How to Help Your Parents Downsize, From Tough Talks to Moving Trucks

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April Cassidy had the perfect plan to help her in-laws downsize into their new home. In the weeks before their move-out date, she would help them declutter, organize, and pack up just enough belongings to fit into the smaller residence. Even though she expected a challenging and emotional process, she was confident that they could pull it off.

…Until a misstep changed everything.

Cassidy discovered that her in-laws had miscommunicated the move-out date with their buyer, who expected to move into the home in a matter of days, not weeks.

In a panic, “we got everything loaded on a U-Haul and then just stacked it all in a few sheds in the [new] backyard and throughout the house in closets . . . Many of the boxes sat unopened until my in-laws both passed away 13 years later,” shares Cassidy, regretting that the family never got around to decluttering after the expedited move.

As Cassidy’s story goes to show, even the best downsizing plans can go awry, creating stress for senior parents and adult children alike. If you’re helping your parents downsize, you’ll need a solid plan, plenty of lead time, and heightened emotional awareness to carry out this move.

With expert advice from three downsizing professionals, we’ll help you prepare for every phase of your parents’ downsize, including how to:

  • Approach the downsizing conversation
  • Hire a real estate agent with experience helping seniors
  • Find the perfect home for your parents’ needs
  • Declutter your parents’ current home
  • Help your parents move to their new home
  • Celebrate your parents’ downsize together
Coffee cups used by a parent and a child discussing downsizing.
Source: (Ian Taylor / Unsplash)

Bring up downsizing early and compassionately

Many adult children dread initiating the downsizing conversation, worried that the suggestion will offend or upset their parents. If you’re feeling hesitant to reach out, just remember that the downsizing will be easier for everyone if you start the process sooner than later.

“We’re reactive instead of proactive. It’s not until a doctor tells an older person that they can’t live alone anymore that the family starts to scramble,” shares Mary Kay Buysse, Executive Director of the National Association of Senior Move Managers.

With over 15 years of experience helping seniors move, Buysse’s biggest tip for adult children is to bring up downsizing with their parents before a life event makes the move necessary. This way, parents have time to explore their feelings about moving, find a smaller home that they love, and maintain more control over the downsizing process. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when discussing downsizing with your parents:

Don’t expect one conversation to convince your parents to downsize

“No one just wakes up one day and decides a home is too big for them,” comments Buysse, sharing that it often takes people time to warm up to the idea.

Break the ice by asking your parents some questions related to downsizing during everyday conversations. This allows them to explore how they feel about downsizing in a non-confrontational way. You can gauge where your parents are at with questions like these:

  • Do you think you would enjoy living in a smaller home that’s easier to maintain?
  • Have you thought about moving into a single-story home in the future?
  • Do you want help going through your garage to donate some items that you don’t need anymore?
  • If you lower your housing costs, what would you enjoy spending the extra money on?

Frame downsizing as a new adventure

When discussing downsizing with your parents, focus on what they would gain by moving, not what they would need to give up.

“This isn’t about shrinking their autonomy or independence. It’s about expanding it,” Buysse reminds.

For example, if your parents struggle to go up and down the stairs, then they might feel like they have more space in an accessible single-story, even if the new home has less square footage. If your parents have given up on their backyard, then they can find a new home with lower maintenance grounds and a sunroom for enjoying potted plants year-round.

Offer to improve your parents current home in the meantime

Even if your endgame is convincing your parents to downsize, you can support them in the meantime by helping improve the safety of their current home. Here are a few easy projects to make your parents’ house more accessible:

  • Install handrails in the shower and bathtub.
  • Remove any rugs that your parents might trip on or struggle to cross when using a walker.
  • Reorganize cabinets by placing your parents’ most used items on the lower shelves.
  • Add a wheelchair lift to the staircase if necessary.

Remember that downsizing is your parents’ decision

While you might think you know what’s best for your parents, remember that it’s ultimately up to them to pull the trigger on downsizing. They have the right to continue living in their home, even if it means they’ll need support from a caregiver to do so.

Hire a senior real estate specialist

When your parents are ready to downsize, partner with a real estate agent who has experience working with seniors. In markets with older populations, you’ll likely have plenty of options. For instance, in Port Charlotte, Florida, top real estate agent Jayson Burtch shares that nearly all agents have experience working with seniors downsizing:

“We do have one of the highest average age populations in the country. Any of our agents are going to be well-experienced in that because it’s probably one-third of our sales.”

To find the best agent for the job, reach out to your network for referrals and discover the top rated real estate agents in your area with HomeLight’s agent finder. Ask your candidates about their previous experiences and approach to working with seniors.

You can also search for real estate agents with the title Seniors Real Estate Specialist (SRES). SRES-certified agents are specially trained in real estate opportunities available to homeowners in the 50+ age demographic. They’ll know the ins and outs of options like reverse mortgages, retirement real estate investing, and federal regulations, including the Housing for Older Persons Act (HOPA).

A parent driving to find a house to downsize in.
Source: (Samuel Couto / Unsplash)

Help your parents house hunt, keeping their future needs in mind

Even limiting their search to smaller properties, your parents will have plenty of options to choose from for their next home. Consider the following factors when helping your parents determine the best home for their lifestyle:

  • Affordability: Before buying a new place, your parents should have a good idea of what they can afford by factoring in their retirement savings, monthly budget, and estimated earnings from their current home for sale.
  • Accessibility: Ideally, you should narrow your search to single-story homes or multi-story buildings with an elevator. You should also look for homes with entrances that are flat or accessible by ramp. This way, your parents can easily move through their home even if their health changes in the future.
  • Maintenance: Does your mom want a small garden to put around in? Would your dad prefer to have a heated driveway that he doesn’t need to shovel? Discuss how much maintenance your parents can handle a month, keeping in mind that if they overestimate, you might need to pick up the slack down the line.

Next, consider which type of housing your parents are open to purchasing or renting. Here’s an overview of the pros and cons of the most common options:

  • Single story, single-family home: Your parents will enjoy the privacy and independence of owning a full lot. They can modify the home as they please and remain in control of scheduling necessary repairs and upgrades. However, a single-family home will require more maintenance and upkeep costs than alternative property types.
  • Condominium: Condos require less maintenance than a single-family home, with HOA’s managing amenities such as the pool, gym, and common entertaining spaces. On the flip side, your parents will not have total freedom to modify the property and will need to abide by community rules, including pet policies. They also may share a wall with the neighbors, reducing their privacy.
  • Apartment: If your parents rent an apartment, their landlord will take care of most property maintenance. However, your parents will have less freedom to modify their living space and may be subject to rent increases over time, depending on local laws.

Start decluttering as soon as possible

Start helping your parents reduce their belongings before they find their next home. In Burtch’s experience, it takes downsizers on average three months to prepare their home for sale due to the extensive decluttering they need to tackle beforehand.

Since decluttering can be an emotionally and physically taxing task for many seniors, Buysse advises families to view decluttering as a process, not a single event:

“If you expect to accomplish what took your parents 40 years to build up in a home in a single weekend, you’re really minimizing that person’s life,” she comments.

Devise a weekly plan to break up the work

Whether you have three months or three weeks to declutter your parents house, you’ll want to break the project up into manageable chunks over several weekends and weeknights. Downsizing expert Emma Healy, founder of Little House, Lovely Home, recommends that adult children set weekly “cleaning dates” with their parents.

“Letting my parents know ahead of time when I would be arriving and which tasks we were going to tackle each day made it easier,” Healy shares, adding that the appointment system brought stability to an emotional and often unpredictable decluttering process.

Once you have a schedule down, start decluttering spaces with the least emotional value first such as linen cabinets. Let your parents choose which rooms to tackle next, working your way up to the more difficult rooms in the house. By securing easy “wins” early on, your parents will gain confidence by the sense of progress, as well as emotional stamina, making it easier to approach more sentimental areas such as bedrooms and keepsake boxes.

Sell and donate unwanted items in good condition

Help your parents sell furniture, appliances, and other home goods of substantial value on websites, such as Craigslist, OfferUp, and Facebook Marketplace. You can put the money from the sold items towards your parents’ moving expenses down the line.

Before listing antiques and collectibles online, take them to an appraiser or auction house to determine how much these items are worth. You can also donate items of historical significance to your area’s historical society.

Donate any remaining items to charities such as Goodwill and the American Red Cross. You can also list these items on your local “Buy Nothing” group or leave them on the curb with a “free” sign.

Rent a dumpster if you anticipate a high volume of waste

If you anticipate bags on bags of trash, consider renting a dumpster from a reputable company such as Junk King or Waste Management. According to HomeAdvisor, the average cost to rent a dumpster ranges between $292 and $483.

Don’t rush paring down the “maybe” pile

“Haste almost always comes with regret,” reminds Buysse, advising families to go easy on seniors who are struggling to decide what to keep.

To help move the process along, establish a box or two for “maybe” items. Go through the box with your parents at the end of every other week, giving them time to process what they actually need. Pack all remaining “maybe” items into a labeled box before your parents move into their new place. Once they settle in, you can bring out the box to help them make some final decisions.

A measuring tape used when downsizing.
Source: (Charles Deluvio / Unsplash)

Help your parents further reduce their belongings before moving

Once your parents purchase their next home, you’ll have a better idea of how much space they’ll have for their pared down possessions. If your parents still have too much stuff, try to work with them to reduce what they own even further.

Start by measuring your parents’ new home, including the dimensions of closets and cabinetry. Then calculate how many packed boxes will fit in each storage unit. This estimation helps give your parents a rough idea of how many boxes they should take with them to their new home.

When possible, avoid the temptation to rent a storage unit for items that don’t fit in the new home. You’ll pay for the short term convenience in the long run, as Buysse explains:

“It’s maybe $150 a month, but you just never sort through that stuff. You end up spending $10,000 over five years until you throw it all out.”

Organize your parents’ move and protect your sanity

Now that you’ve completed decluttering, it’s time to plan moving logistics. Don’t underestimate this final battle — you’ll need to stay organized and alert to help your parents pull off a successful transition.

As soon as you know the moving date, research and hire a professional moving company. If possible, try to book their earliest window available on the day to avoid delays. Next, start packing your parents’ least used items first, such as seasonal clothes, holiday decorations, and hobby supplies.

As the moving day approaches, begin to pack more frequently used items such as spare towels, kitchenware, and bathroom products. Label every box with the following information to streamline the unpacking process:

  • Destination room (i.e., living room, master bedroom, etc.)
  • Weight: heavy, light, medium
  • Fragile (if needed)
  • Bullets of main contents inside

A few days before the move, help your parents pack suitcases with their essential items, including a few days worth of clothes, hygiene products, medications, and important documents. This way, they have easy access to their daily-use possessions as soon as they arrive at the new home.

Prepare for an emotional ride

Even as a moving expert, Healy wasn’t immune to the emotional rollercoaster of moving day. To make the move easier for her parents, Healy insisted that they focus on unpacking at their new home while she and her brother ferried items back and forth. Nonetheless, emotions ran high as Healy’s parents came to grips with the downsize.

“I was prepared for it,” remembers Healy. “I let my mom and dad say whatever they wanted without saying something back. It was a grieving process. That’s for sure.”

No matter how much you and your parents prepare for the downsize, the moving process may stir stress, sadness, remorse, and other emotional responses. Remain sensitive and supportive during the final leg of this life event.

A restaurant near a parent's downsized home.
Source: (Siyuan / Unsplash)

Celebrate your parents’ downsize as they begin settling in

Once your parents have unpacked, it’s time to celebrate. Make plans with them to explore the local hubs and help them get involved in their community.

If you sense your parents are still struggling with the transition, stay patient, and remind them of the benefits that they’ve gained through downsizing. Healy shares that her parents turned a corner once they realized how little they needed to maintain their new home:

“I made sure we reinforced the benefits of the smaller home with less maintenance and a small garden. We were careful to use positive language and continually mention the good points about the new house.”

The key to helping senior parents downsize: compassion

When helping your parents downsize, remember to start the process early, remain patient, reinforce positive sentiments, and stay organized. Most importantly, remember that this is your parents’ move, not yours.

“It’s one of the few things they have control of left. And when you’re taking that away, it can be a very emotional process,” reminds Burtch.

Ultimately, it’s their decision whether they’re ready or not to downsize, when they choose to pull the trigger, and what possessions to keep or discard in the process. As their child, work with them to make the process smoother while also giving them the space to make their own decisions.

Header Image Source: (fizkes / Shutterstock)