Limiting stress when downsizing a home

Ask anyone who’s done it: moving is one of life’s most stressful events, and for older adults it is particularly challenging. Last week some older folks picked up a few tips on how to help make this mostly inevitable fact of life a little less jarring.

Greg Gunderson, owner of Gentle Transitions, a company that aims to “make the delicate act of senior relocation less daunting and more doable,” spoke for about an hour to a group at Mt. San Antonio Gardens in Claremont. The takeaway was that it just doesn’t have to be that hard.

“Every item has a story,” he said. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you should hold onto it forever.

Gentle Transitions, and companies like it, help folks decide what’s worth keeping, what makes sense in their new, usually smaller space, and what items should be sold, donated or given away.

“It’s not just a physical change of place, it’s an emotional one,” Mr. Gunderson said.

He identified four key challenges that often cause difficulty: Emotional stress; moving from a larger to smaller home; health issues from the physical strain of moving; and limited availability of family to help.

A poll taken at the event showed that many in the audience had been in their current homes for more than 40 years. That’s a lot of time for “stuff” to accumulate.

Check out a personal column about rightsizing

The objectives of hiring a company to help with the difficult undertaking include identifying challenges particular to the person and their new/old home; to let customers know they’re not alone and that help is available; and to determine what possessions are practical, sentimental, both and/or neither.

Here’s how it works: Prior to moving day the company sends out employees to help determine what should and shouldn’t come with them to their new home, what should be given away to friends, family or charity, what should be sold at a yard sale or online site, and what should be recycled or thrown away. He advised using colored stickers or Post-It Notes to identify items to denote what goes and what stays.

They then help to pack up the home, and on moving day guide movers, help unpack boxes, hang pictures, hang clothes in closets, assemble and make up beds, and deal with trash and recyclables.

Among the many tips Mr. Gunderson had for the 50 or so folks at the event, was to “bring items that make sense in your new space.” He added that it’s smart to bring existing furniture instead of piling on more stress by having to furnish a new home. He also said it’s helpful to start slowly by packing up easy, obvious items first.

Items such as holiday decorations that may hold special sentimental significance can be hard to part with. “But they’re just as important,” he said. “You just need to be smart about how much space you have in your new home.”

If you’re feeling the pull of an item, but not quite enough to keep it, Mr. Gunderson suggested to simply take a photo of it and if someday you’re feeling nostalgic, you’ll have the photo to look back on. 

Speaking of photos, this was also among his pointers. “Moving is not the time to look through family photos,” he said. “It will just bog you down. Do it before or after the move.”

Most people who’ve lived somewhere for a decade or more—and especially folks who’ve been in their home for more than 40 years, like some in the audience had—will accumulate a mountain of clothes. “And most people only wear 20 percent of the clothes in their closet,” Mr. Gunderson said.

Prior to moving, he advised, cut down on clothes by reducing duplicates and eliminating items that no longer fit. A clever way to determine what stays and what goes is, in advance of your move, to turn the hangers around on which all your clothes hang in the closet, so the open part of the hanger is facing you. As you wear items and return them to the closet, turn the hangers back to normal position. When it’s time to pack, you’ll see what you actually wear, what’s not being used, and pack accordingly.

For paper records, he suggested you consult your tax advisor to see what financial documents you should keep. Of the remainder, he said a good rule of thumb is to use the “O.H.I.O.” method—Only Handle It Once—when determining what you will keep, shred or recycle.

And with respect to shredding, he cautioned against using a personal shredding machine from an office supply store. Those devices are for low-volume, everyday jobs, and will likely fail when presented with decades of paper records. He advised hiring a company to shred your documents for you.

“You’ll also come across surprises” while packing, he said. “Some are sentimental, some historical, and some will be humorous.” He then held up an item from one of his company’s moving jobs, a book, Sex After 60, and fanned it open to reveal a couple hundred blank pages.

“And it says here it’s been translated into 16 languages,” he joked.

The bottom line, Mr. Gunderson said, was that “Moving is not easy, but it’s completely doable.

“Many people are actually revitalized, and say they wish they’d done it sooner. Many times people have come to me and said they feel liberated by not having so much stuff.”

—Mick Rhodes


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