Pitch It or Pack It?
Some tips for the tough job of downsizing.So many memories, so little space. That’s often the conundrum facing seniors when they downsize their digs. Not only are they leaving behind a house that they may have raised their children in, but they also just don’t know where to begin after accumulating 40 years’ worth of stuff.
My husband and I encountered a case of senior downsizing firsthand: The widow we bought our house from had raised four children there with her husband. Every square inch of the home was filled to capacity when we toured through it during the buying process. It wasn’t worthy of an episode of “Hoarders” — but it was close. Tchotchke and memorabilia abounded, from the tiny teapot on the bottom baluster of the stairs to the Mrs. Beardsley doll sitting on the upstairs window seat. Boxes crowded the three-season sunroom so much so that it was nearly impossible to open the door. And don’t even get me started on the basement.
Neighbors told us after we moved in that her four children helped her stage a series of four weekend yard sales — and she still had to store a bunch of things that wouldn’t fit into her new condo.
No doubt downsizing for seniors brings with it special challenges. “It’s not about throwing away your stuff and the memories that go along with them,” says Helene Parenteau, a certified professional organizer and owner of Organizing Specialists and Senior Downsizing in Salem. “You can fit into a smaller place, and it can be done without worry.”
There’s a whole different psychology that comes with senior downsizing in organizing — it’s more emotional and requires more compassion and understanding, she adds. “It’s easier for younger generations to give stuff away — seniors are very different. They may have come up through the depression years, and for older women who were homemakers those objects represent their lives spent in the house.”
The first thing she says seniors should do is to go through their house and start purging trash versus treasure, keepsake versus clutter. Give yourself at least three to six months if you’re going to be tackling it at least twice a week. “I usually start with the attic or the basement. The basement is best, because when you clean out your basement a bit you have a place to organize the stuff you take down from the attic,” she says.
Take a hard look at what you use and don’t use. “If there’s a lot of dust on an object, you’re probably not going to need that thing,” says Parenteau. “Know the stuff you really want to keep and make a list.”
Boxes are also an important element to effectively getting rid of stuff. “For 30 years the stuff came into the house bag by bag,” she says, “and in the end everything goes out box by box.” She explains that you can never have enough labeled boxes while downsizing. For example, Box #1 is for giving away; Box #2 is for charity; Box #3 is for this child; Box #4 is for things to take with you but storing, etc. (Insider tip: Borders and Barnes & Noble stores are the best free sources of good-sized, sturdy boxes. “They’re usually broken down out back but can be taped up and they’re superb!” says Parenteau.) Once you pick up an object, don’t put it back down — place it in one of the categorized boxes right away, otherwise you’ll find yourself starting all over, says Parenteau.
Now’s the time to also think about giving items to family or friends. One way to avoid fighting over things within the family is to come up with a system, says Parenteau. “I’ve seen a mother and father say to their kids, ‘Give me a list of the 20 top items you want and mail it to me secretly.’ That works well because they get an idea of what are the most popular items,” she adds.
Faith Barry’s parents are 90 and 91 and split their house in Deerfield 30 years ago so that Faith’s sister could live on one side. Fitting roughly half their things into their side required some innovative generosity on their part. For example, one Christmas Faith’s mother gave Faith and her six siblings each a piece of her Danish blue china.
Another item that Faith received is a painting by a local watercolorist. “When my mother retired as city librarian, they offered her as a gift to choose any of the paintings in the library. Since I was the only one of the kids who took classes from him, my mother gave it to me. I am so thrilled to have a Bill Childs painting in my house.”
Knowing it’s going to a good home before you die can also save stress. If there’s no one to take your things or if you’d rather sell certain items and use the proceeds for other reasons, the next step is to think about things that might go to dealers and auctions, says Parenteau. A number of appraisers are available through organizations. Look them up online or at your local library, and interview a few to get a rough idea of costs for coming to appraise. Another tip, says Parenteau: If you have someone come to appraise, you rarely sell the stuff directly to appraisers. Ask friends, people at church and other folks if they know of a good dealer. And that goes for all your moving and downsizing services. “There’s going to come a point where you’re going to be walking around with a pad of paper. All of a sudden it will come up in conversation,” says Parenteau, “that someone has a good painter, dealer, trash guy, etc., and you’ll need to put this information together.”
After you deal with auctioneers or dealers, there will be things you’d like to give to charity. Here you have two options, says Parenteau: give away or itemize. “A lot of people ask, ‘Is it worth it to itemize?’” A good rule of thumb, she says, is to figure 15 percent of the item’s original cost, or what you would pay if you walked into a Goodwill store. “Take a day trip there and look around at the prices. It’s not usually complicated like a regular store.” Parenteau says after doing this for years, it’s not uncommon for her clients to claim $2,000 off their taxes for charitable donations. Another thing to keep in mind is that often charities will not accept certain items, even if you paid good money for it. “I get a lot of ‘What do you mean they won’t accept my stereo?’” says Parenteau.
Objects that seniors should always take with them to a new place are lamps (since you never know where they will fit in and where you’ll need the most light), wall pictures and Oriental carpets. “Most of these [retirement communities] are beige beige beige, so anywhere you can throw in some color is great,” says Parenteau. Save the downsizing of your photos and home movies until you get to your new place as well, she recommends. “That’s another project for another day. For now, just put them in good secure boxes or Rubbermaid bins, put the names of the photos on the outside and go through them later.”
There were a few cases where clients just couldn’t decide about what to do with certain objects, and Parenteau allowed them to pack it to take with them. Once they got to the other end and saw that there was no place for it, it helps to part with it easier. “Don’t become possessed by your possessions,” says Parenteau. “Of course living with less can be done. Even with a lot less of your stuff you can still be very happy and very content. You’re going to be just fine.”
In this different phase of your life, she adds, you can go antiquing and just look, for example. “You kind of teach yourself to say ‘It’s pretty, but I don’t need it.’” says Parenteau. The key is to keep the things that give joy and meaning to your life. And, in the end, she adds, the beauty of that small space is that there is a lot less shopping to do, and you surround yourself only with those things you do like. The prettiest of her clients’ stuff goes with them — “I can make their new place look like a Bloomingdale’s showroom,” she says. NH
Certified Professional OrganizerOrganizing Specialists and Senior Downsizing