How to Prepare for the Big Move: Downsizing in Phases to Reduce Stress

A family home can often be filled with decades’ worth of memories and possessions. The thought of helping your loved ones downsize, pack, and move from this home can feel daunting for the entire family. Different aspects of a senior move can present different challenges. We are often called upon by our clients to help them navigate obstacles like: “I have no idea where to start!” and “What do I do with ALL of this stuff?” Over the years working with Abundance Organizing’s senior downsizing clients, we have outlined a Three Phase Process with steps to help make the downsizing process a seamless one.

PHASE ONE – Planning

Without clarity– or agreement– on logistics like timelines, destinations, resources, and stakeholders, it’s virtually impossible to move forward without stress and confusion. I cannot tell you how many times our teams have been called upon to provide services for a family when one or all of these steps have been missed. This inevitably leads to frustration and false starts. Phase One can take weeks, months, or even years, to complete. It is critical and not to be skipped. 

Bring everyone to the table.

Before moving forward, get the family together in order to have a frank conversation on goals and options. This dialogue with your loved ones is critical to get the ball rolling. Make sure everyone has the opportunity to voice their priorities and concerns. Your goal is to get everyone onto the same page before moving ahead. Clarify everyone’s roles and degree of involvement in the process. Don’t put this conversation off; it is an important one. (We discussed strategies to launch a productive conversation in a previous installment of this blog series.)

Identify the destination.

First, decide where your loved ones want to be geographically. Who do they want to be close to? What interests and hobbies do they want to pursue?

Next, collect information: Research different senior living options in the area. Interview other families for feedback. Meet with a senior living advisor. Meet with a financial advisor. Go on tours to get the feel of different units in different communities. Make sure you understand the contract. Is there a waitlist? 

Ask any and all questions you have and make sure you get answers that are satisfactory. When your loved ones make a decision and find the community that is the best fit, put a deposit down to save a spot.

Come up with a downsizing plan.

Now it is time to sit down and come up with a plan to accomplish what needs to be done. The plan will include: what tasks need to occur, when they are happening, and who needs to be involved. Preparing for a move into a new senior community takes lots of planning in order to not allow any “surprises” along the way. This step is usually where our team starts in the process. 

When our expert senior move managers are helping clients to form a plan, we go to their home to meet them and discuss their goals and priorities. We will walk through your family home room by room. We discuss what downsizing plan is realistic depending on the volume in each room, the level of emotional attachment to possessions, as well as the client’s stamina. Occasionally, we will conduct this walk through alongside a realtor or moving partner. 

After the walk through, we start laying out timelines based on projected move-in date. Using the move-in window, we work backwards to schedule everything: planning the time it will take to declutter, measuring furniture and designing the floor plan, dropping off donations or selling unwanted household items, scheduling movers, packing belongings, staging and selling the house, and finally unpacking and getting your loved one settled into their new home. Each of those pieces and everything in between needs to be carefully thought through and given a time table. 

As we work to identify a plan and set goals, we are prioritizing rooms/areas according to our client’s stamina, evaluating the punch list from the realtor if the house is being sold, and reviewing family member’s schedules who can help with the downsizing process. Be clear and candid with each other about how other members of the family can realistically contribute to the transition is a way that is comfortable for everyone. I’ve seen family members make assumptions about involvement that have caused major emotional conflict. Once, I had a client decline to hire me because “her daughter would help her,” only to have said daughter call me 18 months later in tears because her relationship with her mother had eroded in this highly emotional process– and they still hadn’t gotten the house cleared. Keep in mind these logistics can be complicated when adult children are working, have families of their own, or live out of town. Exercise clear and firm boundaries about what you can contribute financially, emotionally, and in commitment of your time. 

Then, the first professional I would look to for filling any gaps is a senior move manager. Of all the many resources available to support and assist you along the way, a move manager is one resource that is not always well known and can be extremely beneficial. Our services often include:

  • Decluttering and organizing services
  • Donations, consignment, and online auction services
  • Move management services (including developing a floor plan)
  • Packing services
  • Unpacking services

The great news is that a seasoned move manager will often have a network of related professionals in their toolkit if other services are needed, including an international network of providers just like them if a move will take your loved one out of town. Other professionals who may be called in to support the transition include realtors, movers, home maintenance services, appraisers, and haulers.

PHASE TWO – GET IN MOTION

This is the phase where you finally begin to attack the nooks and crannies and deal with the physical stuff. The decluttering process in particular usually takes time. The earlier you can get started, the easier it will be. 

Organize and Declutter

Every area of the home needs to be reviewed, including every drawer and closet, the attic, the basement, and garage. Your loved ones may be sorting through items that belong to not just them but also to you. Working through memorabilia, clothes, sports equipment, and so forth can be quite overwhelming! Usually when people work on Phase Two on their own, they fixate on what is not needed. This is the exact opposite approach from what we recommend to our clients! Keep a focus on what MUST move to the new space, instead of what must be released. 

If your loved ones are like the rest of us, they will most likely need assistance and support as they determine what to donate, consign, sell, and throw away. Because decision-making on this scale can often be emotionally charged, a neutral third party who can exercise patience while continuing to drive the process forward is often a critical resource in the decluttering process. This individual should also be prepared to help physically consolidate and clear areas as they are reviewed.

Floor Plan

A floor plan is an extremely useful tool in this phase. We recommend getting as much information as possible about the new space and its storage capacity. Be realistic about how and where items will be stored in the new home. The size of your current furniture items may not work in a space with reduced square footage— just because you already own a dining room table, doesn’t mean it will work in your new home. The floor plan can illustrate the scale and traffic patterns that are ideal. 

Ask the community questions about shared supplies and other amenities. We once worked with a client who was planning to move a piano across the country because he loved to play. We talked to the community and learned that they had three pianos onsite that were available for any resident to enjoy. That simple question saved our client the cost of moving a piano across the country! Things like books, games, and fitness equipment are often provided within the community and do not need to be moved. The average household will be downsized by 70% during a senior move. 

PHASE THREE – WHAT TO DO WITH ALL OF THE STUFF

The good news is, there are really only four possible options for your possessions: 

  • They can move with you because they will serve you in your new space. 
  • They can be gifted or donated.
  • They can be sold.
  • They can be disposed of.

Prepack

Grab a stack of sticky notes and identify what is moving, indicating whenever possible where the item will be placed in the new space. Take photos of the layout if necessary so that storage areas can be repeated in the new home. Replicating existing household systems can give a sense of familiarity to storage areas, e.g.: batteries are always located to the left of spare lightbulbs on the same shelf. 

The rest of Phase Three can happen before or after the move. 

Gifts

After your loved ones have determined what pieces will be moving to their new home, they may offer remaining items to members of the family or friends. Occasionally, gifting and item makes it easier to let go. For this reason, my rule of thumb is: say “Yes” and accept a gift whenever possible, especially if it’s small. Acknowledge the spirit in which it was given and know that once it’s yours, you may choose to do whatever you wish with it… including dropping it off at the nearest donation center.

Donate

Now is the time to dispose of all those items that have been sorted through and the furniture and household goods that are not being kept but may be useful to someone else. A donation to charity is often the simplest solution. Don’t forget that your loved ones will need help in getting items to their final destination and coordinating any hauling services, antique appraisals, donations of unique items to nonprofit organizations, pickups, and so forth. Allow time for this step as it may take multiple car trips, be subject to scheduling on other’s time frames, and involve researching charitable organizations and hauling services. 

Consign and Sell

A note about the value of our things… In my experience, the stuff is an obstacle, not an asset. I’ve seen too many circumstances of people getting hung up on the value of their goods to the detriment of their transition. The reality is that values on the resale market have plummeted in recent years. Do not expect to earn significant money off the secondhand sale of your household possessions; focus on freeing up the primary asset— the house— to prepare for its sale. 

There are many options if you are looking to sell household items: specialty consignment boutiques (which are usually extremely selective and will only take a small number of items), local auction houses or estate sale companies, online auction services, and local online DIY selling platforms like Facebook Marketplace and NextDoor (which can be labor intensive for the seller). There are pros and cons to each option; it’s helpful to talk through with a professional to decide what is the best solution for your family. The only selling method I strongly advise against is having a yard sale.

It’s normal to feel overwhelmed. We often say that these transitions are not simply physical moves, but major emotional journeys. The best strategy is to give yourself ample time to work through each of these Phases, and reach out for help should you need it.

Mindy's Headshot: certified professional organizerBy: Mindy Godding
She is a Certified Professional Organizer and co-founder of Abundance Organizing, an A+ Accredited organizing and senior move management firm with three locations across central and eastern Virginia. For more information, visit: www.abundanceorganizing.com