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How To Help Aging Parents To Downsize

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If your parents make the decision to downsize, to move to a smaller home or assisted living or any other type of senior living arrangement the process will likely be difficult. Both physically and emotionally.  The disruption to their daily routine and leaving what they know can be traumatic.

But there are some ways that the process of downsizing elderly parents can be made easier for them and you.

It is particularly important for adult children to recognize that downsizing for a move to senior living can leave their aging parents feeling both emotionally and physically distressed, says Colleen Dwyer, RN, BSN, NHA, Executive Director and Administrator of Bryn Mawr Terrace .

Brynmawrterrace.org

5 Tips On How To Help Your Aging Parents Through The Downsizing Process:

  1. Start talking to your senior loved ones about downsizing early
  2. Treat them and their possessions with respect
  3. Don’t force your parents into this decision
  4. Listen to their needs and wants
  5. Go through the process slowly

Your parent’s decision to move to a smaller home is usually brought on by a specific event such as a medical decline where home care is needed or financial stress or perhaps the caregiving spouse has fallen ill or passed away. 

Whether they may need more personal care assistance or simply a smaller space to manage – the decision will most likely be difficult.  Especially if they have to leave beloved family and friends behind.

This makes the process more difficult because it’s a situation that is forced upon them.  They will likely have a hard time with the decision and will need a lot of emotional support during this time.

But if the decision could be made prior to such an event – the process could be easier.  Just something to think about and talk about with your parents.

Whether the decision is to move to an assisted living or another type of independent living community or even any of the alternative senior housing or perhaps just a smaller home or condominium, the downsizing process is the same.

I have found these 5 tips to be very effective ways to deal with downsizing my own mother (and myself).

1. Plan Ahead By Talking To Your Parents About Downsizing Early On

It’s much easier to go through a life changing event such as moving if you’ve been thinking about it for awhile. Having time to process the pros and cons can make it less stressful.

  • Be proactive and bring up the topic of leaving the family home and moving to a smaller home or other type of senior living situation while your parents are younger and healthier.
  • Keep the conversation light and focus on the issue that they won’t need as much room as they grow older.
  • If the house they are living in is currently unsafe – focus on the fact that a smaller home can be made safer for them.
  • If their current expenses are an issue then focus on how much they will be able to save by living in a smaller home.
  • Encourage your aging parents to begin decluttering, getting rid of household goods they don’t use anymore, clearing out those storage spaces, etc.
  • As the adult child, you are not there to tell your parents what to do or how to do it instead you are there to help them make the best decision for themselves.
  • If you think it may be helpful, include other key family members in the conversation.
  • You may also want to consider contacting a professional organizer or getting professional help from the National Association of Senior Move Managers.

Senior Move Managers are equipped to help your parents through the moving process and can assist with: sorting through their possessions at their current home, mapping out where everything should go in their new home, packing and transporting the items and furniture they plan to take with them, and unpacking everything and putting them in the their proper place.

Ericstewartgroup.com

2. Treat Your Senior Loved Ones And Their Personal Possessions With Respect

Most of us know the old adage, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Luke 6:31).

In other words you would want your children to give you the respect to make your own decisions about your family home and your possessions. Do the same for your parents and senior loved ones.

A friend’s father was a very curious man who was interested in many topics.  Everything from gardening to politics to financial planning to general carpentry and so much more.  He would spend hours and hours reading books and articles online about wherever his curiosity took him that day.

I really admired that about him.

When he passed away at the age of 92 – the office in his home was filled with very large stockpiles of articles that he had printed off the Internet.  I’m talking about several piles of articles at least 3 feet high each. 

I wanted to help so I got the job to declutter his office – to clear out unneeded items so that his wife could get to the important papers and do what needed to be done after someone passes away.

Without thinking and just focused on cleaning things out – I took 90% of those articles and threw them away. Several were years old so I just didn’t think these certain items were going to be important to anyone in the family. But I was very, very wrong.

My friend was very upset with me that I did that. She said she may have wanted to go through all those articles, there may have been some sentimental value in them – and she was absolutely right. What seemed like such a small thing to me was very important to her and I should have respected that.

I just didn’t think those items could be prized possessions or sentimental items for her.  I was very much in the wrong.

My point here is just because you think your parent(s) may be wrong about deciding not to move or you think that they are holding on to the wrong kinds of possessions because there is no monetary value in them, it’s not your call. You can give them your opinion and why you have that opinion but in the end it’s their decision on what to do.

I do understand that if your parents are dealing with some form of cognitive decline – that has to be taken into consideration.  After all, if their judgement and reasoning is impaired – then I recommend that you work with a professional counselor to help you discuss these issues with your parents. 

Tip: For anyone facing cognitive decline – downsizing to some type of senior living arrangement may be the safest solution.

3. When Downsizing Elderly Parents – Don’t Force The Decision

Caregiving for an older parent involves a lot of physical and emotional issues and moving to a smaller living environment may be a part of your caregiving experience.

My mother lived in a townhouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida for many years.  She was fiercely independent, worked two jobs for decades and enjoyed living in the South Florida area.

When she first became ill and retired it became very difficult for her and for us to care for her. The closest child to her was my sister who lived in Orlando.  Several times my mother was admitted to the emergency room and my poor sister would have to do the 4 hour drive down to Fort Lauderdale to help my mother and be her advocate.

After a handful of these events in a 12 month time span we had to begin the process of talking to my mother about choosing between home care services or moving closer to my sister in Orlando.

This was not met with any sense of compliance. 

My mother fought this decision with us and other family members for over a year until she finally came to conclusion that it was the best move for her and for us.

We had to be careful not to force her into it.  We had to keep talking about it and laying out the facts and try to be as reasonable as we could be about why we thought the move would benefit everyone. 

We never set a firm date – but doing so may help with your specific situation.

It wasn’t easy, and we didn’t always succeed but we tried very hard to leave our emotions out of the conversations.  We knew never to mention the words “senior living” to her because she despised it so.

As I said, she finally did move but honestly she was never ever happy about it. Resented it until the day she passed away and she let us know that she resented it daily. 

But, my sister and I know that we did the right thing for her.  It was a win-win situation in many ways.

Sometimes, as the adult child, you just have to stay focused on the facts and put away the emotional factors so that you can make the best decisions possible.

Tip: It was not easy to be patient with our mother but we knew that fighting with her would only make her more resistant.  So, if you need to walk away from the conversation – do so.  Better to pick it up at a later time.

4. Listen To What Your Elderly Parents Need And Want

In the case of my mother, we tried very hard to listen to what she needed and wanted so that we could work with her to give her those things.   For example:

  • She insisted on living in a one story single family house.
  • She insisted on having a back yard with a view.
  • She insisted on a specific floor plan with the kitchen in the back.
  • She insisted on having a living room that would accommodate her furniture and other large items.

It took many months but a home in my sister’s neighborhood came up for sale that fit most of these criteria. 

And although some renovations had to be made it ended up being a great home for my mother. (Even though she kept insisting her 2 story townhome in Fort Lauderdale was much, much better!) 

Working to give your parents what they want and need can go a long way in alleviating the fears of downsizing, for most older adults.  There may not ever be an ideal solution – but you want to get as close as you can to what they want.

But again, if your parents are dealing with any form of cognitive decline, please take that into consideration when working with them to downsize.  Do your best to maintain as much of their daily routine as possible as structure is extremely important when there are cognitive problems.

Tip: In my years as an Occupational Therapist and dealing with my own aging parents – I learned that instead of trying to persuade them to your point of view, it’s better to try to understand their point of view and work from there.

5. Be Prepared To Go Through The Process Slowly

Inch by inch is the best way to proceed with a task that is not desirable. 

And let’s face it, cleaning out our spaces, decluttering and downsizing is not necessarily a pleasant task for most anyone. I learned that when my husband passed away.

What I ended up doing really helped me through that decluttering process. So let me share that with you.

  • I first asked friends and family if they wanted anything and many of them took something that they could remember my husband by (which was very sweet).
  • I then made the decision to donate our household items and other unwanted possessions to some local charities vs. having a yard sale or estate sale.  I just wasn’t emotionally up to doing that.
  • I took things like address books, sentimental items (like some china), legal documents, birth certificates and framed photos that I wanted to keep and put them all in a file cabinet – moving them away from areas I was clearing out.
  • The next step was to create a list of all the areas in the entire house which was very large.  We had 19 rooms plus 2 screened in porches and 2 outdoor decks.  Also there were 11 closets plus 2 kitchen pantries. (I know, it was a ridiculously large home but we fell in love with the lot which was right on a river.)
  • I then made a schedule.  Three days a week I would tackle one section of a room or a closet.  It could be just a drawer or a shelf or an entire closet.  Whatever I could manage to do on that day.  No matter what – no matter how I felt – I stuck to the schedule!  That was very important.
  • I would then shred documents and photos I didn’t keep and put the items I cleared out of the area in my car and every week I took these items to a local thrift store like Goodwill or a pet shelter.
  • It took over a year to get rid of the majority of the stuff in our home so that I could downsize and move – but I did it.

Although this is a very slow way to do the job it was the best way for me.

This slow process gave me time to go through photo albums and contemplate on cherished memories.  It was a great healing process. 

Tip: Many older adults don’t want to think about their beloved items ending up in the dumpster – but yet they may not have room for them. So, I would recommend to simply remove these items from their living spaces and store them either in a storage unit or at someone else’s home.

Just knowing that the items are still in their possession can go a long way to helping them to remove them from their living quarters.

Check out the checklist by the Family Caregiver Alliance on downsizing.

At What Age Should Your Elderly Parents Downsize?

I wouldn’t say that there’s a specific age as to when seniors should move to a smaller home or assisted living facilities.

Instead, I would say that the decision should probably depend on…

  • Finances – Do your parents need the equity in their home to live?  Are the expenses of the home getting too high? 
  • Physical – Are your parents having a difficult time in their home (i.e. managing the staircase, difficulty getting in and out of the garage, bathrooms are too small, the house requires expensive maintenance, etc.)
  • Cognitive – Are your parents having cognitive and perceptual problems that makes it unsafe for them to live alone?

Some real estate agents specialize in working with older adults…

In fact, when I discuss downsizing with my real estate clients, I call it rightsizing, which is the process where you adjust your current home or relocate to a new home to fit your needs and empower you to live your preferable future.

Ericstewartgroup.com

You may also want to consider hiring a senior relocation specialist who can organize and manage the process for you.  

Being a family caregiver to senior loved ones is not easy but by taking milestone one step at a time – you can get through it.  Just remember to ask for help – it’s simply too big a job to go through it alone.  Reach out to family and friends and perhaps the Family Caregiver Alliance.

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