In the summer of 2010, my parents realized that the 2100 square foot home they built when I was in the 4th grade had become more than they needed. My brother and I were living out of state, and mom and dad were looking ahead to retiring and moving to their quaint cottage in northern Michigan. My husband Luke and I volunteered to help them downsize to a temporary rental house. If I had to pick two words to summarize the process, they would be “emotionally stressful.”
Moving: the act of simply transferring all your things from one home to another is challenging. A downsizing move, though, is: Even. More. Stressful! I’m guessing my parents were worried they were taking this step prematurely. I, on the other hand, was incredibly grateful they had the forethought to start the process prior to retirement! To be fair regarding the timing of their downsize, my mom had been involved in a severe motorcycle accident in 2005 that made caring for a home their size a daunting task. Despite this, however, they were reluctant to let their beloved home go. Ultimately, their dream of living on the lake helped them take the leap, but that didn’t mean it was going to be smooth sailing. And, like many people facing a downsizing transition, they wanted to take care of it on their own instead of hiring help with the process. As Luke and I soon learned, trying to care for your parents while simultaneously downsizing them is incredibly difficult to do...peacefully.
When we arrived from out of town to help, my mom and dad were already at odds. Not because they weren’t a good team – actually, they are well-balanced opposites – but simply because they were each processing differently. My mom, more of a “purger,” was able to rationalize what “stuff” to get rid of. To answer “Should we keep this?” she asked herself, “Will we use it? Do either of the kids want it?” If the answer was NO to both questions, then she was motivated to find a place where she could donate the items.
My dad, a sweet ol’ teddy bear, bless his heart, is a “saver.” Consequently, because their house had always “had the space,” he had agreed over the years to store items of sentimental value for our immediate and extended family. This included things like my uncle’s art students’ paintings and sketches, and a lot of my grandmother’s belongings that she hadn’t felt prepared to part with when she downsized decades earlier and moved to Arizona. Needless to say, the process felt very different for both of them.
My favorite anecdote from our time helping them was the moment when we finally got my dad to part with both his old motorcycle magazines and a heavily dented file cabinet (or so we had thought!). When we weren’t looking, my dad literally tiptoed down the driveway to retrieve both the magazines (“I will read during retirement”) and the file cabinet (“What?! It still works”). Ha!
I share this not entirely to poke fun at my dad, I mean that sincerely. I share this because people and clients rationalize all kinds of items to keep in the process of downsizing. That said, Dad was able to continue purging effectively and didn't constantly justify unneeded “keeps,” so we were able to make progress and accomplish the move in a few days. It was more effective for me to assist my mom while Luke, who could offer a more objective perspective, worked with my dad.
The silver-lining in all of this we didn’t recognize at the time was that Luke and I were actually completing our very first downsize long before we realized that this was something we wanted do for a living. Appropriately, we were experiencing firsthand the emotions and stress that accompany downsizing transitions, and this was laying the groundwork for us to be able to compassionately help clients and their families in the future.
Among other things, the process taught us that it's often not the most unique or sentimental items a client insists go into the “keep” pile, and we learned how much of a difference having an “outside voice” can make for a family trying to help a loved one downsize. Now, as professional, experienced downsizers, we provide that important outside perspective and consistently remind clients that we are taking care of their stuff so that they can take care of their loved ones.
When you find yourself downsizing your own loved ones, one of the most important things to remember is that, despite any difficult emotions, life experiences have taught your parent(s) to be resilient and, deep down, they know that everything is temporary (transitions included). They will be able to get through it. And, if you can laugh every now and then throughout the process, everything will go a little more smoothly. We’ve kept this in mind with every client we’ve ever had, beginning with my parents. Here’s hoping they “approve this message.”
Love you, Mom and Dad.