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Helping Senior Loved Ones With Downsizing

The prospect of downsizing can be a difficult one for seniors facing the move to assisted living. A lifetime of memories associated with possessions can be daunting to wade through for families and caregivers.

But, there are ways to help ease the transition for your senior loved one. Learn more about downsizing.

Downsizing is an inevitable part of moving to a new residence: taking old clothes to Goodwill, throwing away that leaf blower that hasn’t worked in five years, and getting rid of all the things you’ve accumulated that your family no longer needs.

But, downsizing can be particularly wrenching for the elderly, who may find it overwhelming to think about letting go of the items they’ve gathered over a lifetime. If a senior loved one is faced with a move to assisted living where they may have less storage space, that clutter in the closet may turn into a stubborn roadblock – or even a justification to resist moving.

This can mean a tough conversation for family caregivers, who are usually the ones faced with confronting their parents about downsizing. Fortunately, there are strategies you can follow to make the process easier, even if a senior loved one has a more serious hoarding issue.

Does Your Senior Loved One Need to Downsize?

Getting rid of longtime possessions we’ve grown attached to isn’t easy for anyone, but for our elderly loved ones, it can feel like giving up cherished memories, especially if they are faced with leaving a long-term home on top of it all. Catherine Arendt, an At Your Service Manager at Era Living, says:

“After living for decades in their homes, some people have more than a little discomfort about the idea of downsizing.”

“You may have many years and a wealth of memories that are built around your family and your home,” she continues.

This isn’t just a matter of the occasional senior citizen not wanting to give up their mementos. In fact, it’s quite common. A recent study by the Gerontology Center at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, looked at survey data from 22,000 participants and found that about 30% of people over age 70 had done nothing to give away belongings over the past 12 months. “Yet more than half of the respondents in all age categories believed they had too many belongings,” notes a report in Reuters. “For example, 56% of those aged 50 to 59 and 62% of those 70 to 79 reported having more things than they needed.”

For these folks the problem isn’t denial, but rather, the extraordinary difficulty associated with giving up items that are so closely linked to their identities, their past and their memories.

When Clutter Gets Out of Control

For other people, though, it isn’t so easy to convince them that they have too much stuff. If their collection of stuff is actually impairing their everyday functioning and threatening their health or that of others, they may be suffering from an elderly hoarding disorder.

This bears repeating: if you know someone who is having trouble letting go of personal possessions and is distressed at the thought of discarding them, that alone may not constitute elderly hoarding behavior.

However, if a person’s clutter is so extreme that their living space is unusable, unsanitary, or hazardous, or if they are exhibiting symptoms like self-neglect and social withdrawal, it may be time to consider whether they have Diogenes Syndrome (elderly hoarding disorder) and whether they should move into assisted living. It’s more common than you might think: a 2008 study by Johns Hopkins revealed that 6.2% of people over 55 show hoarding behavior.

Tips for Talking to Your Parents about Downsizing

Whether you suspect your loved one has senior hoarding issues, or they simply have too much stuff for a small assisted living apartment, broaching the topic of downsizing can be a scary thought. You might be wondering, how can I ask Mom and Dad to give up so many mementos they obviously cherish, and risk upsetting them? Indeed, the conversation – and the culling process itself – can be quite distressing.

One of our APFM readers, Lisa McDermott Byce, reported that a friend of hers found the process very difficult at first.

“She asked a group of us to help her get rid of things but she became increasingly upset as we worked together on it. Later she discovered something that helped her – she began to give away her stash to needy people and to the local thrift store. She came to understand that she hadn’t been using the things she’d been hoarding and that others could really use them,” says Lisa. “Now instead of feeling ashamed, she is blessing others.”

Enlisting trusted friends and family to help your loved one clear their clutter can be an enormous help. Having others around to share memories with can make the process less painful, for one thing. It can also make it less overwhelming and time-consuming – sometimes seniors are daunted by the size of the task, or feel physically incapable. Sometimes, though, the situation is so dire that professional help is warranted. Senior move managers help the elderly downsize their possessions and are experts at helping with the transition into senior living.

“Sometimes when an adult child steps in to help mom or dad move, they bring emotional baggage. A lot of people are afraid they will lose the memory if they lose the item,” said Mary Kay Buysse, executive director of the National Association of Senior Move Managers, in the Reuters article. A trusted advisor on senior living issues can go a long way to helping seniors and their families figure out what to throw away and what to bring with them into assisted living. They can also help you talk to your loved one, addressing their fears and anxieties about assisted living, as well as the advantages of moving.

The result can be a hassle-free transition – and a much lighter load.

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