The Downside of Downsizing to Someone Else’s Timetable

moving-boxesOne of the saddest things I’ve ever had to do (other than grieving the loss of loved ones) is clean out someone else’s belongings, either due to death or health issues that required emergency relocation.

We’ve been faced with this numerous times…first when my aunt died, then again when my Dad died, and then two years later when my Mom died, then a couple of years later when my brother died. Our last clean-out took 6 months when our elderly neighbours had to move suddenly to a retirement nursing home and left behind a three-story home filled to the rafters with 90+ years worth of living.

It was difficult enough going through things when it was our own family. But it’s so much more difficult going through someone else’s family’s belongings, wondering what to do with the stuff. We knew all too well from all of the other sortings that what might appear to us to not be worth keeping can mean the world to someone else because of the story or nostalgic value attached to it.

Fortunately, the elderly couple did have children who were able to come in occasionally and help sort through the majority of the stuff, and so could at least put aside the things that they definitely wanted to keep. But as we slowly made our way through the other “give-away” piles heaped in corners throughout the house, we were aware that their initial sortings were done quickly and in somewhat of a panic, so there was a fear in us that maybe some of the things in the give-away piles had been tossed aside too quickly. That had happened when we sorted through our family knick-knacks after Mom died…we tossed many things that later we wished we had kept.

So I was very sensitive to this while sorting through our neighbours’ things. I felt very sad and uncomfortable taking box after box to the charity store, knowing that once we laid it on their doorstep, these things would be lost and gone forever. But that was what we had been asked to do, and so we did it.

When my friend Angelika asked if I would discuss the topic of downsizing here, this was the first thing that crossed my mind. While I haven’t done enough research yet to write a full-blown blog on how to choose when and where to downsize from house to alternative living space, I CAN talk about the downsizing from the perspective of cleaning out the “things”, the knick-knacks we’ve been collecting throughout our lives.

Despite having done it so many times in recent years, I’m still no closer to knowing what’s the best way to deal with it in our own home. On the one hand, I really like having my stuff around me, so I don’t feel the least bit motivated to do any “downsizing” right now. And yet, I also don’t want someone else to go through the angst and hard work of sorting through the heaps and piles, boxes and bins of all that we’ve accumulated – much of which came from sorting through the heaps and piles of our loved ones’ accumulations! The truth is that I simply don’t know what to do with it all, so I don’t do anything at all. Some are family heirlooms which I keep only because of the faint possibility that someone in the family might someday want them. Other stuff is more expendable and could be carted off to the curb, but I’m just not feeling even the faintest inkling of energy or motivation to make those decisions right now. But I probably should. If something happens to us, illness or worse, it’s a terrible mess to leave behind for someone else to deal with.

But I still keep putting it off.

Unfortunately, at our age, and with all of the traveling that we do, the reality is that the longer we put if off, the more likely we are putting it off onto someone else’s shoulders. Although our mortgage is fully paid for, and both of us are healthy and strong and we plan to live in our own home for a long time yet to come, we also know all too well, from having suffered through so many untimely deaths in both of our families recently, that nothing is certain.

So what can I say about downsizing? That it has to be done sooner or later, if not by me now, then by someone else later when I might not be able to have any control over where anything goes (unless specified in legal documents – side note: we learned the hard way that everyone should have a will!) I guess I’d rather take the time now, while we’re healthy and physically able to, to choose my own pace and timetable…and direction. I’d rather sort through these heaps and piles of options and knick-knacks myself and decide for myself what to keep and what to toss, than force someone else to have to make those painstaking decisions later…even more-so if those choices include where we’re going to spend those final years of our lives.

Maintaining as much autonomy as possible when it comes to choosing our future living arrangements is especially critical. Having experienced first-hand the panic-driven choices that we’ve seen others have to make at a moment’s notice, it’s clearly more advantageous to invest the necessary time and energy now, while we’re still enjoying the luxury of not having to make hasty decisions, to explore the options and agree on the best choices for whatever specific circumstances we can anticipate (i.e., illness, incapacitation, accessibility, financial constraints, preferred amenities, etc). We’re not at the point of needing to add our names to any waiting lists anywhere, but that’s probably in large part because we don’t really have any place that we want to go badly enough to warrant that action anyway.

But that whole extended issue of knowing how to choose the best alternative living space is beyond the scope of this particular blog (more research needed). So I’ll just leave it as is for now. The bottom line for me personally is that these things won’t sort themselves, no matter how long I ignore the reality that time is ticking. And while we might love being surrounded by these familiar family heirlooms, there is also that reminder – from having seen the results of waiting too long – to not wait too long!  Do I really want a stranger to come in and have to make these choices? If it’s difficult for me, imagine how much more difficult it will be for someone who doesn’t know the stories and sentiments attached to these things. So it’s really up to me…I need to find a better balance between keeping the things that still bring us joy and the stuff sitting in boxes that can go and find another life elsewhere now.

Sigh. While I agree that life starts at 50, there are times when it sucks to be on this side of the hill!

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Copyright © Sharon C. Matthies, Meanderings (blog), 2012. All rights reserved.

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About Sharon

I love to write. I love to write myself into being right here right now. Writing releases something in me that needs wings, writing opens doors and windows that I often don't even realize are possible, writing helps me breathe out the dusty old, and to breathe in the new and possible. My hope is that maybe writing here in this blog will bring new light into these dusty old hallways and help me to clear out the thinking processes and mindsets that just don't work for me anymore. I seek to breathe new light and life into the nooks and crannies of a soul that has been feeling somewhat lost and frayed because of the last few patches of road I've had to travel.
This entry was posted in aging, clutter, coping, downsizing. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Downside of Downsizing to Someone Else’s Timetable

  1. Maybe one option is to write a brief history of the object, attach a picture, and file it away with the will; sort of like an inventory. Then whoever is left to sort out everything has the story and can decide what to do with it and have some idea of the item’s worth.

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    • Sharon says:

      Thanks for the great idea, Ruth! I love that! We have to go through all that stuff later this year when we redo that part of the basement, so it will be a good time to implement this wonderful suggestion.

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  2. angelika says:

    I looked forward with anticipation to your blog on downsizing. And as usual, your candour was refreshing and an eye opener.

    My hubby and I once rented a vacation apartment along the North Shore in Germany. The apartment was furnished with only the bare necessities, to the point of silverware for only two. Despite the apartment being very small; we had room to move, air to breathe, and no matter how hard I tried, we never had that clutter feeling. I loved it. And to this day, I know this would be my goal. I think there is a difference between a “cold” apartment and a sparsely furnished one. Colors make the difference…the curtains, and a carpet or two. They give the warmth; not all the knick-knacks filling the shelves.

    I have started downsizing things in our home. And I feel really good afterwards. We have been going to flee markets, which is also fun. So I think we are on the right track here; ..first downsize within the home,…and then if you want to; ..downsize the home.

    Thank you Sharon for sharing your thoughts on this. And I agree, that’s a great idea Ruth! HUGS!

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    • Sharon says:

      Thanks Angelika, I’m not sure I covered the topic enough yet, but it’s a start.

      In my earlier years on my own, my apartment was very spartan…borrowed furniture, no knick-knacks, I was too poor to afford anything beyond rent. I wonder sometimes if that’s why today I prefer to be surrounded by the “light and love” of the things that have come from the people I love…family heirlooms, gifts from the children in my life, etc, etc. I like the clutter, and find it soothing and warming for my soul.

      But there’s no doubt that the boxes in the basement are getting overwhelming. Time to start downsizing. I love your statement…first downsize within, then go from there….”downsizing within” might even have to start in the heart and mind before it can start in on the boxes and closets.

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