How to cope with downsizing your home

Starting early while seeking help from moving experts and geriatric therapists can ease the transition

As the parents of El Cajon resident Lisa Bowen began to get older, it became more apparent that having them age in place in the Alpine house they had called home for more than 40 years no longer would be a safe option.

Selling and emptying the three-bedroom, 2,200-square-foot home so they could transition into a one-bedroom apartment in a senior independent living facility was no easy task. The house, which her father had built in 1978, held a lot of memories as the place where the couple had raised their three children. However, the multiacre property had become too much for Bowen’s parents to continue managing.

Her father was recovering from a second stroke that had left him paralyzed on the left side at the time that her mother’s dementia had progressed to the point where her doctor decided she no longer could drive.

“That’s where it became more apparent that my mom couldn’t be the primary caregiver anymore,” Bowen said. “It became apparent to family members that they needed daily support with medication, cleaning and daily house tasks.”

The family enlisted the help of Nick Alameddin, president of Premiere Homes, a San Diego real estate agency specializing in helping older adults with downsizing. He helped them sell the home while negotiating a 60-day window after closing to give them extra time to go through the couple’s belongings.

“That gave us the time that we needed — and it went fast,” Bowen said.

After decades or years living in a home, shelves and closets can become cluttered with dinnerware sets received as wedding gifts, boxes of photographs inherited from loved ones, as well as vinyl records, heavy books, linens and more.

Because many of those items may have memories or emotions attached to them, giving them away or selling them can sometimes be a daunting, time-consuming task.

“This generation predated all of the technology. They’re not the digital natives, so they had all of these things in their possession before we had (smart)phones and computers,” said Wendy Tayer, UC San Diego geropsychologist. The field of geropsychology covers the unique needs of older adults going through later life transitions.

When it’s time to downsize and move into a new, smaller space, downsizing experts say that whenever possible, it’s best to start the process early to minimize the stress and allow older adults to have agency in the decisions they make.

Understanding the sizing of the new home also can help in making decisions about what items will fit best within it. If someone has multiple sets of dishes or other items, gathering those items together can help that person make choices about which option he wishes to keep to minimize clutter in a smaller space, said Jami Shapiro, founder of Silver Linings Transitions. The Carlsbad-based business helps clients with relocation and organization during downsizing, divorce and other life changes.

“We don’t want to see our clients climbing on ladders or stools to have to reach top shelves,” she said.

Some older adults find it helpful to hire a downsizing expert, who can coordinate everything from selling the home and planning what items will fit into the new space to figuring out how to sell or give away items that they don’t plan to take.

“Selling their house is the easy part of downsizing a senior, if they have a home,” said Rose Rugama Inocente, a senior real estate specialist and owner of Next Step For Downsize Living, a Chula Vista-based service that helps older adults make the transition. “It’s all the other little things that need to happen in the positive format for that senior to make it a positive experience for them.”

Seeking expert help

Working with a downsizing expert — especially someone specializing in working with older adults — can also help someone make thoughtful decisions about giving away or selling items while minimizing conflict between family members.

Phyllis Morris said that when her father-in-law was getting ready to move, she connected him with one such expert. Morris said Rugama Inocente really listened to her client, Charles J. Morris, supporting him in the process and giving him a sense of agency in the decisions being made.

“She managed the rough spots that are a tug of war between generations,” said Morris, whose father-in-law is now 101 years old and thriving at Seacrest Village Retirement Communities in Encinitas.

The experience of working with a downsizing expert was so positive that when it came time for Morris and her husband to move to Austin, Texas, they called Rugama Inocente for her help to move into a smaller house.

“Since I’ve known her for some years and trust her implicitly, it was like a party packing up to leave, and my friend Rose was there,” Morris said.

Digitizing photographs and home videos is one way to preserve memorabilia without having to find places in a smaller house, apartment or nursing home room to store them. Sometimes, finding digital ways to preserve memories of an item can take a little creativity, like hosting family or friends for a meal to use a dish set and taking photos of everyone using them before selling or giving the dishes away.

It also can be helpful during the downsizing process to start meeting with a geropsychologist.

Dealing with emotions

Working with someone specializing in geriatric psychology can mean having a trusted person to discuss the feelings that arise during the process, especially if it’s a sudden change due to health or financial circumstances.

“The process itself is fraught with all kinds of feelings about having to downsize and what to keep and what to let go of in terms of possessions, and that brings up all kinds of other feelings for people,” Tayer said. “They’re at the point where they’re looking back and reviewing what their life has been like: Did they meet their goals? What are their regrets? What are their memories?”

Although downsizing into a smaller home or senior living facility can be an emotionally exhausting process, it can also have positive impacts for older adults.

Bowen said her parents comfortably settled into an independent living apartment at Grossmont Gardens Senior Living last August. When her mother moved into the skilled nursing facility, Bowen said having the equity from selling the house helped cover the increased cost of care.

For many people, like Morris’ father-in-law, not having the stress of managing home and yard maintenance means that they have more time to relax, focus on their health and make new friendships.

“It was a godsend. He has his own social life, he conducts his business during the day exactly as he wishes to do it, and I think that’s the major thing about being in a safe environment is that your time is yours,” said Morris, adding that he is still cognitively healthy and “living a good, full life.”