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Many adults are helping senior family members downsize because of an imminent move to a smaller home or because their current home feels too full of stuff. 

Unless continuous clearing of possessions has been a priority for older generations or they have strong minimalist tendencies, most seniors have a lot of stuff.  This may be difficult for younger generations to understand. I commonly hear “Why can’t you get rid of stuff? or “Why did you buy all this stuff?” as younger family members struggle with their feelings of frustration and weariness in supporting their elders.

Most seniors are products of the Depression and Drought of the 1930s whether they were children at the time, or are grandchildren of those that experienced this time of scarcity.  New purchases were rare and everything was reused many times.  As money became more prevalent for some families in the mid-20th century, many of these survivors of the Depression and their adult children could buy things to create beautiful homes and well-stocked tool sheds. They bought gifts, and household and shop items for the next generations. 

The desire to accumulate and to share one’s resources by gifting others has sunk deep into our psyches. For those of us who can easily let go of things, we simply cannot underestimate how emotionally difficult it is for some people to let stuff go.  

For seniors, thinking about downsizing is often emotional and overwhelming. They may not be ready to release their possessions when you think they should be. Asking you for help may feel new and strange. Downsizing can mean that both parents and children are confronting big life changes. 

I have worked with seniors who live in multi-story homes whose main floors are fastidiously clean and organized — almost minimalist. Yet they can't face a downsize to a smaller home as other levels of their home are full of stuff socked away for a rainy day. They feel embarrassed or ashamed and would prefer to just not think about a move. They don’t want their families to see what is stowed away.

As we work with our elders to downsize or clear their homes, how can we be compassionate with the difficulties they face while at the same time honouring our own needs for self-care?

I share some practical suggestions in How Do I Help My Parents to Downsize?