Wellness & Education

When Parents Downsize (or Not)

Downsizing is a logical step for many seniors, but rarely a welcome one. For younger people, moving is often associated with bigger and better things: a new job, a better location, room for a new baby, etc. For aging seniors, moving tends to be associated with less welcome changes: deteriorating health, less energy to take care of a bigger house, etc. This can make downsizing feel less like an adventure and more like a painful step backward. 

Downsizing, like so many other questions related to aging, is closely connected to the balance between freedom and safety. Many children see downsizing as a way to make their parents safer. Fewer stairs mean fewer opportunities to fall. A smaller yard means less yardwork and, therefore, less stress and hard work for parents who are increasingly frail. 

Parents, on the other hand, may see staying where they are as a way of getting to make their own decisions. They may think that the ability to live where they want to live is well worth the preservation of their freedom.

Helping your parents downsize can take a lot of patience and compassion, especially when parents and children disagree on the freedom/safety balance. This can be true even for those who are not moving into assisted living.  

Downsizing involves letting go of space and stuff. This can sound pretty straightforward, as long as it isn’t your space or your stuff. For seniors, in particular, their space and their stuff often give them hope: hope the grandchildren will visit and need the guest room, hope they’ll feel like woodworking or sewing again and need all their tools, or hope for …. whatever they have space and stuff for. So, while you might want them to get rid of the extra rooms and the mountains of stuff, it’s important to help them do it in a way that leaves them with hope. 

Here are 8 tips to help you help parents downsize without trying to take over their life:  

1) Respect your parents’ decision. If they aren’t ready to move, don’t try to force the issue.  

2) When they’re ready to talk about downsizing, ask them what is missing where they are currently living. Try to find a destination that will provide this. Try to make the move a positive one. For example:  

  • Is there something they’ve always dreamed of doing that they can’t do now? Is it possible for them to move someplace where they can do it?  
  • Could the right move save enough money to allow them to fulfill some other lifelong dream, such as a trip or new hobby? 
  • Are they lonely? Can they move somewhere closer to family or potential new friends?  

3) Give them plenty of time. Downsizing requires a change of heart, not just a change of place. People are slow to make big changes, particularly when a change is irreversible.  

4) While your parents are getting used to the idea of moving, you can move forward with some of the logistics, including:  

  • Helping them declutter a bit at a time, as they get used to the idea of downsizing.   
  • Helping them organize the things they want to keep in preparation for the move. 
  • Sharing their search for a new location. 

5) When downsizing, one of the most important things you can do for your parents is to give them emotional support. Listen to their stories as they reminisce over the things and the place that they are getting ready to leave. Give them plenty of hugs. Stop and relax together over lunch. Play their favorite music while sorting through the house.  

6) Find other people who are going, or have been going, through the same thing with their parents.  This could help you feel less alone. Helping your parents downsize may be as stressful for you as it is for your parents. 

8) Don’t assume your siblings will all have the same level of commitment that you do. They may not want your parents to downsize, or they may just not want to help. 

6) Recognize that some parents are never going to agree to downsize. Others will wait for a crisis and then, when circumstances are most difficult, agree to move. If these are your parents, the only thing you can do is to set a limit on how much help you are willing and able to give them. Try to maintain as much balance in your own life as possible.