Navigating the Emotions of Downsizing

A professional organizer shares her strategies on helping aging parents through the emotional process of downsizing.

One of the most difficult parts of moving to a smaller space can be discarding possessions. “Change is not going to be so easy for people who have been living in their home for decades, especially if they’re elders,” says Linda Samuels, a certified professional organizer who has worked with seniors for many years. Being sensitive to the emotions involved with downsizing can make the process easier for both aging parents and their families.

The first step in easing that process is for adult children to understand and accept the way their parents are feeling, Samuels says. This could include anger, sadness, relief, joy or ambivalence. “Everything that is looked at and touched is a memory,” Samuels says. “And so those memories are going to conjure up all kinds of emotions, the entire spectrum.” Being patient and accepting of the feelings that surface will create a more positive environment.

“Sometimes the telling and the listening is enough to be able to let go or identify what they want to take with them.”

Emotional attachments to objects can make elders resistant to discarding them. One way to ease the transition is if the objects are going to a person or place that the elder feels comfortable with — one that has meaning and perhaps provides opportunity to leave a legacy. This could be giving cherished items to family members, close friends or a meaningful charity. “If they know that these things are going on to someone that will treasure them, it can make that letting go feel good instead of sad,” Samuels says.

Another way to make parting with belongings easier is simply taking the time to listen. Possessions bring back memories, and letting your parents tell their stories can bring them peace of mind when downsizing. “Sometimes the telling and the listening is enough to be able to let go or identify what they want to take with them,” Samuels says. Taking photographs of the objects or videotaping your parents’ stories can help them feel like their memories can live on.

Samuels also advises adult children to take care of themselves during the process. Downsizing can take an emotional toll on anyone, and having a support system in place can make the experience more positive for everyone involved.

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