Guide to Decluttering and Downsizing for Seniors
The number of older adults is increasing in the United States. By 2030, adults over 65 years of age will outnumber children for the first time in history. As this generation ages, older adults will experience a progressive loss of capacities, inherently needing assistance from friends, families, and caretakers on a day-to-day basis. This type of assisted living can be easier in a smaller home with less clutter.
However reducing the clutter in a senior’s life can be a hard adjustment. Changes can be hard to adapt to, especially if the person has lived in the same house for a number of years. Additionally, feelings of nostalgia could delay the decluttering and downsizing process indefinitely. As a family member of a senior who needs to downsize, it’s important to note that organizational skills, listening skills, and reactions will be put to the test.
It’s also important to understand why seniors downsize, the challenges they face when doing so, and how you can best approach the situation so they can stay safe, healthy and comfortable.
Reasons Seniors Choose to Declutter or Downsize
There are many reasons seniors choose, or need, to start decluttering or downsizing. Often, seniors have a difficult time deciding between moving and staying in their home. Ownership, financial investments, and the familiar setting are just some of the reasons seniors are reluctant to move. However, there are many seniors that move for a number of reasons. Many of the common reasons are listed below, however, each person’s situation is unique. Children, relatives, and caretakers should take care to move and declutter their senior’s home for the right reason, whatever that may be.
Many seniors choose to declutter simply to improve the safety of their current living situation. Clutter and excess objects and furniture can pose a safety hazard and put seniors at great risk of falling.
Each year, more than one out of four older citizens fall. These falls can be serious and costly, as they can result in:
- Head injuries;
- Broken bones;
- And fear of falling in the future.
Additionally, these falls can identify underlying conditions, such as:
- Lower body weakness;
- Vitamin D deficiency;
- Difficulty walking or balancing;
- Unusual symptoms from medicines;
- Vision problems;
- Foot pain;
- And home hazards.
Falls are the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries among people 65 years and older. One way to prevent falls is to declutter and downsize a senior’s house. That way, there is less risk of tripping over rugs, bumping into large furniture, and falling down broken or uneven steps.
Proximity to Family
Some older adults choose to downsize to move closer to their children or other family members. This is especially true for seniors who have recently suffered certain health complications. In fact, seniors who have experienced a cardiovascular event are more likely to move closer to children and other family members within two years. Cardiovascular disease is a leading cause of disability, which creates a need for care among seniors. The majority of care is provided by adult children to their parents.
Additionally, studies show that embracing community can provide a long, happy life. The Harvard study shows that close relationships, whether it be with family, friends, or significant others, have a positive impact on mental and physical health. They also help to delay mental and physical decline. Researchers found that people satisfied with their marriage didn’t suffer from depressive moods, even when they were in physical pain.
For older citizens living with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, it’s important for them to have stable and familiar interactions that help with memory issues. Living with family can help give them a sense of calm, familiarity, and security.
Similarly, seniors choose to declutter and downsize because of their health needs, though this may not entail moving closer to family members. One reason to move is to enhance their social health by entering into a retirement community. Additionally, decluttering can also help improve mental health as well as physical health. A recent study has shown that homes with high levels of stress made people feel increasingly depressed throughout the day.
According to the Mayo Clinic, no matter what age you are, decluttering a space can make you happier and healthier. Hoarding, for example, can seriously affect physical and mental health. Those that hoard are less likely to sleep, which affects the decision-process in the brain, which makes it hard to decide to get rid of things. Additionally, clutter decreases focus, which can lead to frustration. Some health benefits of decluttering include:
- More energy;
- Reduced anxiety;
- Increased physical activity;
- And the removal of dust particles.
All in all, a clean, organized living space has been known to positively affect mental health, physical health, and social health.
Moving out of long-term homes is one of the most common reasons seniors need to declutter. Moving out could be as simple as moving into a smaller home or apartments, but it could also mean:
- Living with a relative;
- Moving into a retirement community;
- Or moving into an assisted living facility with increased medical care.
Additionally, many seniors want to downsize their home for a variety of reasons, including:
- Having the ability to keep up with home maintenance;
- Cutting down their cost of living;
- Making room for assisted living equipment;
- And procuring amenities that help with reduced physical abilities.
Moving and getting rid of clutter can be empowering and exciting. However, it’s also important to note that adjusting to this new type of lifestyle can be overwhelming and tough for some.
Understanding the Challenges of Decluttering for Seniors
Moving and decluttering can be very challenging for seniors — even if they’re excited about doing so. Often, seniors collect a lifetime’s worth of trinkets and memories, and going through their stuff and adjusting to a new living situation can increase their stress levels. It’s important to note that anxiety and depression are common when first moving.
Caregivers, family members, and anyone involved with the downsizing or decluttering process should try to understand these challenges so they can help guide seniors through it as sensitively as possible.
The Stress of Moving
Moving is an intensely emotional experience. The act of moving can instill a great deal of symbolism for people, including new beginnings, loss, anxiety, and fear. When a person moves from the familiar to the unfamiliar, they can lose their sense of security, causing them to undergo an immense amount of stress. Others are paralyzed due to fear of change, as having a constant in life can be comforting.
The cost of moving can also create stress. Not only is selling a home a tedious process, but the act of opening a new loan, waiting to be approved, and negotiating price can cause anxiety, frustration, and depression. Often people describe their experience as “being trapped,” which can increase these feelings of stress and a sense of losing control. Other feelings that can surface due to moving include:
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome;
- Loss of sleep;
- Loss of appetite;
- Short-term memory loss;
- And withdrawal.
If you know a senior who is experiencing these symptoms after a move, you should contact their doctor.
On the other hand, some seniors may feel upset or intimidated to move because they lack help. Moving consists of a lot of preparation, like:
- Budgeting for moving costs;
- Changing addresses with recurring bills;
- Decluttering to make packing easier;
- And unpacking.
This process can be overwhelming, especially if there is no help. However, there are some ways to make moving a little easier like:
- Hiring movers to handle big furniture and boxes;
- Creating a timeline for packing;
- Acquiring free boxes from local supermarkets;
- And ensuring the new space is primed and ready to go before they move in.
Physical and Mental Health Issues
Seniors dealing with physical and mental health issues can have a more difficult time preparing for a move, moving itself, and settling in after a move. Depending on their condition, they may feel powerless or bad about being unable to help. In other cases, they may not understand what is going on or why.
One way to counteract the feeling of disconnect is to ensure the person moving is involved in the details. This will help seniors feel like they have more control over their moving situation, such as which possessions to hold on to, or discovering amenities they want in their retirement home.
The Emotional Toll
For many, the emotional toll of decluttering and moving is difficult to bear. Often people struggle with nostalgia, especially when they have lived in a home for many years and have created many fond memories associated with the home. Even if seniors are staying in the same home and are just looking to declutter, it can be difficult to revisit all their memories and have to give up their possessions. In addition, some seniors may feel sad about a loss of independence, which can lead to further health consequences or even grief over closing this chapter of their lives.
A recent study found that senior’s main fear was losing a sense of independence, especially when they must be admitted to senior living facilities. The elderly experience a variety of changes as they age, which can cause frustration and angst. They feel as if they are losing their autonomy. Additionally, many seniors find they cannot perform day-to-day tasks as well as they used to and have less control over their emotions. This can be frightening to seniors who want to keep their independence.
Decluttering and Downsizing Best Practices
No matter what size the house is, or why the homeowner is choosing to move, there are some general best practices for decluttering and downsizing that can make the process go by more smoothly. These best practices can be useful for every room in the house and tailored to suit each individual’s needs.
Start Early & Small
Ideally, decluttering should start as early as possible — perhaps as soon as you know you’ll be needing to do so. Even if the senior doesn’t plan on moving for a while, there are benefits to starting early. Often the decluttering process will take longer than you would expect, so most people give themselves a couple of weeks to a month in order to go through everything at their own pace.
Starting small is another key to successful decluttering. Rooms with many items can seem overwhelming and are easy to put off for a different time. You should avoid starting with a big room and instead start with places like a closet or a bathroom. Be sure to note how big their new space is — for example, if you are moving to a smaller home with only one bathroom, there is no need for two shower curtains. Since you will have a lot of time to prepare, you can start with just a few items at a time and won’t have to worry about decluttering the entire home all at once.
You can also apply the concept of “eliminating rooms” while decluttering. With this concept, seniors should try to eliminate all their possessions from any rooms that will no longer be available in their new house. For example, if you are moving from a three-bedroom home with a garage into a one-bedroom apartment, you’ll need to get rid of the items stored in two of the bedrooms, as well as the garage.
Pack what you want to keep so it will be easier to decide what to do with the unwanted items. One suggestion is to donate unwanted belongings to a local shelter or consignment store. Additionally, the senior can sell your items at a garage sale or online. That way, extra money could be put toward moving expenses.
Ask for Help
As stated before, decluttering can be a daunting, overwhelming, and emotional task for anyone — so it’s important to ask friends, neighbors, and families for help with the process. While it could be embarrassing or tiresome to ask for help, this could be looked at as an important bonding opportunity. Children and grandchildren could learn about family heirlooms and life before they were born — information that could be easily lost otherwise.
You can also consider legacy gifts to your family, as your loved ones might feel sentimental toward some of your keepsakes. This may help ensure the senior’s old possessions end up in caring homes and stay with the family.
Take Your Time
Most importantly, the senior should take their time while going through all of their possessions. If the process is started early, that can give them more time to reminisce about the memories as well as give them more time to consider what items to keep or not. It’s important to understand that it’s perfectly fine to go about the process slowly, as long as it does not prevent them from finishing the decluttering.
Decluttering Room by Room
There are some general best practices to follow when moving or decluttering that are applicable to the entire house. For instance, making sure there is enough room for furniture in the new home and that it is accessible is important. Additionally, finding good storage solutions and focusing on fall prevention measures can help streamline the decluttering process.
Although moving and decluttering can be daunting and overwhelming, you can lessen these feelings by tackling one room at a time and finding specific decluttering strategies that work for each room in the home.
On average, people spend most of their home life in the living room. Furthermore, the living room is most likely one of the largest rooms in the house. This can cause a vast amount of clutter to collect. A cluttered living room can be difficult to navigate. To declutter the living room, consider these tips:
- Relocate furniture to create a better space for walking or navigating;
- Keep pet toys in a designated area or basket;
- Install storage solutions, like shelves;
- Designate a space for reading material;
- Put all blankets in the same spot;
- Create zones to better organize the space;
- Put away any items that don’t belong in the living room;
- And get rid of items that are broken.
A home office is equally important, serving as a functional workspace. Many want their office to be free of clutter because it increases focus. It could also be argued that people spend almost as much time, if not more, in their home office as they do in their living room. To declutter the home office, consider these tips:
- Implement digital storage solutions;
- Organize office supplies;
- Find a way to sort mail;
- Consider printing items on an “as you need them” basis, like buying and printing first-class postage online;
- Sort paperwork, like tax records, mortgage papers, and medical records.
- Keep work surfaces free of knick knacks;
- Put a calendar in a visible location;
- Sort items into categories for better organization;
- Schedule days to declutter;
- Store office supplies in containers;
- And utilize wall space for storage solutions.
Decluttering a kitchen can help you maintain the amount of groceries, reduce waste, and reduce the risk of food-born illnesses. Additionally, making sure that counters are clean and organized can help reduce the risk of bacteria transfer and physical harm from cooking. To declutter the kitchen, consider the following tips:
- Clean the fridge and freezer regularly;
- Organize the pantry;
- Consider how many utensils are needed to live comfortably and pack the rest away;
- Organize the cabinets;
- Limit the number of pots and pans;
- Check for duplicate items;
- Choose products with multiple purposes;
- Donate cookbooks that are no longer used or store them on shelves to save counter space;
- Discard excess kitchen towels;
- Get rid of Tupperware that no longer has a lid or bottom;
- Sort the kitchen junk drawer;
- And place heavy items lower to the ground so they are easier to access.
Bathrooms can easily be cluttered by medicine, hair products, cleaning products, and skincare products. It’s important to keep this space decluttered, especially in terms of expired and unsafe medicine. To declutter the bathroom, consider these tips:
- Clean out the medicine cabinet regularly;
- Store commonly used products and appliances in easily accessible places;
- Dispose of unnecessary products;
- Clean and dust shelves regularly;
- Organize the shower for safety purposes;
- Get rid of towels that are no longer in good shape;
- Toss expired makeup;
- Organize hair ties and bobby pins;
- Ensure that the decor items in the bathroom are helping rather than hindering;
- Keep a limited amount of items on the bathroom counter;
- And make use of shelves to save counter space;
Staircases and Hallways
Although staircases and hallways are most likely already free of clutter, these spaces could prove to be difficult for navigation and safety. Keeping these areas clean and clear of excess decor or furniture could help decrease the risk of falls and other accidents. Additionally, hallways should have minimal clutter in them to provide more room for wheelchairs and other assisted living equipment. To keep hallways and staircases free of clutter, make sure to:
- Discard rugs and pieces of furniture that could get in the way;
- Keep shoes in a designated area, like a hall closet or a shoe shelf;
- Hang up coats and jackets on hooks or pegs;
- And create a designated space for keys and mail;
Bedrooms can easily collect clutter and unwanted items, as some people will bring in items like books, newspapers, and water bottles before bed and forget them in the morning. This can increase the risk of disorganization, which can make the bedroom feel stuffy and cluttered instead of airy and relaxing. To declutter the bedroom, consider these tips:
- Donate or sell clothing;
- Use shelves to declutter;
- Do not store items under the bed, as this space is not very accessible;
- Remove excess items from nightstands;
- Use a hamper for dirty clothes;
- Declutter junk drawers;
- Use trays and bowls to contain small items;
- Use storage bins in the closet;
- Make the bed every morning;
- Utilize wall space with hooks;
- Purge jewelry;
- And use drawer dividers.
Garages, Attics, and Basements
Garage, attics, and basements are often the most difficult for people to clean out because they tend to be designated storage areas. They will also likely require some heavy-lifting, both literally and figuratively. To declutter these locations, consider the following tips:
- Throwing away items that are clearly garbage;
- Asking for assistance with heavier items;
- Donate old sporting equipment;
- Install shelves for more organization;
- Get rid of unused furniture;
- Create a space for tools and gardening supplies;
- Sort items that you want to keep, sell, and donate to make decluttering easier;
- Label everything;
- Organize photos into photo books;
- Get rid of old electronics;
- And be selective of childhood memory boxes.
What To Do with Unwanted Items
Deciding what items are unwanted is only half the battle — to truly declutter and downsize, you must actually get rid of your unwanted items. It can be tempting to just throw it all away in the garbage or put it out on the curb for free, but it may be a better idea to sell, donate, or gift the items instead.
Seniors can sell their unwanted items that are in good working condition. This could be a good opportunity for seniors who are concerned with their financial status while moving, downsizing, or decluttering. There are many ways to sell unwanted items, including:
- Online Marketplaces: Places such as eBay and Etsy are popular platforms for selling items. Both have a large customer base, offer affordable shipping options for sellers, and are relatively easy to set up. On the other hand, fees on both platforms can add up and there is a risk of being scammed and not getting paid. To make the most out of this option, they can print postage at home in order to ship their items.
- Local Buy/Sell Marketplaces: This includes places like Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, and Letgo. One of the biggest advantages is that these platforms are free to sell on. Additionally, buyers are often close enough to meet up with and posting details about an item is uncomplicated. However, using these platforms could limit their customer base and buyer protection is not available.
- Garage and Yard Sale: Whether a senior is throwing their own garage sale or hosting one with friends and family, it is important to learn how to negotiate price. Buyers are notorious for haggling at garage sales, so they’ll want to create a threshold for the lowest price. This can help appease the buyer while ensuring they still make money.
- Consignment Stores and Pawn Shops: Local consignment stores and pawn shops typically work two ways: with upfront payment or profit-sharing. Upfront payment means a store clerk will go through the items and select ones for consignment, giving the seller a one time offer for everything. Profit-sharing entails the seller obtaining an account number with the store and splitting the profit with the store as the items are sold. It’s important to consider all options and what works best for the senior’s lifestyle.
For items that are a bit shabbier or are unable to sell, there is always the option of donating unwanted items. Some options for donating include:
- Thrift and Second-Hand Stores: This could include local thrift stores, as well as charities and not-for-profit organizations that accept donations. Many of these organizations offer to pick up donations to make the situation easier on the donor. Before picking a store or company, be sure to research what they can or cannot accept and pick up.
- Pick-Up Donation Services: These services could be especially useful for seniors who have mobility issues. It’s important to note that available services vary depending on locality. National or widely available services do include Goodwill, GreenDrop, and Habitat for Humanity.
- Online Donation Platforms: This could include sites like Freecycle, ThreadUp, and Swap.com. These platforms offer easy ways for donors to trade and give away their unwanted items. ThreadUp will even send a free box and prepaid shipping labels to make the experience convenient and easy.
Seniors can also give their unwanted items to their friends, family members, loved ones, and other people in their lives. This could be especially helpful if they were already planning to give a certain item to a certain person after passing away. This doesn’t have to be as formal as more traditional methods of gift-giving, like holidays or a birthday. However, it is still meaningful to include a handwritten note or to sit down with the recipient to explain the significance of the gift. While this is a sentimental gesture, it is also a great way to get rid of unwanted items in a less intimidating way. This way, the item can still stay in the family and retain its significance with a person you love and trust.
Decluttering and downsizing can be a difficult and emotional process for all involved, including the seniors themselves. However, there are many benefits of going through this process, such as revisiting old memories and creating a fresh start in a new location.