And you know the fact is, is that, if at some point in time his mother needed to move into an assisted living or something like that, there's just not gonna be enough room for all of those photos.
John
And so when it comes to things like photographs, old newspaper clippings, that seventh grade report card that's just been sitting there these are all great memories and you may not want to get rid of them. But, luckily, technology is here to help. These days, those sort of things can be scanned and there's even services, private services, where you could take a box of old photos or stacks of old photo albums and they will scan all of those pictures and put 'em on to disks or flash drives where you've got a digital recording of 'em and you don't have to worry about all of those individual photos. And frankly, that might actually preserve them even better than the old one.
Lisa
And I spoke a moment ago about, if there are certain items that are sentimental that are really a part of your family's legacy, that it might be appropriate to give those things away now as you're downsizing. There's a couple of reasons for that. Number one, you can make sure that the recipient of those items really gets those items because sometimes in transitions, things can get lost. So if your spouse's World War II or Korean medals are really something special to your son or grandson, maybe you should consider giving those now so they don't get lost later in other transitions. The other thing is you can really enjoy the recipient's appreciation and joy in the gift. So giving certain items away as you're going through a downsizing is a really good idea.
John
Well, and there's actually another little piece to that. Unfortunately, when you deal with families, like we do in our practice, inevitably, you deal with family disputes, particularly disputes that arise after that loved one has left us and there's some item of personal property that's in dispute because one child says, "Well, mom always wanted me to have it." And the other child says, "No, no, no mom always wanted me to have it." And you will probably be shocked to know the number of times that either Lisa or I have had to deal with that type of situation. And I gave a presentation recently about how to avoid family conflicts and somebody asked me they said, "John, is there any way to guarantee that somebody won't fight over some of my stuff that it will go to the person that I want it to go to? And I said, "Yes, there is one way." And that's to give it to 'em while they're still alive, while you're still alive, while you can still give it and so that there is no question that that's who you wanted it to go to. So there's lots of reasons to give it away and again, certainly not the least of which is to watch them enjoy that and be able to experience that with them.
Lisa
Well, and you know, John, the matter of fact is, as we downsize we really have to determine what's the really important stuff to us that we want close by versus the stuff that if we had the space, we like having it around. [chuckle] So downsizing oftentimes is almost a period of inward reflection on what the really important things are so use this time to engage in that. But we're about ready for our next break and when we come back, we're gonna talk about if we're downsizing, is it appropriate to donate items? How do we go about holding a sale of these items? And how to transition and move into our new space? So we'll be right back.
John
Welcome back to Aging Insight, everybody. I'm your host, John Ross, here with Lisa Shoalmire and today we're talking about downsizing. This is just one of those things that we see very often in our practice because people are coming to us to get advice because something has happened in their life. Maybe they've lost a loved one, maybe there's been a change in the health circumstances, but for whatever reason, they're contemplating a move from maybe their old big home to a smaller home, maybe from their home to an assisted living or an independent living environment. But inevitably, it involves going from big to small, and that means finding a place for your stuff and figuring out what to keep and what not to keep and how to deal with the treasures. All of those things are important, but ultimately, as you get down to the wire, you've figured out what you're gonna keep. Maybe you've taken care of the heirlooms. You've given those away or you've taken pictures as Lisa suggested or scanned all of those photo albums. You've done all of that, but we still have lots of stuff. What do you do here at the end? What do I do? Do I donate it? Do I just throw it away? What do I do with it?
Lisa
Well, one of my favorite suggestions is to go ahead and have that sale whether it's a garage state sale, whatever you wanna call it. But for the senior, this can be very overwhelming. If you've already sorted through your items and you've decided what you're keeping and then you know the other items need to go, if you get involved in pricing and conducting that sale, then a lot of times that's just going through those items a second time. So I'd really like to suggest to families that they bring in someone who's a professional or someone who offers this type service. They will price the items, set up the items, and man the sale. And yes, there's a fee that accompanies that service, but to not have to deal with those items a second and third time, a lot of times it's just invaluable. And frankly, sometimes our energy level and health just really can't stand up to the work it really takes to have one of those type of sales. So that's really tip number one is get some professional help.
Lisa
Now once you've had that sale, you're probably gonna have some things leftover. If anything's broken, or chipped, or just obsolete and this is where you either can try the free to a good home and you'll be amazed at how fast your stuff goes if it's out by near the curb and it's free. And then of course, you can always donate it to a charity or at the last resort take it to the landfill for it to be disposed of.
John
That's right. Now, of course, if you do have items that maybe could be of use to somebody, maybe they're clothes that are in good shape or maybe they're personal items, there are certainly lots of charities out there that would be more than happy to get those things. They can either turn around and give them to needy families or they can sell them and use the proceeds for their charitable purposes, all of which are very good. You can oftentimes give a tax deduction for making those charitable gifts, but again, when you're thinking about charities, give them the things that are gonna benefit either their mission or that they can sell and do something with. If it's junk, throw it away. That doesn't do the charity any good, it just makes their work harder having to sort through all of that. So if you do wanna give some stuff to charity, give some good stuff. That's really a good thing to do out there. It can be very valuable.
Lisa
Also, as you're transitioning to your new space, remember to keep that in mind as you downsize. The bottomline is, if you've been the cook for the family for decades and you've always set up the Thanksgiving spread and had three cakes on cake platters and turkey roasters and things, in your new space you're just simply not gonna have the room to store cake platters and turkey roasters and such, so keep that in mind as your downsizing. And frankly, hey John, how about giving that daughter-in-law those cake platters and the turkey roaster and tell her that she's in charge of Thanksgiving dinner this year?
John
Yeah, absolutely. Think about it. These things don't have to go completely to waste. Just, you can give them away appropriately. You can get a tax deduction if you give them to charity. Some of these charities will even come and pick the stuff up for you if it's stuff of value. And of course, there are professional services out there where you can hire people that will come in and sort through that sort of stuff or can give you advice. Oftentimes, real estate agents can either help with this or they can refer you to somebody who can.
Lisa
Finally, you may find that you have some items in your possession that may have belonged to your grandparent or great grandparent and these items really can have some historical value. If you have some things around like that, some old farm tools or implements or household items, also check with the historical society in your local museum because those items really tell a story about what it was like for those generations that came before us in how they lived their everyday life. So, keep that in mind also.
John
That's right. Well, downsizing it's a fact of life, it happens to a lot people, it can be a great thing. In fact, it can be the key to aging on your own terms because I can't tell you how many times I've seen folks who had to leave the home that they were comfortable in, going to a place that they weren't as comfortable, but only because they just couldn't care for that home. So, while you're able, getting a home environment that you like, that you're comfortable with and that you can maintain from here on out can really be one of the keys. In doing that, you're gonna have to downsize and I hope this advice can help you through that process. Of course, if you have other questions you can always call in to our live radio show every Saturday on 107.1, and you can reach out to us on the Internet at aginginsight.com. So, we'll see you next time.
Lisa
Bye-bye.
John
Bye.

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