When It’s Time for Mom and Dad to Downsize

Related topics: Caregiver Skills, Senior Life, Where to Live, Getting Organized

The folks are moving, and you've been tasked with helping out.

Seniors with moving boxes.

Any move can be hard work, but when a relocation involves seniors who are deciding what to do with a lifetime of possessions, the assistance can be more emotional than physical! University of Kansas experts recently described the process of "the material convoy," in which we amass items as we are establishing our lives, and then divest them in our later years.

Some situations are easier than others. If your parents are moving to their dream condo in an area where they've always wanted to live, parting with some possessions may feel like an easy trade-off to them.

But maybe health problems are the reason behind the move. Maybe they're moving in with you, or to a small retirement apartment, assisted living or skilled nursing facility. Having to give up possessions in that situation can bring with it a burden of grief. And if an elder parent experiences a sudden health crisis, such as a stroke or hip fracture, tasks that go with an unplanned move can seem truly overwhelming.

Here are some suggestions from family caregivers who have helped their older loved ones through a downsizing move.

Far at the top of their list is: Plan ahead! Time is your greatest ally in this process. As soon as your loved ones mention the possibility of a move, encourage them to think about what they will do with their things. When you're visiting, offer to help them sort through a junk drawer or a box in the attic. What about all those fridge magnets? Those shelves full of books?  It's much better to spend a leisurely afternoon sorting through a box of letters and photos than to be rushed as the move approaches. This is also a very good time to talk to children and grandchildren about items they might like to have.

Another top bit of advice: Call in an expert, such as a senior move manager, a geriatric care manager (also called an aging life care professional) or a moving company that specializes in senior moves. If your loved one is moving to a senior living community, chances are the facility can recommend reliable local professionals.

As the process begins, separate things into categories. Decide which category each item belongs to: keep, give to family, sell, donate or discard.


Once the move is planned, measure and make a diagram of the new space. Measure floors and cabinets. Then measure existing furniture and take stock of housewares and other practical items. Which pieces would be useful in the new home, and which ones would just take up space? With limited space, it's also time to decide which non-functional items are meaningful treasures that your folks want to hang on to, and which can they let go. Having a diagram can make it easier for the folks to agree that the beloved giant velvet sofa or the full set of china and the never-used soup tureen just won't fit.


Heirlooms and other possessions of our parents can spark a lot of conflict! It's best to decide who gets what early on, to avoid the the classic scenario of jealous siblings squabbling over a deceased grandmother's crystal pickle dish. But did you know that today's seniors often encounter the opposite problem, when family don't want the many treasures the folks have accumulated? Mom may feel hurt when no one wants things she considers heirlooms—the collection of souvenir snow globes she's brought home from her travels, the wall of framed baby pictures, or a lifetime of holiday cards from all her cousins. She might have planned to gift the antique dining room table and twelve ornate chairs to a grandchild, who, as it turns out, is into minimalism, Midcentury Modern, and the decluttering movement. Mom may have saved your childhood teddy bear, your high school trophies and college textbooks, but you don't want them. Maybe she ended up with an attic full of her own parents' things when they passed away. Do what you can to find homes for some things. Don't forget those youngest family members who are just starting out; a college apartment can often absorb a big couch! Otherwise, it's time to move to the next step.


You may be able to sell some things. This can be quite an undertaking, so often it's best to call in an expert, especially if your parents have things of value, such as artwork or items with historical significance. Appraisers, antique and collectibles dealers, auction houses, consignment shops and estate buyers can help your parents get a fair price for certain items. (Did Dad have a comic book collection?) If someone in the family is computer savvy, selling other items online might be the way to go. But your parents are likely to experience some disappointment. Tastes change. The baby boomers were avid collectors; younger people are more likely to have "digital mementos" than a shelf full of figurines. The lovely silver service your mom inherited from her own mother may sell just for the value of the metal, not the workmanship. That once-pricey mink coat with a few holes might sell for a small amount to a vintage shop. Too bad we can't all have the experts from Antiques Roadshow at our disposal!


If your parents want to part with items that you can't sell, or couldn't without a lot of time and effort, you can donate them one of the many charitable organizations that take used items. Goodwill, the Salvation Army and St. Vincent de Paul are just a few of these organizations. Your folks won't get any money for the donated items, but the donation is tax-deductible—be sure to get a receipt. Mom and Dad can feel good knowing their things will be useful to someone else and that their donation is helping those in need. Some of these organizations offer home pick-up; other times, you'll need to transport items to a certain location. A savvy grandchild also might help give items away on Freecycle, Craigslist or similar sites. (Just be sure to take safety precautions when handing over the items—safety experts recommend that if possible, you meet an unknown recipient at a neutral site, away from home.)


Almost every home is full of odds and ends that someone held onto but that have no value. It's great if you can dispose of these items gradually, but if time is pressing, hire a junk hauler to help remove large items. Contact your community's solid waste agency; they may offer special pick-ups and may have a recycling program for large items.

The storage question

If your parent's move is sudden, or you are not sure where they will eventually live (for example, if they go to a skilled nursing facility, but are expecting to move into a more independent living situation), storing possessions temporarily might be the best choice. Years of bank statements and other documents could take some time to properly sort. Truly valuable items shouldn't be disposed of hastily. But family may be far too focused on their loved one's health to make good decisions at this time. Does a family member have room for your parents' things in their garage or basement? If that's not an option, you can rent a unit in a storage facility. Families confirm, though, that this short-term solution can easily become more long-term. Said one adult son, "Once Dad's things were in storage, he never wanted to talk about them. We ended up paying storage fees for years!" Make an informed decision about whether that's an option your folks want.

A final thought

Boxes of heirlooms

Helping your folks move can be a stressful time. After hours or days, you find yourself making split-second decisions about items—that second colander? In the giveaway box. The boxes and boxes of Mom's shoes that she hasn't worn in years? The garbage bag. The treadmill covered in cobwebs? Hello, Goodwill! And these quick decisions might be just fine. In books and TV shows, "simple life" advocates advise us to give things away and not look back.

But here's something to consider. When it comes to significant family items, hold onto them if you can. Maybe this isn't your personal philosophy of "stuff"—but think about others in the family. "Mom was going to toss out her diary from middle school, but then I thought how much I would have loved to have read a document like that from an ancestor of mine," said one daughter. "That old rusty enamel cup just looked like junk," said a son. "Then I found a note with it—it was my sharecropper great-grandfather's water mug. I would never let it go, and I'll tell my own kids about it and his history."

Future generations might truly value some of these things. Be sure to label them. Knowing their story will help family understand their significance. At the least, digitize photos, significant letters and home movies. You can make a copy for everyone—who knows where those items will go over the years, and which descendant yet unborn will treasure them?  And think of how pleased and touched your parents will be about it.

Source: IlluminAge Communication Partners; copyright 2017 IlluminAge