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Making life easier: How to help your parent or grandparent downsize

by Amanda Lambert | Contributor
August 15, 2022


Downsizing is all the rage these days, with people like popular author and consultant Marie Kondo and others extolling the virtues of decluttering and organizing to have a more serene and peaceful life. But not everyone downsizes for that reason. Life changes and transitions often necessitate reducing living space and the items in it.

Having the time and desire to downsize is one thing, but doing it under pressure is another. Downsizing usually occurs under two conditions: One is that you decide, as part of estate and long-range planning, to reduce the number of items you have to make it easier as you get older. The other reason to downsize is in advance of a move to a smaller place.

Getting rid of stuff can be highly stressful and emotional for many people, especially older adults who have lived in one house for many years. There are generally two types of people and everyone in between. The who person hates clutter and spends their time ridding themselves of unwanted or needed items. Then there is the person who “collects” things throughout their lifetime and has great difficulty letting things go.

Downsizing rarely occurs without an accompanying financial and environmental transition that adds additional stress. You can ensure a successful experience by having a plan and navigating the emotional journey with compassion and preparation. We will examine some of the everyday situations that necessitate downsizing and tips and tricks to downsize the family home.

Why your loved one might need to downsize

Hopefully, as part of your long-range planning for your loved one, you have factored in different scenarios for care. The financial cost of aging is more than most people think. Although family members provide most caregiving support in the United States, reduced or lost employment can significantly impact your ability to continue to provide that home care.

Most families eventually consider senior living, an option that assumes many of the care duties provided by family members - for a price. Hence, downsizing is almost inevitable. It is not unusual for a parent or grandparent to have lived in the same home for many years, sometimes decades.

A home is a significant asset from a financial standpoint if no mortgage is attached. Downsizing and selling the family home to finance senior living makes sense. Let's look at some of the possible scenarios and how to tackle downsizing.

Independent senior living, apartments and condominiums

Independent housing can make sense if your loved one is not quite ready for assisted living but wants the social opportunities and ease of senior living. There are far more traditional assisted living communities than independent, but independent senior living is catching up. Options include independent attached to assisted living, continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs), apartment complexes and co-housing.

In most cases, but not all, independent senior living will have more space with a full kitchen, a living room and even a sitting room. But, even with the extra space, squeezing a two- or three- or more bedroom home into an apartment is not possible. Some considerations:

someone holding their hands out to hold a downsized house
  • Meet with a financial professional before selecting independent living to review your loved one's estate and what they can afford. Remember that independent living is not likely to be the last stop. Assume that assisted living is next, which is more expensive.
  • If you don't want to downsize more than once, look for independent living where assisted living amenities and services can come to where your loved one lives. In some states, this is not possible, and you will have to move again, even if it is to a different floor.
  • Involve your loved one depending on your relationship with them. Talk openly and honestly about what level of help your loved one wants from you as they downsize. It may not go over well if you charge in to take control. Sit down together and develop a plan - a starting list of what to bring and what not to.
  • Use sticky notes to identify must-haves in the new space. You can adjust this later. Identify what to give to charity, other family members or what goes into storage.
  • Decide if it is worth selling anything. Some items may indeed have value, so you could have some things evaluated. You can donate to charity items that won't be sold, and some organizations will pick items up at the location.
  • Once you have identified a place, lay out where large pieces of furniture will go to ensure you haven't kept too much.
  • Most important: If your loved one can't part with items due to their emotional value, don't argue. Agree to put in storage.
  • Accept the fact that once your loved one moves, there may be additional downsizing as they realize some items aren't needed. And the opposite may be true - your loved one wants items you have in storage, or there could be some things you need to purchase.

Assisted living

Assisted living is a unique category due to the emotional impact of moving to a setting where more care is needed. Also, the living space could be quite a bit smaller than independent living. Depending on finances, you may even have to opt for a studio.

Many families skip the step of independent living and go straight from the family home to assisted living facilities. The critical part of this process is accepting this possibility early on. If you wait for a crisis, for example, your loved one breaks a hip, you will be under enormous stress to find a placement, downsize the home and sell it. So, how do you prepare for something that may or may not happen?

  • Start downsizing before you need to.

    Start downsizing early. You may encounter significant resistance to this idea. If you do, don't fight it. It isn't worth ruining your relationship over eliminating items in the family home. Some older adults want to know that things are going to family members, and if they are willing, arrange for the family to take what they want.

  • Look for an assisted living community before your loved one needs it.

    Tour assisted living communities before you need one. Identify your top three to have some options if you need an assisted living unit in a hurry. Make sure you know the assisted living costs and pricing of apartments; the bigger the apartment, the higher the cost.

  • Downsize with care and compassion.

    Moving to assisted living can mean a loss of independence and control for many older adults. Having to downsize along with such an emotional transition can be overwhelming. The only way of exerting control is by resisting and getting rid of long-held memories and attachments. Some suggestions on how to handle downsizing:

    • Be as patient as you can. Yes, the downsizing must happen, but much of it you can do after your loved one has moved.
    • Try and put yourself in your loved one's place. The stress and strain are enormous. Stay calm and empathetic to their concerns.
    • Value what your loved one values. You may think of something your family member owns as worthless. To them, it has meaning and memories. Respect that.
    • Always let your loved one know that anything they are unsure about can go into storage for future consideration.

  • Stay flexible but persistent.

    It isn't possible to bring everything your loved one may want. For one thing, too much stuff in a new apartment is a fall risk. At some point, you may have to put your foot down (kindly) if things get out of control.

Complicating circumstances

Not every downsizing situation is the same. Often there are complicating circumstances that entail a nuanced and delicate approach. The two main complicating situations are dementia and hoarding.


Alzheimer's disease and dementia are progressive diseases that can cause memory and judgment problems. Downsizing for someone with dementia can be a challenge. Your loved one may not remember that they are moving and could get very upset and agitated. They may not want you moving or even touching their things.

What should you do in this situation? There are no easy answers, but some family members decide to take care of the downsizing with their loved one out of the home. So, one option is to take only items and furniture that are necessary to the new location and move your loved one with a plan to bring the rest later. Take care to select comforting items such as photographs and favorite articles of clothing.


Hoarding might be one of the most challenging conditions to cope with when you are attempting to downsize. Every single item could elicit anger. This situation will be complicated, but you can do it. Consider these ideas:

  • Start early - If you can see that your loved one will eventually need to move, start early downsizing so you can organize and plan. Starting too early will magically allow more stuff to appear, so timing is critical.
  • Hire a professional - There are professional decluttering companies that can assist with downsizing. Taking family members out of the process could expedite the downsizing process and salvage your relationship.
  • Don't get angry or frustrated - Getting angry and frustrated will likely only exacerbate the situation. Your emotional reaction doesn't undo years of this type of behavior.
  • Don't ask your loved one why they are a hoarder - Hoarding is considered a mental health problem. Once you have moved your loved one you can explore treatment options because the behavior will likely continue.
  • Don't downsize behind your loved one's back - As tempting as this is, resist downsizing without your loved one's knowledge. Take a steady, patient and persistent approach and involve your loved one as much as possible.

Emotional considerations

Regardless of place, intent or timing, the journey for a loved one will be exceptionally emotional. As a caring family member, you will understandably be immersed in the details of downsizing and moving, but remember that your mindful presence is a necessary part of the process. Take time to stop and listen to your loved one's fears, concerns and anxieties.

Tips and tricks for family members

As the family member primarily responsible for downsizing a family home, you may be surprised at how exhausting the process is. And the family home has memories for you as well. Here are some tips and tricks to stay healthy and energized through the process.

  • Start in stages - It can help to start downsizing in stages. For example, you may want to first begin in the most demanding room while you have more energy and clarity. If you try and look at the house as a whole, it could be overwhelming.
  • Improve your fitness - If you have time to prepare, ensure you are strong and have good endurance before downsizing. You may be hiring movers, but you will undoubtedly be packing and moving boxes. If you already exercise, add some weight lifting and aerobic activity to feel physically and mentally prepared.
  • Dress the part - Dress to downsize by wearing comfortable clothing and good solid shoes. Wear clothes you don't mind getting dusty and dirty. Wear gloves and consider a pocket apron to hold a Sharpie, sticky notes, your phone, and simple tools.
  • Stay fed and hydrated - Chances are you will forget to eat or drink water which can drain your energy. Prepare healthy snacks such as carrot sticks, apples and protein bars, and have plenty of water available.
  • Accept help - People will offer to help, and you will be tempted to say you have everything under control. If people offer help, accept it! Just have a clear plan for what you would like them to do so they feel helpful.
  • Take a break - You know that feeling when you are so immersed in something stressful, and you become weak and fuzzy? Take a break for some personal care! Go outside for some fresh air and a walk to clear your head and re-energize.
  • Acknowledge your emotions - You, too, may have many memories and emotions as you downsize the family home. You might not have much time to indulge those, but acknowledge the value of those emotions and allow yourself at some point to feel the loss of a time and place that won't return.

Downsizing the family home: an emotional and challenging journey

There are cases where a loved one remains in their home until they die. In other scenarios, increasing care needs means a move to senior living. In either scenario, you will end up downsizing your family's home.

Approach this challenging journey with a calm, flexible and compassionate attitude. And remember to provide emotional support to your loved one after the move.

Alliance America can help

Alliance America is an insurance and financial services company dedicated to the art of personal financial planning. Our financial professionals can assist you in maximizing your retirement resources and achieving your future goals. We have access to an array of products and services, all focused on helping you enjoy the retirement lifestyle you want and deserve. You can request a no-cost, no-obligation consultation by calling (833) 219-6884 today.

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