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Do's and Don't's of the Downsize

You know it's coming, and then it's here. The moment when your parents decide to move from your childhood home (or any home) to a simpler, less cluttered, more manageable lifestyle. And then, they stop talking about it and actually do it.

There are many resources out there to guide you, many who have come before with good advice. I'd like to add my own personal observations to the mix, some of which may not show up in the "how-to" guides. (Note: this list assumes there are no financial hardships or medical emergencies to navigate, which would significantly impact the urgency and resources engaged.)


1) Remember it's their home, their money, their stuff, their choice, their life.

They won't do it like you would do it. They will keep things they should get rid of, and get rid of things they should keep. They will praise the home you thought was the least likely choice on the list, and discount the one you liked the best. They will splurge on one thing, and be stingy on another. At least in your opinion.

2) Let your siblings be who they are, not who you want them to be, or who they used to be.

I dearly love and have always been close to my two younger sisters. We three women are cut from three different bolts of cloth, so each of us has approached and processed and responded to this family milestone very differently. I will admit I was caught off guard by that reality in the beginning...they probably were, too. The more you understand the personalities involved, and the more you communicate, the less extra stress and drama will arise. (Hopefully.)

3) Let your parents be who they are, not who you want them to be, or who they used to be.

Deep down inside, we often see Mommy and Daddy as we remember them growing up. Now they are mature adults, perhaps even elderly, who have been empty nesters for a really long time. Individuals with personalities, idiosyncrasies, fears, routines and set values. This can become a great time to get to know them again. They will probably learn a lot about you, too.

4) Allow yourself to process the implications of the move, too.

Find a way to memorialize what the home means to you and say "goodbye" in your own way. When we spend the majority of our childhoods in one place, then return there over time for special occasions, it's hard to imagine anything in any other venue. Taking photos, videos and being creative with new traditions helps. Your happy memories will stay with you, regardless of who lives there. If you have unhappy memories, leave them there.

5) Accept with a smile the item that your mom/dad has been "saving for you."

Just take it. You can figure out what to do with it later. If there is something specific you do want, claim it early and remove it promptly from the daunting pile of items not making the move (with approval, of course). And don't forget to say "thank you."

6) Accept that it's going to be a lot of work, no matter how organized and well planned.

That's the bottom line for any purge or move, actually!

7) Show up with an agenda.

I live in a different city from my parents and travel in to help, so having a specific set of things to accomplish on my visits made a difference. Lists were made, calls placed and appointments set up for tasks I could then handle while there. Then we could look back a few days later and revel in our progress, which left everyone feeling good. Of course, there were always a few little extra deeds for me to address either in person or remotely. ;)

8) Expect the unexpected. Then be flexible.

The cleaning crew has to be scheduled a week later than planned because someone tested positive for coronavirus. The guy who was supposed to pick up the garage full of donated items canceled because his truck broke down. The helper who was supposed to spread new mulch in the yard for the realtor photos called in sick. It happens...take a deep breath, adjust, and move forward.

9) Take a break when you need to.

If you need to go back to your life or focus on something else for a little while, do it. Communicate clearly up front your time boundaries and stick to them, barring any emergencies or last minute needs that can't wait. Rely on siblings, neighbors or others to pick up where you left off, if possible and necessary, and don't beat yourself up for letting anyone down.

10) Keep looking forward, not back.

Focus on all the positive changes such as closer proximity to family or friends, closer proximity to doctors, safety, less work/maintenance, access to more activities or services, fewer expenses (whatever the case may be). We do a lot of driving around to see what's where in the area nearby, as well.

11) Listen.

A lot. Even if you've heard the same dilemma/story/question/complaint several times before. You'll get good at finding the patterns that reveal what problems to solve, and you'll foster a trusting, caring relationship.

12) Find at least one thing that's funny or makes you smile every day.

Wow...I can't emphasize this enough. My dear friend who moved her mother to assisted living gave me this advice, and it's proven to be the most valuable and precious of all. Those things are not hard to find, luckily, especially when you're really looking for them.


1) Underestimate the amount of time one or the other parent will need to let go.

And letting go might come out sideways. Offer grace and space. It might also surprise you how quickly they move on.

2) Put a hard deadline on anything, if you can afford some wiggle room.

Work expands to fill the time -- but forcing too much too soon does not work. Be realistic and prepare for the timeline to be a little fluid.

3) Push them beyond what they can mentally, physically or emotionally deal with in any given moment, day, week or month.

The limits depend on age, health conditions, mood, and the amount of extra help available. Just stay aware. It's also helpful to know what you can simply take care of yourself and what needs/deserves their input. What goes in each of those categories may not seem logical, and that's OK, too.

4) Forget to eat!

Sometimes our "work day" revolved around mealtimes, and sometimes we were trying to get so much done we let lunchtime go right by or dinner didn't happen until 8:00. That works OK for me, but they needed the energy, the break and the routine. We tried to make takeout fun, as well -- particularly when dishes or utensils were still in boxes. We celebrated the last meal in the old house (Chinese Express) and the first meal in the new house (Bono's BBQ), complete with photos sent by text to other family members.

5) Allow resentment to creep in if you find yourself doing "more" than your siblings/helpers/spouse/advisers.

Be the "person." No one is keeping score (at least in my family). Everyone has his/her own thresholds of time, capacity, interest and skill sets. If you are the one best suited to get the job done, or to delegate/organize others' contributions, accept it with honor and humility. If you're not, encourage, appreciate and communicate regularly with the one who is.

6) Compare your experience to anyone else's.

Every family is different, every move is different, every motivation and migration is different. The good news is once you start this process, you will find out how many others in your peer circle are either there with you, just past. it, or getting ready to head there shortly. Lean on each other.

7) Be surprised when you get a glimpse into the dynamics of their marriage through a completely different lens (whether you want to or not).

In our case, Mommy and Daddy are two intelligent people who got married young 60 years ago and are totally devoted to each other...but they have very different personalities, perspectives and priorities. The dynamics of decision-making become more evident than ever when a big lifestyle change is on the table. Or when one wants a new table and the other one thinks the old one is just fine.

8) Be surprised when there is still a lot of stuff, even after most of it's gone.

The new garage might look as junky as the old, even after everything was cleaned off, given away or trashed. Three boxes of unwanted framed photos might stay on the sunroom floor for several weeks with no where to go, even after you already emptied the frames from two other boxes. It's all good...and it's still a lot less.

9) Expect the new place to be perfect.

You can keep looking forever, and at some point, there has to be somewhere to go. The new house/apartment/condo won't be everything, and it definitely won't be the old house. It also doesn't have to be permanent if the fit is truly not working...or maybe it just needs some time and adjustment.

10) Wait until it's too late.

Moving gets harder and harder as we age, lose energy, have more stuff than we want to deal with, or have health issues that dictate fewer and fewer options. The process can stay positive and will be more fun if it's a "want to" and not a "have to." The more input they can have to choose their own space and lifestyle, the better.

11) Overthink it.

Stay literal and in the moment. Meaning, resist the temptation to "what if" or enter an argument over something trivial in the grand scheme. Don't wallow in guilt if you accidentally put Mamaw's rusted enamelware in the Salvation Army box. Don't fret about whether or not they will like their new neighbors (or vice versa). They will be fine. They are adults who will make their own way in their own time (even if they still can't work the new TV remote).

12) Miss the opportunity to consider how you want your own downsize to go when the time comes.

See #10! Think about it now. Discuss it with your spouse/significant other/children. Consider what lifestyle will be most important to you and take advantage of the research you might have already done for your parents. If you have money, you will have more options.

A few more random comments from tribal knowledge, if you will indulge me a little longer.

A very wise friend of mine used to say "Everything is a good idea until it's time to buy the ring, sign the contract, or write the check." It all becomes real (and a little weird) when the listing goes live and strangers start looking, not knowing (or caring) what has been before. If there is raw emotion around leaving the old home, there might be sensitivity around any and all glowing comments on how wonderful it is.

The little things can end up being more stressful than the big things. New systems, new light switches, new cable channels, new wireless passwords, new grocery store, change of address on EVERYTHING, no towel bars where you want them, did we update the newspaper delivery? Where should the kitchen trash can go? Four hours on hold with AT&T to get the phone working. Three different times. Sigh. Purchasing a new house across town and loading up a moving van? Piece of cake.

If you are the "person" or project manager for the move, take yourself completely offline if you can afford to do so. Trying to multi-task is nearly impossible. The good news is...others who have been through it in their own families are very forgiving if you miss an email or text message...they get it.

One last thought...I am extremely grateful and incredibly blessed to still have both my parents still with me on this earth. I realize not everyone my age can say that, which makes me sad. I am also extremely grateful and incredibly blessed to be available to them (with the unconditional support of my husband) during this time. I don't take any of it for granted and I know I'm where I'm supposed to be, even in my most frustrated or exhausted or impatient moments. God is good.


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