As we walk outdoors to inhale the crisp fresh air, we see autumn all around us. Fluttering leaves, gently dropping off the trees, colors fading, shorter days and cooler nights. Change is all around us. It is the one constant in this journey called life. Those of us who have retired, have watched our children grow up and become adults, raising their own families. We have bid goodbye to our corporate careers. Ready or not, we are challenged to look closely at where we live, what our future needs will be, and how to make changes for ourselves that will least impact our adult children.
We may think that we are perfectly capable of managing big houses, yards, pools, and stairs. But that is foolish. Instead, we need to realize that we have too much property and probably too many possessions. We need to downsize. We need to let go of “stuff,” to prepare for the move, and to go through this process leisurely and as painlessly as possible. Waiting until the last minute when the moving van is already in the driveway makes no sense.
While my husband and I consider ourselves healthy, except for a few joint or back issues, we decided to be pro-active. Our name has been on a list for over a year at a lovely retirement facility where we hope to move into a cottage, rather than an apartment. The wait is long for a cottage, as they are fewer and in greater demand. Having observed the frenzy and angst of friends who had to hurry up and downsize after receiving the call to move, we decided to begin now.
Luckily, we hired a team of wonderful young women whose leader founded a business geared to help with the downsizing process. Kristen Zigler, owner of MINIMA in Richmond, Virginia, is a trained architect and downsizing specialist. She has a natural gift for organization, evaluating space, and, most importantly, working with her clients. She is sensitive to the emotion associated with letting go of precious things. She gently leads her clients to make decisions, to evaluate what is critical to their lives. Her competent team can look at a room, an attic, or a basement, and discern how to dispose of heaps of “stuff.” Even after keeping our house for 59 years and moving 12 times during my husband’s corporate career, I have been stunned and awed by watching them work. The day that Kristen gave me a pile of papers to sort from a basement desk produced a surprise – my 1953-1954 College Entrance Exam Practice Test booklet. Now, who would have thought that after all these moves all over the country and even to Canada, this treasure would surface?
Help in downsizing, such as the service that Kristen provides, is not cheap, but for most people is worth every penny. In our case, she and her staff have hauled away bags and bags and bags of usable stuff for donating to Good Will and other worthy charitable organizations. So far, we have not opted to sell anything, but that time will come when we tackle furniture. They have put all our CDs and DVDs into binders, thus eliminating the need for the original cases and boxes. Instead of six cupboards of music and DVDs, only one or two cupboards are in use. Eventually, we will digitize all family photos, and make copies for all four of our married children. Twenty six bags of books have found new homes, and we have kept only those nearest and dearest to our hearts.
Whenever family members visit (we have four married children, nine grandchildren and one great-grandson), I tell them to walk around the house and decide what appeals to them. I keep a notebook, a page per person. Together we write down what each one loves and would genuinely enjoy having. So far this is working well. And so far there is not pressure from us to take anything that I might consider a family heirloom. I recognize that the era of sterling silver and beautiful linens has passed, and treasures for one generation may be junk for another.
Recently I read an article in the Wall Street Journal presenting the horrors of baby boomer parents “stealthily dumping” possessions onto their adult children. Opportunity to evoke resentment? Of course! How presumptuous that is, and how thoughtless. Better to donate to the Salvation Army or Good Will where someone will unearth an unexpected treasure that will be truly appreciated. For important pieces, find a reputable antique dealer or collector who will try to sell your unneeded items. Remember, there is always eBay, Craigslist, and garage sales.
But, letting go is hard. Change is hard. All the dynamics of later life and moving into another home are fraught with deep emotion. Adult children should offer empathy for their parents. Perhaps my husband and I are lucky since our children experienced change early in life. We presented each move as an adventure.
My advice is to take advantage of all the help you can find. Gently remind yourself and your families to listen without judging. Don’t fault your adult child or your parent because he or she doesn’t see things through your lens. Instead, reach out with a hug and an understanding smile. After all, if we are lucky and healthy enough, we will all learn how to adjust.
Joy Nevin is the author of Joy of Retirement – Live, Love, and Learn.