Paring down possessions and moving to a smaller home can be financially and physically freeing, but the process can be emotionally difficult.
by Harriet Edelman | New York Times
For Dianne Welsh, 63, downsizing from her 3,400-square-foot home to a nearby two-bedroom bungalow did not happen instantly. It was at least 30 months from start to finish.
“I’m a very organized person,” said Ms. Welsh, a long-divorced government contractor who still works part time in health communications.
She started going through closets and drawers, getting rid of “quite a bit,” she said. But there was more. “Where did all this come from? It was way more than I thought.”
Like others at or near traditional retirement age — either retired or thinking about it — Ms. Welsh wanted to simplify her life. An estimated 4.2 million retirees moved to a new home in 2014, according to a Merrill Lynch and Age Wave report, “Home in Retirement: More Freedom, New Choices.” Over all, 64 percent of retirees expect to move at least once during retirement.
But after living in the same house for 35 years — the home where she had raised three sons — downsizing, she said, was “definitely a big stress.”
Deciding what to do with a lifetime of possessions poses a multitude of questions and typically triggers a range of emotions.
“It’s disruptive,” said Steven A. Sass, a research economist at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. It can mean moving away from “your life, your neighborhood,” he said.
“The earlier you do it the better, physically, socially and financially,” Mr. Sass said. “It’s giving up something today for something you want or need.” The payoff is often a fresh start, lower living expenses, less house-related work, a different lifestyle with more amenities and more freedom to travel.
One of the first things to think about, experts say, is how you would like to live the next part of your life. It’s an opportunity to reflect on where you have been and where you are going.
Downsizing is more than a physical change. For some people, it’s an opportunity to create a new life in a new space. “Getting rid of stuff was so liberating,” Ms. Welsh said.
The actual process usually takes longer than expected. Possessions can be difficult to throw away, donate or sell. The best strategy is to plan well ahead. Even before you put your home on the market, “inventory your existing furniture, art and accessories and determine their use in the redesigned space,” said Dana Tydings, owner of Tydings Design in Laytonsville, Md.
Consider having your possessions appraised to determine their value. Be prepared for appraisals that may be far less than you expected. This is especially important for antique furniture, silver and accessories. Many prized items of an earlier era are almost worthless these days.
Parting with possessions is easier for some than others. “It’s the memories and the life that we lived there,” Ms. Tydings said. “I tell them, ‘You will create new wonderful memories in your new space,’ and that seems to make them happy.”
Kaye Appleman and Edward Mopsik are moving from their home of almost 33 years in Bethesda, Md., to a two-bedroom, two-bath condominium just two miles away. They are trading a house with a yard for “communal living,” no longer worrying about things like stairs and mowing the lawn in exchange for a place with lots of amenities, including indoor and outdoor pools.
Though a number of their friends have moved to the golf haven of Pinehurst, N.C., the couple said they didn’t want to uproot themselves. “I didn’t want to move to a new location,” Ms. Appleman said. “There’s a familiarity.”
How do you pare down your possessions? “You do it step by step by step,” said Ms. Appleman, a clinical social worker in her 60s who retired about 10 years ago. For her husband, 72, an oral surgeon who retired in August, parting with most medical books was practical since he can read much of what he needs online.
Many things they found in the attic, like high school yearbooks, also had to go. “We didn’t know they were there; we didn’t want to keep them,” Dr. Mopsik said. “They were gone out of our life close to 30 years.”
But they decided not to part with some antiques inherited from Ms. Appleman’s mother. They are also keeping several clocks for their new home.
“You’re empowering yourself because you’re enabling yourself to make the decision about things,” said Gary W. Small, director of the UCLA Longevity Center and president of the American Society for Geriatric Psychiatry. “It frees us up when we discard things.”
But don’t discount the pain involved. The difficulty in discarding things can be rooted in mortality and the realization that no one lives forever. At a certain point in life, there is more past than future, and that, in itself, can be daunting.
“We’re all mortal,” Dr. Small said. “The issue is balance.”
Older people want to keep in touch with the past, yet “you can’t hold onto all things,” he said. “One of the upsides to downsizing is it allows us to live more in the present.”
Going through a lifetime of possessions may require professional assistance. Not everyone is comfortable, for example, with selling items on eBay. Figure out which pieces family members might want and which to sell, donate or keep. Consider archiving children’s drawings and photographs digitally. Some opt for an “estate” sale, garage sale or yard sale, depending on what they have.
“It brings up all kinds of emotional issues,” said Susan Levin, who has downsized more than once, and has been a consultant with Orchestrated Moves, a company that helps older adults and others with relocation and downsizing. “It’s not just moving things but the emotional letting go.”
She just moved from Bethesda, MD, to Atlanta, where her daughter lives.
Many people hang on to more possessions than they ultimately desire. “People think they want the stuff initially but later on they don’t care,” said Deborah Heiser, an applied development psychologist in Great Neck, N.Y., and co-editor of the book “Spiritual Assessment and Intervention with Older Adults: Current Directions and Applications.” They might store things for three months, she said, then decide they don’t want them. Once they have found a “new life,” she said, they usually want to dispose of them one way or another.
And for many people, the move is ultimately liberating. “It’s a new adventure,” Dr. Mopsik said. “This is far more positive than negative.”