• Kim

14 Tips To Helping Elderly Parents Downsize Their Home

Advice, Pitfalls, Ways To Thrive In This Situation

--Down-sizing for, with, or on behalf of a parent or loved one is never something we look forward to. No-one likes having to face that it might be "that time", time to make the decision to weed out an elderly parent's lifetime stash of belongings. Your reason may be as simple as making things easier for them to find or remember where they've put something. It could be that Dad is needing to move or at least have a safer and more compact environment at home. Some people are motivated as they grow older, to get rid of their own excess, maybe because they don’t want to burden anyone after they are gone, or because they want their belongings to go to specific people or places. Sometimes moving to a new place is a happy time as Mom or Dad looks forward to being more active and social. But sadly, there are many times when a parent must move or downsize because of failing health, safety hazards, or financial difficulty. Helping a resistant party to do something they aren't in favor of can be like trying to make a cat take a pill. But with some strategic planning, it can be much easier. This is by no means an exhaustive list of what to do, but if you are looking ahead to this common life change for a parent, you may find some help here.


--If time allows, it’s nice to be able to bring this up in gradual, casual conversation, such as “someday” or "maybe when the time comes”, or “what do you think you would want to do with____?”. It often takes time for our minds to adjust to a new thing, so just lightly bringing up the subject may be all your loved one can take at first, but as they ruminate on it, they may be more willing and able to help with the plan. Nobody wants to be the unwilling party in someone else's story, so try to realize that this is your parent's story. These are your parent's belongings. This is your parent's life that is likely moving way too fast for them to grasp entirely. In other words - (sorry to be harsh but) this is not all about you.

--You may or may not have the luxury of time. If not, it’s probably best to be direct and involve Mom or Dad as much as possible in the decision. They may not have any real choice in the matter, but you can definitely help to give them choices in the how’s and where’s, maybe even the when’s.

--If there are items that your parent is highly concerned about, try to deal with these things ahead of time. This way Mom or Dad will be more at ease and can stop worrying about that particular item, and moving on with all of the less-pressing decisions may be much easier with the major worries out of the way.

Other Family Members

--If you have siblings, you may benefit from outside help. Here are a few reasons why:

Hiring an organizer to work with your parent, can keep you off the hook and place you on equal footing with the others, rather than placing one sibling in charge of everything. Even if the organizer isn’t doing the actual work, he or she can be involved in the planning and be a resource for future questions and guidance. One of my Guided DIY plans may be perfect for this, and it may be much easier to resort to “blaming” the organizer than disagreement among the family members. Some examples: The organizer says we should work on one area at a time so as not to overwhelm Mom. Or the organizer says we are going to need lots of boxes. Who is able to pick them up or make sure Dad picks them up before we start? Or, the organizer says Mom will have 50% less dresser drawer space, so she can really only keep half of her clothes. Let’s help her pick the half she will need/want.

--BEWARE- A major pitfall is trying to hire an organizer to work with an unwilling party. He or she will want to work with the client who owns the home that is to be downsized unless that person is totally not mentally or physically able to be involved. So, if your parent isn’t committed to the project or worse, doesn’t know about it yet, don’t put an organizer in this pickle. The organizer needs to be your parent’s ally, not their enforcer. It will be your job to deal with any emotional fallout from the older person who has to part with their things and if they are cantankerous, emotional or have some dementia, the organizer is fully within rights to require a family member to be present for all sessions to prevent accusations or blame falling in the wrong place.

--This can actually be a happy time to share with siblings and family members, a time to work together to accomplish the task at hand. Create a regularly occurring party day or a one-time celebration of revisiting old times, and Mom or Dad will feel like a Queen or King. Sharing memories is so important for everyone, and your parent probably has some memories that you have forgotten or never knew about.

--You may have feelings of loss at this transition. Your siblings are the perfect people to join forces with, as you are all in the same boat in this instance. Sharing your feelings with siblings, another person or even a counselor can help you come to grips with your feelings, and in turn, help your loved one get through this victoriously.

--Working together with siblings will also lighten the load, as each one can be in charge of a particular task or area or expertise. Even if some brothers or sisters don't live nearby, there are tasks they can assist with.

--If you and your siblings are likely to fight over the items that a parent or loved one is editing, an organizer is NOT going to want to get in the middle of that, but if approached with questions on how you can all work together without disagreeing, the organizer or a counselor may be able to give you some options for ways to go about fairly distributing the loved one's belongings, once they've decided what to part with.


--Some people find getting rid of things to be easier as they go along. One of my clients got started working in her china cupboard and found herself tossing things right and left. She looked at me with a smile and said, “This is kind of fun!”

I have also seen things go the other way, as one elderly client became all the more possessive of her things as there was less and less left to hold onto. At one point, I found myself trying to make a case for why she would not ever need 37 pairs of worn support stockings and a baggie of old garter clips. And I was losing because all she could think of was what if she should need them and couldn’t get any more. What could I say? If garter clips really became a necessity, I wouldn't have the first idea of where to shop for them. Most people don't even know what I'm talking about, right?

In this case, it would have been a good idea to have a prior agreement in place for just these kinds of predicaments. Maybe as simple as a set series of questions that an item would have to pass in order to be allowed to stay in the "keep" pile.

--Your parent is highly likely to get fed up in one way or another with this whole idea as things get messier and harder. To help deal with frustration or wanting to quit, it may be a good idea to have some in-writing statements to follow when the going gets tough. Some examples would be:

"How much would you like to work on in this session?" Or maybe better yet, "How long would you like to work on this today?" Always keep the goal manageable. It’s encouraging to exceed a goal, but disheartening to fall short.

"If time runs short and we can’t get done before moving day, what would you like to have done and what can wait until a little later?" Try to plan ahead for changes in plans and have a plan B. Having a solid deadline looming with no alternative is simply too stressful all the way around.

"If one task or item becomes just too much of a hot-button, who would you like to make the decision to leave it and move temporarily to another task?"

Mom or Dad will tire easily with this kind of work because it is so emotionally draining. "Do you want to set a time limit for each work session and maybe a nice reward for afterward?"

--Some people find it much harder to get rid of things that belonged to a spouse who has recently passed away, but much easier, say 3 years later. In this case, you could work on those emotionally-tied items last, or even make one pass through them now and give it another try at a later time, when things have settled down. Obstacles that seemed insurmountable at one time are often easier to face when they are being revisited.

--These are just a few of the actions and mindsets you can take to help make this process easier for your elderly parent or loved one. The thing that is easiest to forget and probably the most important to remember is that this is their life. I do get that it is also a part of your life, but it is their whole reality at this point. Please try to understand this. You could probably do it more quickly and efficiently if you just took over, but unless your loved one asks you sincerely to do that, don't. My best piece of advice is to help them to make this transition with as much of their pride intact as possible. Love them through this process and you will be building trust for future (maybe even more sensitive) issues.

You may also like reading the article entitled 5 Common Downsizing Mistakes. Snag it HERE, where you can sign up for complete access to my resources area, which contains articles, printables, other resources and back issues of the monthly newsletter "Hello Tuesday!".