Cleaning House for Older Adults: How to Downsize for a Fresh Start

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It’s sometimes shocking just how much stuff we accumulate over the years. And the older you get, the more and more things seem to pile up. Today, many people are choosing to downsize—homes, possessions, and more. They crave the fresh start that this type of cleansing can bring.1 Often, it leads to a simpler, more satisfying lifestyle – one where they have fewer things but actually enjoy them more!

However, downsizing can mean something different to older adults. Not only do they have special memories attached to their homes and possessions (which they sometimes have had for decades), but leaving them behind can bring up a host of emotional issues. But if your mom or dad is moving to a smaller place, or they hoard so many things that their life has become unmanageable, it’s time to help them let go. But it can be hard to know just how to downsize when caring for an older adult –  read on for what to do when your loved one has difficulty parting with the past.

The Emotional Cost of Cleaning House

Cleaning house isn’t just about physical objects in space; it comes with an emotional cost as well. It can bring up old issues of loss and abandonment for the person who’s leaving their things behind. It’s not farfetched for an older adult to think, “Well, if they’re getting rid of all the ‘old’ and ‘useless’ things around the house, am I next? Do they see me as useless too?”

Let your loved one know that nothing could be further from the truth. Remind them that these are things, but they’re a person. Things can be replaced or discarded, but those close to us are treasured forever.

Tips for Cleaning House

Involve your loved one. You may think that things will go easier and quicker without your loved one there when you clean up, but it may not be worth the personal cost. Making them part of the process is more likely to ensure their cooperation, as they won’t see your efforts as something forced upon them. Additionally, people are more likely to stick to decisions they had a hand in making. You may agree not to ask them about every single detail (“Mom, we can get rid of the box of expired canned goods, right?”), but do give them a voice when it comes to bigger choices.

Don’t belittle your loved one’s attachment. Your loved one doesn’t have to be materialistic to assign feelings to their possessions — we all do this to some extent. Even if it looks like a bunch of dirty junk to you, your mom or dad can still remember when that item was shiny and new. They know the history and meaning behind it. Acknowledge this reality but urge that a decision must be made all the same. For example, “I know you love all these dashboards ornaments, but the assisted living facility can’t take them all. Why don’t we choose your three favorites?”

Make a picture worth a thousand words. This is a terrific tip that allows your loved one to “keep” the things they hold dear – in a photograph. Take a snapshot of each item going for sale or being donated, then put them in a photo album. Your loved one can look at them time and again for solace and comfort, no matter where the actual items end up.

Encourage them to say goodbye. Looking over and touching their things as a way of having closure can work well for your loved one.2 But try to discourage them from lingering too long. Otherwise, they may change their mind and decide to keep the item!

Don’t downsize alone. If your loved one has a large home or a great many knick-knacks to sort through, don’t attempt to help them downsize alone. In addition to involving your loved one, you’ll want a few sturdy folks on hand who can physically move things out or take them from one location to another. If these are friends or family members, having them there can also make your loved one feel supported in their decision to downsize.

Cleaning House Is Worth Your While — and Your Loved One’s!

Although cleaning house can be a big job, both physically and emotionally, it’s often well worth the effort. Your loved one will be better prepared to face the next important stage in their lives, and you’ll likely grow closer having helped them do it. Any way you choose to do it, there’s nothing like being part of a new beginning for the older adult you care about!

If you are unsure of how to best help an aging loved one, the trained and compassionate staff at the Institute on Aging is here to help you make that decision and gain the best in at-home care for older adults. Contact us to find out more.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. “Downsizing Can Have a Lot of Benefits for Retirees,” April 20, 2015, https://www.nbcnews.com/business/retirement/downsizing-can-have-lot-benefits-retirees-n344881.
  2. “5 Ways to Find Closure From the Past,” April 6, 2011, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-flux/201104/5-ways-find-closure-the-past.
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