Supporting A Parent Through the Decision to Downsize

downsizeBy Nancy Peham
Special Contributor

We all reach a point in life where it makes sense to downsize. The first step is to realize, accept, and decide that the time has come to move forward with the process.

As adult children, we can support our parents’ decision in several ways.  We can provide emotional support, share information and resources, and when possible work alongside a parent to go through their home giving physical assistance. When that’s not feasible a third party can be brought in to help.

Your parent may be dealing with a home that has been lived in for 40 years or an apartment that has already been through the first round of downsizing.  There may have been a recent illness, loss of a spouse, or physical constraints that complicate the process, or your parents may be in great health.

So, Where Do You Start?

Whether a move will take place soon or your parents’ goal is just to simplify their lives, the steps are the same.  In the case of an imminent move, the stress level may be higher, but the most important thing is to begin the process as soon as you know the change is coming.   

Decisions must be made whether to sell, donate, consign, give to a family member, put into temporary storage, or toss the items that won’t be kept.  Some people are more sentimental than others, and decisions more difficult to make. Expectations about what items are worth may need to be tempered if the goal is to sell them.

Ways You Can Help

If your parents are moving to a smaller home and have access to the layout and room measurements at the new location, you can help them make realistic decisions about which pieces of furniture will fit in each room. It can be helpful to use different colored stickers when walking through the current home to indicate which large items will be kept, consigned, sold or donated. Also, consider which pieces of furniture have the best storage capacity to maximize space.

Sometimes it’s easier for us to let go of certain sentimental items if we can give them to family members or friends. But prepare your loved ones for the possibility that their offers may be declined.

For projects involving smaller items like closets, cupboards and bathrooms help your parents work in time increments that are manageable.  Try tackling one closet or small area at a time and don’t let “scope creep” take over. This can lead to being overwhelmed, stress and anxiety.

In a linen closet start by getting rid of multiples.  For example, don’t keep more than two sheet sets per bed. Keep only enough towels to get you through one or two laundry cycles. Go through blankets, pillows, comforters and decorative pillows keeping only the ones that will be used.

Clothing should be thinned out in anticipation of less closet space if moving to a smaller home.  Encourage a parent to keep only the things that get worn regularly and a few special occasion outfits.  Get rid of uncomfortable and impractical footwear.

When downsizing the kitchen get rid of gadgets and seldom used items in favor of multi-purpose appliances, and a few pots, and pans. Rather than keeping a 12- piece dinnerware set, consider a set of six. Minimize extra cups and glasses and thin the supply of storage containers.

Paperwork can be a tedious job. Start by agreeing to ground rules about which items will be recycled, shredded, filed or trashed.  Many people keep more than they need especially in the age of online bill paying and paperless bills. For stacks of junk mail and unopened bills look for pieces that might be important and quickly go through the rest.  Offer to take a box or two home with you so that your parent doesn’t get overwhelmed.

Attics and garages should be tackled by an able-bodied person who can lift heavier items and move things into the open to be assessed.  Check with your city for bulk trash pickup schedules, and to learn about hazardous waste removal.

If your parent feels comfortable with your help, try scheduling regular sessions where you can work together. If you know that the situation will be stressful or could lead to arguments, consider bringing in a third party to help. This is also a good option for families that live far away or who can’t help due to other circumstances or responsibilities.

Research options for liquidating furniture and décor such as consignment or an estate sale, and if junk pickup is necessary, help make the arrangements. In some cases, renting a self-storage unit can be a good short-term option, especially if a move must take place on short notice.

Offer to drop off donations or make an appointment for charities that pick up. If your parents have a favorite cause, see if you can find a charity that supports it.

The key to helping a parent is to be respectful of their decisions.  Try to put yourself in their position and consider how you would feel in their situation.  Allow time to reminisce and treat possessions with respect. Your parents will appreciate it.


Nancy Peham, a Certified Professional Organizer® and member of the National Association of Productivity & Organizing Professionals, is celebrating 17 years as an organizer and owner of Helping Hands Personal Services. She can be reached through her website, or at nancy@HelpingHandsPs.com.

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