A LIFETIME OF ACCUMULATION
Human nature compels us to collect and guard our resources, and society has taught us to own and consume. So it is not surprising that by the time many people reach “senior citizen” status at the age of 65, they have accumulated an impressive amount of stuff. Beyond the living spaces of our homes, our attics, basements, garages, and storage units have become filled with the stored treasures of time. For many, these belongings are an important reflection and reminder of the lives they’ve led and ultimately “who they are.” There can come a point, however, when these belongings become more of a burden than a blessing for seniors, and for a variety of reasons – often relating to practicality and safety – they eventually feel a strong, natural compulsion or experience a sudden, pressing need or to downsize.
Downsizing is commonly understood to be the process of simplifying one’s life by reducing the volume of your belongings through a sorting and purging process. Downsizing can also involve reducing the number of commitments, activities, or other “things” which require your time, energy, money, and other resources. Fundamentally, downsizing involves reviewing, evaluating, and re-organizing your stuff, affairs, and priorities so that you can free up space in your life – both physical and mental. There are many reasons that that seniors elect to downsize. Not wanting to burden loved ones with having to “deal with their affairs” once they’ve passed away is one common reason. Moving into a smaller space that cannot accommodate all of their belongings – such as to a retirement, assisted living, or nursing home – is another common reason. Whatever your reason, there are seven tips that I’d like to share as I believe they will make your downsizing experience more successful.
7 DOWNSIZING TIPS
(1) Honor Yourself
Society often makes the insulting and very unfair error of assuming that all seniors are “incapacitated” in some way or that they are no longer able to make decisions for themselves. As a senior endowed with all of your mental faculties, it is very important for your dignity that you do not let these false assumptions influence your downsizing efforts. If you feel pressure from your family to downsize but have no interest in doing it, or if you and your family have different ideas about what your downsizing project should entail, speak your mind. It’s your life, your stuff, and no one has the authority to boss you around. This is not to say that I recommend excommunicating your family: I recommend thoughtful, sensitive dialogue and clear, open communication. Ultimately, you must be on board for whatever downsizing changes you are making in your life (or others are making on your behalf).
(2) Articulate Your Goals
At the start of any organizing project, it is very important that you identify your reasons for undertaking the project (what’s been bothering you about your ‘status quo’? , why do you want to make a change and get organized, and why now?). It’s also critical that you outline a set of specific goals for the project (at the end of this project, I will have achieved X, Y, and Z). By articulating these things up front and putting them on paper, you give yourself a measuring stick to work against and an important written reminder of why you are doing this hard work. It can be inspiring and reassuring to look back at these written goals if, and when, you feel yourself losing heart partway through the project. Having these things on paper also helps the important people in your life who are involved in the project – family, caregivers, etc – to understand and feel in sync with your priorities.
(3) Recognize Your Limits
It’s taken a lifetime to acquire the things you own, so it is not realistic to expect that you can sort and purge them in a week or two. Downsizing is generally a big job. It is going to take time. If you tire easily or have certain health conditions, it may take even more time. The process of handling your belongings – emptying closets and cupboards, lifting and sifting through boxes, etc – can be physically draining. And deciding what to keep versus what to get rid of, as well as how to get rid of it, involves a tremendous amount of decision making that can be very tiring and emotional. It will be important that you acknowledge your emotions and pace yourself at a comfortable rate so that you don’t burn out.
(4) Build and Rely On a Support Team
Whenever we go through big changes in our lives – marriages, births, deaths, divorces, moves, new jobs, etc. – we are best served when we reach out, ask for, and accept help. None of us is a superhero, so the support of loved ones and experts is key to making these transitions go more smoothly and be less stressful than if we try to go it alone. Beginning a major organizing project is one of these times: you are going to need the physical, emotional, and professional support of others. Family and friends may be willing to work side-by-side with you as you sit and sort through your belongings. If you’re open to it, they may also be able to offer insights for what to keep or divest yourself of, and perhaps they can do some of the heavy lifting, reach the items that are stored up high, take the trash and recycling out, drive your donation items to the local charity, etc. If you are committed to addressing not just your belongings but also your day-to-day and/or estate affairs as part of your downsizing project, you will want to consider adding folks to your team who can serve you in the areas where you need help. If you are physically disabled, do you need assistance with meal preparation, housekeeping, or personal hygiene? If you no longer drive, do you need the services of a transportation company? If you have difficulty with memory, do you need help managing your calendar and appointments? If your estate affairs are not in order, do you need the counsel of a lawyer or financial advisor? Getting professionals lined up to support you is an important part of getting organized. Professional Organizers can assist with identifying these needs and recommending service providers. As experienced, objective professionals, Professional Organizers are also able to provide hands-on help with your sorting and purging work, and we can coordinate the removal of items so that they get to the destination (charity, resale shop, etc.) of your choice. Moreover, an Organizer can teach you organizing skills, make recommendations to optimize your use of space, and design custom systems that address your unique organizing challenges.
(5) Schedule Work Sessions
For your downsizing project to be a success, you are going to need to devote time. To make sure this happens, I suggest that you make formal “work sessions” (2-3 hours per session is typically a good length, though you should go with what feels best for you) and get these onto your schedule. If you keep a paper or electronic calendar, records your sessions into it; if you keep track of your appointments in some other way, make sure that you get these work sessions on the agenda. Take them seriously, as you would a doctor’s appointment or meeting with your accountant, and I guarantee that you will see progress!
(6) Roll Up Your Sleeves & Achieve
To make your sorting and purging work as enjoyable and efficient as possible, I recommend that you pick a finite “zone” to address during each given work session – perhaps a closet, a dresser, a desk, a bookshelf, or a small area within the basement or garage. Always set up your work area for the day by introducing up a comfortable chair, a card table or other work surface, good lighting, and trash and recycle bins. Also make sure that you have the tools at-hand that you will need, such as post-its, markers, boxes, and tape. Then gradually work your way through the items in the zone: for each item, decide whether to keep it or divest yourself of it. If you decide to part with the item, you will need to determine where it goes – options typically include:
- Donate the item to charity
- Gift the item to a family member or friend
- Sell the item via a yard sale, at a resale shop, on Craigslist, or through some other channel
- Consign the item at a consignment shop
- Throw away the item in the trash
- And for papers: If no longer needed for tax, legal, financial, or others reasons, Recycle or Shred the paper based on the presence of sensitive personal information such as account numbers, date of birth, etc.
If you encounter items which stir up emotions and leave you unsure whether to keep or divest, asking yourself these questions might prove helpful in reaching a decision. Also, try to think of things in this way: the idea isn’t to focus on getting rid of stuff, it’s to identify and retain the items which are most essential and precious to you.
- Do I use it? When was the last time I used it?
- Do I love it?
- Do I have space to reasonably store it?
- Could someone else use it or enjoy it more than me?
- What’s the worst case scenario if I get rid of it?
As your boxes fill up with items for charity and items to give to family, etc, I recommend that you don’t let them sit for too long – get those items out of your home as soon as possible, otherwise they may have a tendency to end up sitting around for a long time.
(7) Prioritize Your Safety
Earlier I mentioned that people make assumptions about seniors. I hope I am not making an unfair assumption now, but I want to talk about the importance of prioritizing safety as you work through your downsizing project. For example, be mindful of trip and slip hazards in your living space: remove cords that are in pathways on the floor, reposition furniture and other items that pose an obstacle to your movement, relocate your most frequently used items to easy-to-reach places, and so on. Also be mindful of fire hazards and ventilation: keep counters and stovetops clear, and make sure that heating vents and fans are unblocked. And if you are taking stock of your day-to-day affairs, be mindful of things like food safety (make sure you have a system in place for reviewing & throwing our foods which have passed their expiration dates) and medication safety (have a reliable system for ensuring that you take the right medicine in the right dosage at the right time of day).
Whether you’ve just turned 65 and are spry as a spring chicken, or whether you are 95 and slowing down a bit, downsizing can have a place in everyone’s lives. It’s all about freeing up space, time, and energy so that you can then devote yourself to the activities, people, and passions that bring you the greatest joy. I wish you well in your project!
For more organizing tips, visit www.napomichigan.com.
Article submitted by Chapter member Nia Spongberg of Spruced Up Spaces, LLC www.sprucedupspacesllc.com.