How to Downsize Your Possessions

The goal is to shed unneeded material things but keep alive the treasured memories they symbolize.

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Downsizing a household is a challenge often made harder by the emotional tug of belongings and mementos. Some people are heartbroken at auctioning a cherished item on eBay or selling it on Amazon; others are in denial, and either refuse to move or cart their very own Mt. Memorabilia to a new home. There, the prospect of its eventual disposition looms ever larger, while the abilities of many aging homeowners are moving in the opposite direction.

[See 10 Tips for Caring for Aging Parents.]

Experts say downsizing requires the same type of careful planning and execution as a retirement plan. Because most downsizing efforts are tied to the sale of a home, it is wise to begin the downsizing process as much as a year before you sell your home. "In order to sell a house today, you have to stage it," says University of Kansas gerontologist David Ekerdt. "You have to downsize and take the clutter out of the house before you even put it on the market."

Ekerdt oversees the ongoing Household Moves Project, which identifies people who have downsized or are thinking about it, and interviews them at different times to better understand the process and pressures it brings. While downsizing involves shedding physical possessions, it's the emotional baggage that people most often have trouble letting go of, Ekerdt says.

"Encountering your possessions is really an encounter with yourself and your identity," he says. "And so, you need to decide who you really are, and I think that's the hard thing to face." Are you, for example, ready to be the person who can let go of a wedding gown? "Psychologists call it the 'possible self,'" Ekerdt says. "If you have walls and walls of books, you might have to let go of the possible self that is going to read all those books." To successfully downsize, he says, "something in the individual has to change, and that's the elusive thing we're trying to look for."

[See Smart Tips for Parent-Child Family Finances.]

Disposing of possessions is risky because it exposes people to judgments of others, he says. "You risk a judgment that the things you value are not worth money" to another person. "You can give them away, but there's a risk the receiver won't value them." Hardest of all are the family possessions that are rejected by sons and daughters. "And that's what makes this research entirely interesting," Ekerdt says. "It's about people's stuff, but it's really about their attitudes and values."

The involvement and support of family and friends raises the odds of a successful downsizing experience. Disposing of possessions also frees a person from concerns that treasured items will be figuratively or literally dumped on the street after they die. Or that their children will be forced into an involuntary and unpleasant triage process for personal items and household goods. After downsizing, Ekerdt notes, most people are both happy and relieved. Properly done, letting go of the past can create a more open future and also a healthy commitment to look ahead, not behind.

Trying to identify the "perfect gift" for the "right person" may seem a logical approach to disposing of possessions, but it can greatly slow the process. It also can lead to hurt feelings when the elder person encounters that "special" recipient who is not appreciative of the item or perhaps even of the process. Often, it is more practical to set up a voluntary process: Here's what I'm giving away; let me know if you want it. In this event, researchers advise, let the claimants figure out how to resolve multiple claims for the same items. Forcing the giver to make such decisions is stressful.

[See How to Make Your Home Age-Friendly.]

That's not the only consideration recipients should show. They may have an unusual role in an elder's downsizing process. "The ritual of possession distribution is not complete without acts of reception," according to a recent research paper that Ekerdt co-authored. "Those who accept things are truly donors themselves, because in taking a thing they affirm what the elder is doing and what the gesture means."

Here's a list of "sticky" possessions that people have found hard to part with:

1. Family photos

2. Books

3. Collections

4. Antiques and favored furniture

5. Symbols of other life stages

6. National Geographic magazines

7. Family heirlooms

8. Souvenirs and mementos

9. Clothing

10. Stuff you'd planned to use in the future

Let us know about your sticky possessions or other downsizing tips.

Twitter: @PhilMoeller