In 2011, my mother sold our family home. It was a beautiful, spacious house with a big backyard and an inground pool. Saying goodbye was tough for all of us, especially for my mother, who poured her heart and soul into our home for 45 years. The memories were plentiful: birthday parties (for kids and grandkids), bridal showers and post-wedding hangouts, sweet sixteen parties, baby showers, and gathering after funerals. Add to that holiday dinners, nighttime swims, and cozy family room fires, and our home was a hub for sharing happiness, sadness, and everything in between.
About ten years after my father died, our house became too much for my mother to handle. With two pairs of very steep stairs, her ability to move around the house became limited. It was a good time to move, so in a little under a year my 85-year-old mother miraculously and single-handedly downsized from our single-family three-level, four-bedroom family home to a one-bedroom apartment. She parted with so many beloved possessions: the family piano, the dining room set, my father’s desk, the treasured books, the twin beds, and even the bedroom set I got as a hand-me-down from my sister. It all had to go. It was tough, but we managed. My mother moved to a lovely one-bedroom apartment not too far from our house, and she lived there until she passed away in March 2018.
Downsizing brings up all kinds of emotions.
As we age, many of us are making the choice to downsize but may be reluctant to just give or throw away our possessions. There’s a huge emotional connection that can make giving things away difficult.
When her three boys left for college, my sister, Kelly Porter, downsized from a single-family four-bedroom to a moderately-sized townhouse closer to the city. “It was really hard parting with the tricycles, water guns, and all the memorable items from the boys’ earlier years,” she wrote of that time. “The emotional connection was real, and giving a few things away was hard.”
Kelly managed her emotional attachment to items by downsizing in phases. “We packed things up, labeled them, kept them for a while and then revisited each item to make a final decision about whether to keep, donate, sell or dump,” Kelly said. “Working in phases gave us more time to think about what to do with each item.” Once Kelly and her family made the decision about how to handle each item, she wrote a list and put things into categories. One by one, each item found a buyer, beneficiary, or the dump.
Kelly and her husband are now downsized, settled and happy empty nesters.
In the end, Kelly found the process to be very therapeutic. “It was cleansing,” Kelly remembers. “We’d collected so many things over the years and sometimes couldn’t remember where items came from…It really opened my eyes to the things we didn’t need.” Ironically, Kelly and her husband now live in a neighborhood that’s minutes away from our childhood home. “The move has been wonderful. I love being in familiar surroundings but on a smaller scale. No more grass cutting. Less cleaning. Reduced bills. And much more time to do the things I love.”
The downsizing dilemma is common.
Between 2012 and 2050, the United States will experience considerable growth in its older population. In 2050, the population aged 65 and over is projected to be 83.7 million, almost double its estimated population of 43.1 million in 2012. The Baby Boomers are largely responsible for this increase in the older population, as they began turning 65 in 2011. By 2050, the surviving Baby Boomers will be over the age of 85. That’s a lot of people who will need help navigating the overwhelming chore of downsizing.
Here are some downsizing tips for empty nesters.
Penny Catterall, a professional organizer in Bethesda, MD finds that clients want to make sure that their belongings find good new homes, or at least don’t end up in a landfill. Here are some of Penny’s recommendations for finding new places for your beloved possessions.
Clothing and Fabric
Everyday clothing – Many charities will happily accept donations of clothing in good shape. You can set up a free account with GoGreenDrop, which coordinates home pick-ups with Purple Heart, National Foundation of the Blind, and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
Business clothing – Career Gear, Dress for Success, and The Alliance of Career Development Nonprofits (ACDN) have affiliates around the country that accept business clothing donations.
Other fabric – For those items that are torn, stained, or otherwise unwearable, please consider recycling them responsibly. Local transfer stations often have a section to recycle fabric, which can become anything from cleaning rags and carpet padding to rubberized playgrounds and insulation. In addition, companies like Northface, Patagonia, and H&M have fabric and shoe recycling and reuse initiatives that aim to limit the amount of clothing that ends up in landfills.
Old linens, towels, and pillows – Think about donating these to your local animal shelter. They can be used to line pet cages, dry off wet animals, provide bedding, and cover kennel doors for animals that need some alone time. Check with your shelter first, as not all of them accept these items.
Household Goods and Furniture
For items in good condition that may have some monetary value, try selling on a local neighborhood listserv (many neighborhoods now have Yahoo Groups to communicate among themselves) or through an app called Close5 that allows you to buy and sell items locally (transactions only occur in safe public spaces).
If it’s more trouble than it’s worth to sell your items, there are many places to donate used furniture and household goods. Check your local thrift store or church, or donate to Goodwill or a similar organization. Freecycle is also a great option for easy local reuse and recycling.
For out-of-date or non-working electronics or computers and peripherals, Best Buy is your best bet. All US Best Buy stores offer in-store recycling of old, unused or unwanted consumer electronics, regardless of where they were purchased. See here for a full list of what they accept.
If you have a working computer, there are often local establishments that rehab and upgrade computers for people with limited income. The Apple Store recycles used Macs and other iOS devices in return for an Apple gift card.
For books in decent condition (no mold, mildew, yellowing or torn pages), consider donating them to your local Friends of the Library or thrift store. Goodwill and most other charities will take book donations as well. In the DC area, try Books for America, which does home pickups if you have more than 50 books to donate.
If you are disposing of a significant number of items and would rather have someone come in and just take care of everything for you, your best bet might be an estate sale. Estate and downsizing sales sell just about anything and everything, including everyday items like tools and appliances. You can also take advantage of technology and use an online downsizing and estate sale auction company like MaxSold.
Apps that Might Help
Decluttr is an easy way to sell items like DVDs, textbooks, video games, cell phones, and Legos. Decluttr is very easy to use. You just pack up and ship your items (free shipping), Decluttr conducts valuation and then sends you payment the next business day.
Letgo is a simple way to sell items from your mobile phone. You just take a picture of your items to quickly list and sell them.
Poshmark lists adult and children’s clothing. They even send you a free shipping label when you make a sale.
VarageSale can be used to sell smartphones, electronics, furniture, or any other item that you would typically sell at a garage sale.
If You Need to Trash it
If you have a lot of junk you want to get rid of, contact your municipal trash service to see if they provide bulk curbside pickup services. Or, depending on where you live, you could hire a company like 1-800-Got-Junk or Junk-King to come and haul it away for a moderate fee. Another good disposal option is Bagster by Waste Management. This is a dumpster bag that you purchase for around $30, fill to a limit of 3,300 pounds, and schedule for pickup, which costs an average of $140 (but varies by area).