Learning how to downsize

July 03, 2010|By MARIE GILBERT
  • More and more older Americans are learning to downsize.
Graphic illustration,

For almost 50 years, Bob Shewski lived in a 10-room Victorian house with a wrap-around porch, a gazebo and three acres of land.

There, in the nearby Pennsylvania countryside, he and his wife had raised four children and created a lifetime of memories.

But as he approached his 72nd birthday, Shewski said he made a decision.

His wife had died, his children were grown and he was alone.

"This was too much house," he said. "It was hard to think about moving, but it was something I had to do - and I knew it."

Two years ago, Shewski made a major lifestyle change when he decided to downsize.

Heading to a retirement village wasn't his first choice, he said. He was healthy, active and loved to garden. So he bought a small rancher in the Hagerstown area.

"Everything is on one floor, I have a small yard and the upkeep is minimal," he said. "I've actually made things a lot easier on myself."


Shewski is among millions of older adults who reach a point in life where less is more.

Factors include limited incomes, declining health and the unwillingness or inability to maintain larger properties.

But, while most agree they need to simplify their lives, the transition can be daunting, particularly when it comes to downsizing their material possessions.

Clearing the clutter

Living small can be difficult after years of living large.

Shewski said he had one important factor in his favor when it came to deciding what items would stay and what would go - his children lived nearby.

"They helped me sort through everything and I had them select furniture, dishes, anything that I didn't need that they would like to have," he said. "We put some things in storage and other things we donated to Goodwill."

Another option is hiring a professional organizer, someone like Sharon Womack of Hagerstown who has made a career of helping people get their lives in order.

Because obtaining possessions is a very individualized process, so are the attitudes senior adults have about eliminating their possessions, Womack said. Some are quite willing to part with almost everything and anything, but haven't had the time and energy to tackle the task. In these cases, with the help of a capable organizer, family member or friend, the senior can direct the removal of items and experience a real sense of relief.

Other people, she said, put a lot of emotional value into their possessions and the elimination process can be more involved.

If space is not a problem, these individuals may derive benefit from choosing to keep some mementos that are especially important to them, Womack said. Another helpful option is to create a special photo album and journal, eliminating the space-taking items but having a visual memory of them available.

Womack said she always does an initial consultation first to determine a client's goals.

"I work with them, giving suggestions and developing an individualized action plan to help reach those goals," she said. "We will also want to start a list of what items to give away, pass down, sell, discard or save and refine that list throughout the sorting process."

Womack said she strongly recommends passing down items while you are alive and able to enjoy the response of the recipient.

"This has been the model in several generations of our own family," she said, "and can really avoid family feuds on items after someone has died. As an example, I recently enjoyed passing on an old scenic photo postcard my father obtained in Germany during World War II to my teen grandson who is learning German. He was happy to receive the photo and interpret the German writing on the back for me."

Womack said if a client needs an organizer to do the physical sorting and relocation, she usually recommends working within two- to three-hour time blocks per day so the process does not become too overwhelming.

"There can be a weekend-long blitz, but, generally, I don't recommend those," she said. "They can be far more overwhelming and exhausting than they are worth."

Life simplified

When Sherry Cramer, 61, retired from her job in the Washington, D.C., area and moved to Hagerstown, she decided to look at the transition as a time to "weed out and simplify my life. I took it as a time to declutter."

But it was hard, she admitted, especially for someone "who likes to hang on to stuff."

"I always feel like I might need that item, so maybe I shouldn't throw it away," she said. "But I tried to follow the rule that says if you haven't used it in a year or two, get rid of it."

Since moving into her home at the Villas at Cortland, Cramer said she feels more organized.

She even has made space for a craft room.

"It's like getting a fresh start," she said.

Cramer said when both of her parents died, she was faced with clearing out their home in Syracuse, N.Y.

"I had tried for several years to get them to go through their belongings but they were in their 80s and didn't want to deal with it," she said. "I kind of learned a lesson from that experience. I tell people, 'Do your kids a favor.'"

Though the downsizing process can often be overwhelming, in the end, Womack said, clients are relieved that their lives have been simplified.

"By the time a client contacts an organizer, they have already made the first step in deciding to let go of items," she said.

"It was a little emotional, leaving the past behind," Shewski said. "But I made the right decision. What was I going to do rattling around in the big house all by myself?"

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