Helping Your Elderly Parent Downsize

help your parent downsize
Help your parents get rid of the clutter without sacrificing the memories.


If your elderly parent has lived in his/her home for several decades, chances are, it is full of a lifetime of memories and stuff. As they age, they may start wanting to downsize their belongings in anticipation of moving in with family or into an assisted living facility, or even to a new condo in a fun retirement community.


Where do you even start when it comes time to downsize? If your parents are like mine, everything has meaning. My mom still has things from when she was my Girl Scout leader! I have heard great things about “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” for helping people decide which items have meaning and which items are just stuff.


If you don’t have time to read the book, here are some tips I’ve used and found to help me keep a family of four from being over-run by clutter in an 1100 square foot condo with no garage and no additional storage.


  • Do a preliminary run through. Without getting too deep into the project, walk through the home and garage together and make quick decisions on things they no longer want and how you will dispose of it. For example, they may have three folding tables in the garage and realize that they will likely not have any more outdoor parties where the tables are necessary. Decide right away if they’ll be donated or if someone in the family wants them. You can also decide if you’re going to do a garage sale. They can put the sale money towards something fun like a vacation or even a big family party. To make it even easier, get colored labels and assign a color to sell, donate and family giveaways.


  • Do a challenge. I read about a 500 item challenge where each day, a person went to different parts of her home and threw out as many things as she could in that time until she eventually reached 500 items. You can start that with your parents in their home on the days you are visiting. To make it more efficient, you can have a bin for donations, a bin for family giveaways and a trash can. Set a timer and do as much as you can in that amount of time. If your parent isn’t able to do the decluttering himself, have him sit in the room and guide you. You can kick start it by trying out my 3 minute trash bag challenge.


  • Preserve memories. If your parent is holding on to your artwork from 40 years ago, work with them to create a photo memory book. Take pictures of the artwork and make a photo book out of the best artwork. Once you go through the items, they’ll probably see that every single item isn’t worth preserving. You can do this with trinkets they’ve picked up on vacations, collections, etc.


  • Use your imagination. As you are going through the items, ask the question, if I saw this in a store today, would I still buy it? This is interesting because there are many items in my home that I would definitely not rebuy. I’ll have to try this one myself. This is probably similar to the KonMarie method (The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing) of asking yourself if an item “sparks joy.”


  • I once read an article about cleaning house that suggested putting everything that is on the floor into the middle of the room and then going through the pile to put everything away. I do this with my kids when we clean their room and it works well. For a senior, they probably don’t have a bunch of items on the floor, but you can do this with items on a book shelf or in kitchen cabinets. Seeing how much of everything they have can make letting go of things a bit easier.


  • Clear the paper clutter. If your parents have tax records from 20 years ago and pay stubs from the 1970s, clearing the paper clutter can take a long time. If your parents are worried about what to keep and what to get rid of, check out this guide. If they have so much stuff that it would kill your shredder, consider dropping off the bags at a safe shredding location. Many office supply stores offer this service.


  • Pass on the childhood memories. This is the time for your parents to stop offering their home as a storage facility for their grown children. If there are items you or your siblings are storing at your parent’s house, take them home. I am guilty of this since I live in a small home. My parents have most of our wedding china stored at their house, which tells you how important that china really was! I’ve been married for 12 years and have only used two sets of my china less than 10 times.


  • Do a more thorough walk through and categorize items into four categories: definitely save, possibly save, donate, save or giveaway and discard. Color code the items that are in the donate, save or giveaway and discard piles and start moving them out.


  • Get rid of kitchen items. Whether your parent is moving in with you or into an assisted living facility, chances are, they won’t need much in the kitchen. Hold on to a few dishes and cups to make their new home feel more home-y, and get rid of the rest.


Understand that this process is difficult and be patient with your parent if they resist getting rid of things that aren’t necessary. Allow them to stroll down memory lane and encourage them to find ways to keep memories alive.



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