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Downsizing the Family Home: Tips from the Trenches


Caregiving and Downsizing

I’ve been busy. While we have been thinking about it for years, actually downsizing our family home of over 50 years has been an eye opener. Like any life changing event, you won’t fully understand it until you do it.

As a long distance caregiver who is over 60, I realized that caring for my 93 year old mother is something that I feel honored to do. But, the maintenance of her 56 year old home from over 2000 miles away is also my responsibility. I became aware on visits home that I was spending more time with house concerns and upkeep than I did with my mother. And, when I was not there, I was worrying about it. It had all become too much and out of balance.

I will explore the emotional toll of downsizing the family home in future posts. Our whole family has loved that house and it has truly been a homeplace.

However, I am still in the trenches. I have survival of the process on my mind. What follows are some of the strategies that have helped me the most thus far.

My Tips for Downsizing:

These are not ideas from experts, but simply what I found worked for me. I approached this job like a mission. Here are some of my strategies:

Get in Training

In the months after the decision to move my mother to a smaller, “right-size” home and empty the family home, I went into training. I am a person who exercises regularly. I decided to increase my activity with an emphasis on doing more weight training. Not that I expected to do all the heavy lifting by myself. But, I wanted to be able to shift some mountains of stuff. I wanted to make sure that my endurance was high. So I added indoor cycling and weight training to my routine. This definitely helped me to run up and down stairs from the attic to the garage with packed boxes over and over. And, it helped my mental attitude. I felt more prepared.

Break it Down into Stages

I know some families who have converged on the family home together for a week or extended weekend to empty the home. This is possible if everyone shares the goal and plays well with others.  I have also heard stories of this kind of gathering spiraling into turf wars about who gets what possessions.

If you have some time to space apart dealing with different areas of the home, do it. It gives everyone time to process and accept that it is happening. We started with the worst space: the attic. Otherwise known as the place where generations of stuff, some valuable, mostly junk, has accumulated. It also holds thousands of decisions for you to make. For us, it made sense to get the worst over first. It seemed that some of the stuff that my parents kept was simply because they couldn’t decide what to do with it. Thus it just got left there for us to make the same decisions later.

Dress for Action

A simple pocket apron is very handy for sorting and packing.

Downsizing is a workout. Dress accordingly. For me, that means workout clothes that I don’t mind getting covered in dust. I am the most comfortable in clothes that I wear to the gym. But, they don’t come with big enough pockets for this work. I found this pocket apron (pictured above) in my mother’s house. It became my one of my best tools. I had room for my phone, my keys, a screwdriver, a pair of scissors, and a place to put odd, small random items that I would find. These included a sweet card that my kids sent to my mother for mother’s day, a college pin of my father’s, an earring long lost behind a dresser. They all fit into my pocket apron. I could save them and look at them later. I felt some security with the apron on. It was part of my armor for the day and my work uniform.

And, don’t forget the work gloves. Get some that grip well so when you and your siblings are moving a chest that hasn’t moved in a few decades, you can really get a good hold. They’ll also protect you when there are sharp edges or broken glass. Wear sturdy shoes, no sandals!

 Delay Going Down Memory Lane…If You Can

Downsizing is a minefield of emotional debris. That apron pocket mentioned above really helped me delay looking at tiny mementos of my childhood. It is not uncommon in the midst of sorting to find yourself sitting with a big smile or a tear falling. How long have you been sitting there? My sister and I enjoyed some really great moments sharing stories about random photos or books that we hadn’t seen in years. But, the moment would come when we would remember that the movers were coming the next day. Time to get back to work!

Take Care of Your Health

During every move I have ever done in my life, I forget to eat. I get so absorbed in packing and sorting and moving, that I just want to get it done. One day in my recent downsizing saga, someone who was going to help me do some critical last minute packing, twisted her ankle. She had to cancel. I had to do it myself and quickly. I couldn’t leave and there was no longer food in the house. A friend brought me a huge fresh fruit salad during a break from his work.  My cousin brought me a bagel sandwich. These acts of kindness restored me physically and emotionally. And, I vowed not to get stuck with no food again.

Have some quick, healthy snacks (my favorites: baby carrots, apple slices, mixed nuts) and a refillable water bottle with you daily. Get enough sleep. Have some hand moisturizer nearby because your hands are going to get very dirty and get washed over and over again. Take a break to walk around the block and fill your lungs with fresh air.

No Accidents This Year

OK, I’m a safety nut. But, sometimes even I would get so caught up in the process that I would do pretty stupid things. There were times when I had to remind myself to slow down. I would find myself doing something totally crazy like carrying a huge box that obstructed my view while going down slippery stairs. I had to tell myself to STOP!!

Make sure that you are working in well lighted spaces so that you can see what you are doing. Don’t go up on a ladder unless someone else is around. Avoid making sudden turns in crowded junk filled spaces (yes, I did this and almost toppled over a heap of stuff.) Watch your head when you peer into that crawl space.

When Friends Offer to Help, Don’t Say No

I’m the first to admit that I am really bad at this. But, you can’t do this by yourself. I am so grateful to the many people that helped me, whether physically in person or encouraging me and providing support in the background.

Finally, Give Yourself a Good Talking To

I found myself talking to myself a lot during this process. Even when there were other people working alongside me. Especially when I was alone.

I am an optimist. But, sometimes downsizing is so overwhelming. It’s natural to wonder, how can I possibly get this done? So, find ways to express positive thoughts to yourself. For me, I literally need to say it out loud. Here are some things that I said to myself in the last few weeks:

  • “You can think about that later.”
  • “Go, go, go!”
  • “Slow down, breathe, breathe, breathe.”
  • “Yes, you can do this…”
  • “What did you come in this room for? Oh yes…”
  • “I love this old house. Thank you Mom and Daddy for raising us here.”
  • “Thank you old house. I’ll miss you.”
  • “What in the world is this?”
  • “You’re doing the best you can. It won’t be perfect.”

My best wishes to you and your family in the downsizing endeavor. Take care.

Here are two links that helped me:

Great stationary bike and weights combo video

Waist Apron with 3 Pockets



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