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We get asked this question a lot: “What do I do with my mom / dad / grandparent? They won’t let go of anything!”

Our things are all attached to other things – a memory, a moment, and sometimes guilt. We hear comments such as, “I can’t get rid of that! My mom gave that to me on my 16th birthday, and I know I never use it, but I can’t just throw it out!”

Instead of feeling guilt over an item that is adding to your clutter, we suggest that you give yourself permission. Give yourself permission to hold the item, to appreciate that your mom, or best friend, or long lost uncle gave it to you. Then, remind yourself that it really is something that you do not use or need, and therefore it probably needs a new home. Next, you can kindly, sensitively, release the item from trappings of guilt or obligation and pass it along.

If this seems too hard to do, try the following tips:

  • Give yourself a break! Sometimes we are trying to downsize but we’re not able to get rid of things that are special to us or that we think we might use in the near future. If you really aren’t ready to get rid of something, set it aside and keep it in a pile that you label “essentials”.
  • After you have finished sorting, take another look at your “essentials” pile. Are the things in it all still essentials? If so, put them away or pack them to prepare for your upcoming move. If the things aren’t really essential and you decide that there are some that you can part with, add them to your donation or rubbish pile.
  • Are some items more essential than others? Which ones are your absolute must haves? Do all the items fit nicely in your new space (if you are moving) or fit in your existing space? If not, are some items in good condition so they could be useful to someone else? (Sometimes, knowing that the items could be useful to someone else can make it easier to pass them on.)

Downsizing is not an exact science, and there is no way to make it easy for everyone, but it doesn’t have to be painful. We can help you make it easier.

How many things have I collected over the years? A lot! However, I have tried to keep things manageable by getting rid of things I no longer wanted, and more recently, by getting rid of it all. It wasn’t easy. I had a lot of things: books, tools, coffee mugs, salt and pepper shakers, more books, CDs, clothes that were too small or too big, shoes (some also too small or too big). And then there were boxes of photos, and did I mention the books? Even if I had not been moving, I needed to do some decluttering. I put it off as long as I could, because I was having a hard time deciding what to do with things. I had moved many times in my life, and had always taken all my stuff with me. This time, I determined that things were going to be different. It was time to really clean out. As I went through my things I noticed that getting rid of some of them was a lot harder than getting rid of others.

The rules of downsizing are really straightforward; the psychology of downsizing, however, is harder. As part of the process, we organize things into piles for donations, sale, recycling, and rubbish. The more difficult transition comes from parting with things that have memories attached to them, and memories are integral to feelings of belonging, security, connection, and the complexities of human nature.

Whether you are helping someone like your parents or grandparents, or you are looking after your own living space, here are some tips for pain free downsizing.

1)      Make it easy! Gather all the supplies you need, like clear bags for donation items, blue bags for recycling, dark bags for rubbish. Make sure you have tape, felt markers, packing paper, boxes or totes ready. It can get discouraging if you get started and have nowhere to put things once they are sorted out, or you haven’t labelled boxes and cannot remember where things are hiding.  Make it easy, and keep things organized as you go.

2)      Break it down. Sometimes this one is tough, because you may not have the luxury of time on your side, but it’s a blessing and less overwhelming for people if you can break the work into small pieces, a few hours at a time. People who are having trouble letting go or who have lost the ability to relate to what is happening because of mental health or cognitive changes need time to get used to the idea of decluttering, sorting, and moving before they are ready to let go of things.  Instead of trying to get everything decluttered, downsized, and cleaned up all in the same week, break the work down into manageable periods of time.

3)      Get out the camera, especially if it is digital. As people go through their memories and treasures, take some digital pictures. Put every single fridge magnet on the refrigerator door and take some pictures. Have the owner in the picture pointing out favourites or particular memories to engage them in the project. You can do the same with the spoon collection by laying it out on the dining room table, the tool collection in the garage, or the plant pot collection in the shed. Share some laughter about how many items there are, the memories attached to them, and what they mean to the individual. Be sure to give the person copies of all the pictures so they can enjoy them whenever they want.

4)      Be gentle. People are attached to their stuff. You’re being helpful when you are supportive, kind, and thoughtful. If you insist on pushing, teasing, or sarcasm as your approach, you won’t be getting much cooperation. Your loved ones know that there is no way to fit a four bedroom household into a one bedroom retirement home, but that doesn’t mean that parting with those sentimental items is easy to do. If someone is really attached to a particular item, you may need to bite your tongue and set that thing aside in one part of the house. Once all the items they want to keep are in one area of the house, the individual can see for themselves how much is there. This makes it a bit easier to go through things a second time and decide about keeping them. Avoid the temptation to push an elder into getting rid of something just because you think they should. Some items have very strong sentimentality associated with them, and you pushing them to get rid of it just makes it harder, creates frustration, and can exacerbate their feelings about their loss of independence or a loved one. If they really cannot part with certain things, it’s best to move those sentimental items to the new location, let them try to fit things in as they unpack. Once they see that things aren’t fitting, take out that camera again, take some pictures, and move on.

Downsizing needs to be fun. Creating space through a decluttering process can let more light into the rooms we live in, as well as creating a more open, easy to manage space. Remember to support the person you are helping, and make the best of it.

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