Healthy Aging Column – Avoid Some of the Pain of Downsizing

A trip home to visit family and friends is often a highlight of summer. However, these trips also can make us aware of some of the difficult aspects of aging.

Challenges arise when it becomes necessary for an older person to begin thinking of changing where they live. One of these challenges is how to de-clutter and downsize belongings. Homes that contain generations of memorabilia can be overwhelming. The process of sorting is tedious as well as emotionally and physically draining. Planning ahead is one way to lessen the pain of downsizing. This allows the sorting and downsizing to be done with less intensity and stress. In addition, better communication usually occurs when the sorting and downsizing takes place over time and not all at once.

One effective approach is focusing on one collection at a time. For example, tackle the photo collection or the record collection. Today’s technology allows for consolidation and duplication of music and images. Photographs and other images can be scanned and duplicated with comments about each image. Music can be recorded in multiple media formats. The use of technology is a way to get several generations involved. Imagine the joy of creating a CD or video of photographic images that are larger and clearer than the original. What fun it could be to listen to and record the music from old records while having a theme party of the 1920s or the 1940s or the 1970s. This approach to sorting and downsizing decades of stuff encourages sharing and may help defuse potential conflicts. Furthermore, the owner gets to enjoy sharing memories with others.

As with any interpersonal process, there is the potential for misunderstanding during this sorting and downsizing. One of the most successful ways to avoid misunderstanding is to work extra hard on good communication among all interested parties. Sometimes it is helpful to discuss top choices before decisions are made. The key to successful communication is listening more rather than talking, and clarifying anything that is unclear. An example is to say, "I believe I understood you to say that getting Dad’s fishing tackle is very important to you." If each person gets to choose something especially important to them, then negotiating about items of less importance may be more amenable.

Writing down conversations about possessions also helps reduce the potential for misunderstanding. Some families find it useful to use colored stickers. One color can be used for the owners to identify things they want to have with them until the end of their lives, and then a different color is given to each person in the sharing process. When more than one person puts a sticker on an object, then negotiation can take place. When negotiation is not successful, a time-out period may be needed for the passion to cool so that an amenable agreement can be reached.

The important thing to remember is that even the sorting process is creating lasting memories. It is the choice of all involved as to whether the memories include fun and family bonding or strife and discord. Communication and time are the keys to creating pleasant memories.

Colorado State University Cooperative Extension can help by connecting families with resources like, "Who Gets Grandma’s Yellow Pie Plate." This workbook-based program leads families through exercises that build communication skills and develop tools for negotiating difficult decisions about non-titled property. Family and Consumer Extension Agents in many Colorado Extension offices have this resource available.

Additional information on Healthy Aging is available on the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Web site at under Family/Consumer.

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by Janet Benavente, Family and Consumer Extension Agent

Colorado State University Cooperative Extension, Adams County