Packed boxes in a living room

It has been a bit of a rough week around here.  My grandmother finally moved into assisted living, so we had to start help her to downsize her life.

And a long and wonderful life it has been.  She is 96.  I knew that this would happen one day soon.  I just didn’t anticipate the when.  Or how I would feel emotionally.

She had been living in a two bedroom senior living apartment completely independently (minus some help from my mom) for the last ten years.  Over the last few months, things started getting much more difficult.  And in the end, she needed a lot more help than family could provide.  Hence, the assisted living move.

Moving one’s life from a house to an apartment had been hard enough.  We had cleaned, claimed and sorted through a lifetime worth of belongings.

Now, she was condensing a two bedroom apartment – about 750 square feet – into a single room that was about the size of one of our spare bedrooms.  At least it was a private room.

I found it most fascinating when I visited last week to see what she had deemed important after 96 years of living, children, experiences and moving to three different countries.  It really came down to photos, jewelry and clothes.  Most of the knick knacks, treasures and momentos were gone.

Through this entire experience, my favorite conversation has been about cooling racks for baking.  When we downsized from a townhouse back to our condo a few years ago, I went down to one cooling rack.  I’ve concluded that it really is all that one needs.  You put the cookies coming out of the oven on it, let them cool and then put them on a plate when the next set of cookies are ready to cool.  Okay, maybe two cooling racks an avid baker could argue for.

My grandmother had 4 cooling racks.  So, the question became who should take the cooling racks.  Hide me now – I had just gotten rid of my extra.

The problem when someone goes through the downsizing process goes beyond what will happen with all of their stuff.  It is more about the person (or people) who are the recipients of the stuff.  I have seen many times children and grandchildren inheriting more items than they have room for and being expected to hold on to them.  Their houses become cluttered, basements packed and attics stacked.  It’s hard to understand why we are expected to live with all of that clutter – especially when it isn’t ours.

Stacks of packed boxes with the text overlay "How helping my grandmother downsize helped me find more happy"

So, how do you find the happy in these situations.  As I have gone through it this month, I have discovered the happy in a downsizing event.  Really it is the only way to cope.  Here are some ideas to help you find a bit of good in this hard chapter of life.

Learn to Say No

The word no only has two letters, but it seems the hardest for people to say.  My mom was a bit aghast at first when she would ask me about things like cooling racks and I wouldn’t even think about.  You only really need one cooling rack.  I have already been over this.

When I had to downsize in my early thirties to make city living work for our family, the process took forever.  I don’t want to do that again any time soon.  Not saying no just means you have to go through your own decluttering sooner again.

So learn to just say no.  And have confidence when you say it.  Those two words will make you happier – promise.

Unless you are dealing with family heirlooms (and even then), it is okay to not accept the items.  Because it’s more than just a cooling rack.  It’s finding space, time to use it and then time to find it a new home when you realize you only really needed one cooling rack in the first place.

Remember Time is Money

Cleaning out takes a LOT of time.  Time away from kids, spouses, growing your business, leisure activities.  Make sure spending time on the downsizing process is worth it to you.  If not, look at your options.  You could hire an estate sales company to come in and manage a sale for you.  You could donate most of the items.

When in Doubt Donate

Generally, people have a lot of stuff, most of which they don’t really need.  Think about donating as much as possible to save time and make someone else’s life better.

Most people think about giving their excess things to Goodwill and Salvation Army, but look around your community for other options too.  Our extra books always go to the local library.  Some they will put into circulation and others they sell at their used book sale to make money to buy new books.

Your local Habitat for Humanity Restore will take furniture and home fixtures.  They use the proceeds to help build new homes for people in your community.

You can also donate items to your local thrift store.  Many thrift store sales benefit local hospital and care giving programs.

Choose a Few Memories Carefully

Before going to sift through my grandmother’s things, I made a list of my favorite memories from her life.  My list included birds, painting (she took up acrylic painting in her late seventies) and paging through the Best store catalog on lazy Sunday afternoons making wish lists.

Although I knew I wasn’t going to find a Best store catalog from the 80s hanging around (I wouldn’t have wanted it anyway), I did find a beautiful bird statue for our China cabinet.  I also grabbed some painting books for Little Bug and I to go through.

It was easier to decide what to keep when I realized what made my grandmother special to me.

Packaged items ready to be moved with the text overlay "How helping my grandmother downsize helped me find more happy"

Be Supportive and Take Breaks

Helping someone downsize is exhausting.  In the end no one likes to rummage piece by piece through someone’s stuff (let alone our own).  And making decisions on how to manage all of it can be equally tiring.

If you are in the middle of this process, be sure to take lots of breaks.  Take a whole day off if desired.  You deserve it.  Offer lots of support to the person managing the clean out mission too.  Encourage them to take some time off.  Things will go much faster when they come back to it.

Don’t Let it Happen to You

Everyone will need to downsize at some point.  We all come to a point in life where a change is necessary.

This process made me think about the items in my life and their real importance.  We stopped bringing new things into the house when we gave up discretionary spending earlier this year.  Now I am thinking that was one of my best ideas.  It is all just stuff in the end.

If it isn’t going to be loved, then I don’t really want it.  Nor would I want someone else to have to clean it out.   I would hate for my kids to have to go through this downsizing process later on. 

Final Thoughts…

So, how do you find the happy when downsizing?  I found it in my little bird.  He reminds me of my grandmother every time I look at him.  I have also started focusing on displaying more memories and photos.  I want my family to be surrounded by their experiences – not more clutter.

And all of these thoughts are bringing me more happy.