Senior Living Guide to Downsizing and Decluttering
By 2060, the senior population in the U.S. is estimated to rise to 94.7 million. A relatively steady increase in adults aged 65 and up has been observed over the years — with only a small number of those individuals residing in nursing homes. Most older adults live with a spouse or alone.
This inevitably means that some of these residences are unfit for certain circumstances that come along with aging, such as:
- Changes in pay due to retirement;
- Adult children moving out;
- Health issues affecting mobility;
- New priorities, such as traveling.
If you are considering downsizing for any of the above reasons, there are a variety of routes to take.
Types of Downsizing
Downsizing refers to reducing any physical items — from residential property to cluttered belongings. While there is no minimum amount that you must purge, downsizing usually consists of a considerable decrease in space. There are several ways to accomplish a downsize — regardless of how dramatic of a sacrifice you’re planning to make.
Moving to a Smaller House
The options for transitioning to a smaller space as an older adult are much the same as any other situation in which you would downsize your home. Traditionally, homeowners will put their home on the market and start to scour other real estate listings for a smaller home. This takes time, planning, and a certain amount of luck.
Some other, less-traditional options for a smaller house include:
- Tiny houses are typically constructed similarly to full-size houses, but designed to provide a smaller yet comfortable living space.
- Barndominiums — also known as “barndos” — are beginner-friendly, modular houses made from steel or wood and customized to your unique preferences.
- Houseboats are just how they sound — houses inside boats — and a nice option for anyone that loves fishing or water activities.
- Treehouses are also self-explanatory, but they are a more grown-up version of the huts in foliage you may be used to as a kid.
- Cabins come in all shapes and sizes, but they are characterized by their style and proximity to lakes or forests.
- RVs are recreational vehicles that can be retrofitted — or designed — to accommodate a small living space.
Whichever option you go for, it’s important to do your research on the details of building or purchasing one of the above home types. For instance, barndominiums differ from traditional houses in cost, longevity, building time, and more. Barndos are generally made from steel, and this changes the preparations you will have to make concerning plumbing, maintenance, and electrical wiring. However, they offer much of the comfort and usability of a traditional home, coming in one- or two-story barn styles.
Also, consider how much effort you are willing and able to put into construction. If you’re worried about physical demand, look into getting something turnkey — or a pre-made barn that can be assembled by contractors. Certain building materials, such as steel frames, may also lessen the burden of ongoing maintenance. As you settle into retired life, you want to prioritize ease of living — especially if you are planning to live alone.
Moving in With a Relative
Some senior individuals choose to live within a relative’s residence. This may be for a multitude of reasons, but it is most common when you need extra assistance with daily tasks. If you are close with a family member or friend, you may want to have a chat with them about moving in. They may even offer preemptively.
In any case, make sure to consider all angles of the new living situation. If you need specialized medical treatment, look into hiring someone that can visit the premises as needed. Remember that this is an accommodation that your relative isn’t required to make, but they have allowed you to move in because they love and care about you. This is a great arrangement for some families, providing immediacy and closeness that just isn’t possible in other instances.
Mother-in-Law Suites or “Granny Pods”
Many older adults have adult children, and those adult children often start little families of their own. If you are exploring the possibility of living with relatives, there are several options to do so. Mother-in-Law suites are an uncomplicated solution to a sometimes sticky situation. This type of housing is usually an external building or add-on that is sequestered specifically for an older adult to move in and live independently. Of course, this accommodation can apply to any type of family member — it’s not exclusive to mothers-in-law or grandmother figures.
Most areas have zoning laws that allow for relative housing — whether that be a mother-in-law suite, backyard home, basement apartment, or garage attic. These kinds of specialty buildings offer the seclusion of a separate home while still allowing quick access to the family member when desired or even medically necessary. If this is an option you are considering for your golden years, make sure to:
- Check local laws;
- Have a straight-forward talk with relatives;
- Work out the financial aspects;
- Seek help managing complicated relationships.
It’s possible that this arrangement won’t be suitable for your unique situation, and that’s okay. Luckily, there are other viable downsizing options for older adults to consider.
Living communities are sometimes specifically tailored to retired and older adults. Many of these complexes are indistinguishable from their regular counterparts — aside from the 55 and up restriction on the age of tenants. Oftentimes, retirement communities even come with perks such as:
- Recreational, social, and education activities;
- On-call healthcare and assisted living integration options;
- Shuttles and other transportation;
- Payment plans and lower costs based on retirement or disability income.
If you value independent living, retirement communities could be a perfect option. The perks they offer are unmatched, especially if you enjoy interacting with others. Communities will often offer a variety of activities, such as shuttles to local venues and shops. There are over 28,000 residential care communities in the U.S., so choose the one that most closely meets your needs. The choice to live in a retirement community will depend on your specific care needs, but apartment-style living is a nice way to downsize from a larger home going into your later years — while retaining your independence.
Assisted Living or Nursing Homes
If you have health conditions that require a high level of assistance, you may be considering making the move to somewhere with assisted living. Further, you could look into nursing homes. Nursing homes and assisted living facilities differ in their setup slightly. Nursing homes are typically in a more clinical setting than assisted living, which provides care in a home-like setting.
It’s a personal choice, but remember that it may be quite an adjustment if you are downsizing from a large, open home. You may not be used to people entering your quarters at will, and it may take some getting used to. That’s normal, and seeking help adjusting is not only common but encouraged.
How Do You Know It’s Time To Downsize
If you’re entering into the later years of your life, you may be contemplating downsizing but unsure of the timing. Like anything else in life, there are no clear-cut answers on how to make life-altering decisions. However, you may start exploring the possibility of downsizing by asking yourself:
- Do I have unused rooms?
- Can I afford to stay in my current home for five, 10, or 20 more years?
- Is my yard easy to maintain?
- Do I feel isolated?
- Do I have too much stuff to manage?
- Do I have a lot of equity in my home?
To the last point, the amount of money you owe toward your mortgage may help determine your decision to downsize. If you owe more than the appraised value of your home, this is called negative equity or being “underwater”. The good news is there are ways to refinance or have a short sale.
You’ll know when it’s time to downsize, because the larger home will not make sense for your lifestyle anymore. Financial considerations are important, but your priority should always be your health and safety. Help is available for this sort of situation, so do some research to find organizations in your area.
Considerations of Downsizing
The choice to downsize is a big step. Big steps inevitably come with challenges — physical and mental. If you have decided to move into a smaller space, make sure to remember:
- The square footage and how much space you need for mobility and possessions;
- The number of belongings that you can pare down;
- The emotional toll or stress it could bring — and some coping mechanisms to have ready;
- How to keep a positive mindset when minimizing space/things;
- To enlist the help of family and friends to lessen the burden;
- That it’s okay to spend extra time with your treasures and memories;
- To focus on what you’re gaining, not losing;
- To consider a storage unit or building for valuable items you don’t have a place for but want to keep;
- The value of staying organized.
The more effort you put into easing the process, the less stressful it will be. A little bit of pre-planning goes a long way when downsizing. The number of items you own now will usually outweigh what you can keep, so having an idea of how to organize and deal with those items will ensure a smoother ride.
Creating a System and Best Practices
Decluttering seems simple on the surface — getting rid of excess items. However, preparing yourself for the unexpected is the best practice for a large downsize. Here are some ideas for creating a strategy beforehand:
- Make a list of questions to ask yourself about items.
This may include questions about sentimental value, resale value, usability, and other parameters to determine whether to toss or keep items.
- Sort by items that you intend to keep, toss, and give away — nix the “maybes”.
You are taking a step backward by creating piles of items that you need to decide what to do with. This is something that you may intend to do later, but it leaves too much room for procrastination. Along the same lines, toss and donate designated items immediately, or you may end up right back where you started.
- Make a floor plan for your new home, and know where things will go.
Even if you don’t have the exact living space picked out, determine your square-footage goal. If it helps, draw it out. You could even measure your current space, outlining the new dimensions and keeping personal items within those bounds. It’s also possible to find creative ways to store items with less space available, so have a few of these strategies up your sleeve if it comes to that point.
- Start small, decluttering one room at a time.
The human brain likes rewards. Dopamine is released when creating situations in which you will earn a positive outcome. Taking care of a chunk of items gives you that motivation to continue the process, because you know the rewarding feeling of finishing the job.
- Prioritize problem areas, and create a timeline.
If you are pressed for time, you may have to stop decluttering and start moving items or tossing them haphazardly. For this reason, it’s best to figure out what areas to focus on and start there. If working with friends and family, draft a timeline together that is distributed to everyone — with clear roles and deadlines.
- Digitize photos and videos, making space while keeping memories.
Many mementos can be converted to a digital format. This may take time — whether you convert them yourself or use a conversion service. However, lugging around those VHS tapes should be a thing of the past. It’s worth it to spend time digitizing photos, videos, files, and more.
Room-by-Room Decluttering: Tips and Tricks
Downsizing and decluttering don’t necessarily mean you have to start living a minimalist lifestyle — although you certainly could do so during this transition. You may, however, want to take some inspiration from minimalism. Regardless of your amount of possessions, there are always tricks to make clearing out clutter easier. Here are some ideas for your downsizing adventure, based on each room:
- Test bulky appliances and toss if they are broken or rarely used.
- Transfer bulk items from large packaging to easy-access storage.
- Make use of cabinet space in the new, smaller space.
- Get creative with a small bathroom space — think over-the-sink and over-the-toilet shelving.
- Consolidate almost-empty bottles of toiletries into one reusable bottle.
- Use kitchen organizers under your sink for decluttering hair dryers, products, etc.
- Take advantage of any open space, such as closet shelves and under the bed.
- Keep only items you use as part of your nightly routine in the bedroom.
- Look into vacuum-sealing machines to save space and preserve any seasonal clothing items.
- Basements, Attics, and Garages
- Don’t use these spaces to dump extra stuff that you don’t know what to do with.
- Create usable, liveable spaces in each to avoid placing storage items there.
- If you don’t use it at least yearly, throw it out or donate it to someone who will.
- Home Office
- Digitize important documents.
- Buy a cord organizer.
- Organize books and files alphabetically or by color — your choice, but have a system. Toss anything that doesn’t fit in the system.
- Living Room(s)
- Invest in furniture that doubles as storage.
- Make it a habit to keep zero to two items only on all flat surfaces — like coffee tables and TV stands.
- Digitize movies and home videos.
If you find yourself still having trouble minimizing your items, you could hire a professional or consult self-help books on minimalism. The key is to have a plan for each item that goes into action as soon as it is set aside.
What To Do With Unwanted Items
Before you even begin to declutter, have a plan for the unwanted items. If they stick around too long, you may be stuck with them for the move to a smaller place. This is counterproductive and will slow things down monumentally. Luckily, there are plenty of options for getting rid of items:
- Selling online and in-person
- Online sales — like Facebook Marketplace, eBay, Poshmark, or Mercari;
- Garage sales and community sales;
- Consignment stores.
- Thrift and second-hand stores;
- Donation services;
- Online donation platforms;
- Shelters for women, homeless, etc.;
- Historical societies.
When gifting items that you previously owned, make sure to disclose that fact to the recipient. They will likely be understanding, and you may even want to ask if they’d like to keep some items before giving them away. Especially within the family, some people may want to keep items with special meaning.
Additional Senior Downsizing Resources
Although the process is daunting, there are helpful resources available to you. Just be wary of any potential scams, and always validate a moving company before utilizing their services. Here are some verified organizations to consider consulting when downsizing as an older adult:
- The National Association of Senior and Specialty Move Managers;
- Moves for Seniors;
- Caring Transitions;
- Moving Station;
- Welcome Home Senior Services and Placement Company;
- MYMOVE™ Senior Downsizing Guide
- Retirement Living reviews of senior communities and services
However you strategize downsizing, just make sure the plan is set in stone. Downsizing is often a time-sensitive practice, so being prepared is essential. Again, enlist the help of family and friends when possible. Know your limits, and know you’re not alone on the journey.