Since the physical down-sizing process is by far the most daunting part of making a later-life move, here are some suggestions for starting the process of going through years of accumulated belongings.

Many of these ideas come from my experience with helping my parents; they downsized after 34 years.

These insights will help whether you’re the older adult ready to face this task, or an adult child who has offered to help parents with their living transition.

How to get started

Begin in the areas of the house that are currently unused. Many older adults are still living in the same houses where they raised their families.

In most situations, there are areas of the house that are currently not being used – upstairs bedrooms, the basement family room or others.

Start the sorting and clearing process in these rooms, where it’s the least disruptive to everyday life. These areas also often contain lots of items that have not been used in a considerable length of time. They will not be missed when passed on to children, grandchildren, charity or the auction house.

Start with the large items

The rationale for this? It’s easier to start with furniture and the bigger pieces, because we feel like we are making more progress. If we start with the small items, we often get overwhelmed and frustrated before we even get started. With large items, we can either prepare a list of decisions (e.g.: dresser – keep; will work well in a smaller bedroom) or use stickers and mark the items as we decide what to do with each piece.

Sort the items in each room as follows:

  • Items to keep, moving forward into later stages of life (this includes items we aren’t ready to part with or items we definitely want in a new home).
  • Items that will be passed on to family or friends.
  • Items that will be sold via a garage sale or auction.
  • Items that will be given to charity.
  • Items that need to be thrown away.

Again, keep a list of your decisions, separate the items into separate piles or mark the items with stickers.

Get rid of as much as possible through downsizing

What does this mean?

  • This means putting items into garbage bags and setting out the trash for pickup each week.
  • This means calling a charity of choice and arranging for a pickup as soon as there are enough items to justify their making a trip.
  • This means asking loved ones to come get their items or to have their belongings mailed to them.

I always tell people that one of the easiest places to start with clearing a house is telling their family that it’s time to come get their stuff! I had things at my mom and dad’s house from my childhood, that I required my mother keep for me: for years. I made a trip home two years before they moved to collect my belongings from my old upstairs bedroom and closet. Guess what happened? Most of these things didn’t last even six months once they were taking up space in my house! So don’t feel guilty for taking this step. Tell the kids that it’s time to collect the things that they still have stored at your house.

Start clearing a house by telling family that its time to come get their stuff!

Allow plenty of flexibility and time

Plan to spend one or two hours at a time (at most) working through the sorting process. It’s not a task we can do for long periods of time at any age – there are too many emotions and memories stirred up because in essence we are sorting through years of our lives. Allow time for recalling memories, shedding tears as needed and sharing stories with friends and family. Remember to be kind to yourself and flexible in making decisions.

This is a very important and valuable part of the later life transition process. Allow time to remember and to grieve losses. Don’t rush to make too many decisions at once. If time is needed to discuss with family or friends what to do with certain items or belongings, take time to do so. If faced with a difficult decision, set it aside and think about it for awhile. Also remember that changing your mind is acceptable, while it’s still in your possession. Start early and and plan ahead. This allows the ability to work at a pace that is comfortable.

Focus, focus, focus

For many people, starting the sorting and decision-making process is very difficult. The task appears to be so overwhelming! All we can do in this situation is to start somewhere and approach it step-by-step, pile-by-pile until the job is finished.

I stress keeping focused as much as possible because it’s so easy to do a little bit here, a little bit there and never feel like we’re getting anywhere. I see this happen with my clients all the time. I leave them with a list of things to do and return after a week and though they tell me they’ve been very busy, I can’t see that anything has been accomplished. And neither can they. Start working in a specific room or area of this room (say a closet or drawer) if you need to start smaller. Stick with it until it’s finished. You’ll feel better because you’ll see the accomplishment and this provides momentum to continue the sorting and downsizing process.

Remember the goal is to simplify 

I always tell my clients that they don’t need to get rid of everything. They do need to pare down years of accumulated belongings to key items, the favorite things they need or really enjoy. Think about what is really used in your home on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis. I bet you’ll see that this amounts to a fraction of what you have in your house.

Try to think of the sorting and downsizing as a natural process of completing and releasing – like leaves falling from trees in autumn. We can all do this, and believe me, we will feel so good when this job is done and we have a new, clutter-free space in our homes and lives!

Written by Sue Ronnenkamp

Sue Ronnenkamp

Sue Ronnenkamp is a nationally recognized expert in the area of later life and founder and owner of Living Transitions, a business that helps older adults make downsizing moves. Sue also provides educational programs and resources including, Living Transitions: A Step-by-Step Guide for Making a Later Life Move, and Business Starter Kit for Senior Move Consultants.