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You Are Here: Home - Newsletters - "Get Organized" - Article

The Downsizing Process

"To every thing there is a season...A time to seek and a time to lose;A time to keep and a time to throw away."

- Ecclesiastes 3: 1, 6

The sorting and clearing process is by far the most DAUNTING part of making a later life move (or preparing for later life even if a move is not part of the plan). I will offer some tips and suggestions for starting the process of going through years of accumulated belongings in your home. Many of these ideas come from experiences with helping my parents with their downsizing move from their home of 34 years in 1996, and with working with my older adult clients. Let's get started!

Begin in the areas of the house that you are currently not USING. Many older adults are still living in the same houses where they raised their families. In most situations, there are areas of the house that are currently not being used -- upstairs bedrooms, the basement family room, etc. Start the sorting and clearing process in these rooms because it will be least DISRUPTIVE to everyday life. These areas also often contain lots of items that have not been used in a considerable length of time and that will not be missed when passed on to children, grandchildren, charity or the auction house.

Start with the large items in each room and work your way down to the small items. The rationale for this? It's easier to start with furniture and the bigger pieces and you'll feel like you are making some PROGRESS. If you start with the small items, you may get overwhelmed and frustrated before you even get started. With large items, either prepare a list of your decisions (e.g. dresser -- keep; will work well in a smaller bedroom), or use stickers and mark the items as you decide what to do with each piece.

Sort the items in each room as follows:
  • items that you want to KEEP as you move forward
  • items that will be passed on to FAMILY or friends
  • items that will be SOLD via a garage sale or auction
  • items that will be given to CHARITY
  • items that need to be thrown away
Again, keep a list of your decisions, separate the items into separate piles, or mark the items with stickers. The goal is to GET RID of as much stuff as possible as you work through the downsizing process. What does this mean? This means putting items to be thrown away into garbage bags and setting out this trash for pickup each week. This means calling your charity of choice and arranging for a pickup as soon as you have enough items to justify their making a trip. This means asking family and friends to make arrangements to get their items, or to have their belongings mailed to them.

I always tell people that one of the easiest places to start with clearing a house is telling their family that it's time to come get their stuff! I had things at my mom and dad's house from my childhood and school days that I required that my mother keep for me for years. I made a trip home two years before they moved to collect my belongings from my old upstairs bedroom and closet. Guess what happened? Most of these things didn't last even six months once they were taking up room in my house! So don't feel guilty if you take this step. Tell your KIDS that it's time for them to collect the things that they still have STORED at your house.

Allow plenty of flexibility and time for the sorting and downsizing and trust the process. Plan to spend maybe one or two hours at a time (at most) working through the sorting process. This is not a task that you can do for LONG PERIODS of time at any age -- there will be too many emotions and memories stirred up because in essence you are sorting through the years of your life. Take time for recalling memories, to shed tears as you need to, and to share stories with friends and family. And be easy on yourself and flexible when making decisions.

This is a very important and valuable part of the later life transition process. Allow yourself time to REMEMBER and to grieve losses. Don't rush yourself to make too many decisions at once. If you need to discuss with family or friends what to do with certain items or belongings, take time to do so. If you can't make a decision about something, then set it aside and THINK about it for awhile until you do come to a decision. Also remember that you can change your mind about any item as long as it's still in your possession. If you've started early and are planning ahead, you should be able to work at a pace that is comfortable for you and your situation.

For many people, starting the sorting and decision-making process is as difficult at walking out to a yard piled with leaves in the fall and deciding where to begin raking. The task appears to be so OVERWHELMING! All you can do in this situation is to START somewhere and to approach it step by step, pile by pile until the job is finished.

I stress keeping focused as much as possible because it's so easy to do a little bit here, a little bit there and never feel like you're getting anywhere. I see this happen with my clients all the time. I leave them with a list of things to do and return after a week and though they tell me they've been very busy, I can't see that anything has been accomplished. And neither can they. Start working in a specific room in your house or even a specific area of this room (say a closet or drawer) if you need to start smaller. Stick with what you are working on until it is FINISHED. You'll feel better because you'll be able to see what you have accomplished and this will give you momentum to continue the sorting and downsizing process.

Remember that your goal is to SIMPLIFY your life. I always tell my clients that they don't need to get rid of everything but they do need to pare down their years of accumulated belongings to the key things, the favorite things they want to have around them and that they need or enjoy using. Think about what you really use in your home on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis and I bet you'll see that this amounts to a FRACTION of what you have in your house.

Try to think of sorting and downsizing your belongings as a natural process of completing and RELEASING -- like leaves falling from the tree in autumn. You can do this -- and believe me, you will feel so good when this job is done and you have new, clutter-free space in your home and in your life!


Copyright 2000 Living Transitions, All rights reserved. Sue Ronnekamp founded Living Transitions -- a service that facilitates and eases downsizing and transitional moves for older adults. For more information about making a later life downsizing move, visit her website at

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