3 Unexpected Things I Learned in Downsizing

Downsizing is an enormous undertaking, whether you or a family member are moving into a smaller residence or you’re decluttering your own stuff. I knew it would be hard to downsize my parents’ house, but there were 3 lessons that I learned which took me by surprise. Knowing these can help you be better prepared for your project.

Generations Cafe Podcast, Episode 36

You can listen to this episode by clicking the play button below. (You can also listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and most other podcast apps.) Length: 27 minutes.

The Situation I Was Facing

After I interviewed professional organizer Janine Adams about how to approach downsizing when you’re a family historian, my sisters and I started the process of moving our parents from their house of 35 years into an apartment in a senior living community. This was the house that they had lived in for 35 years. My parents have been married for more than 60 years, so you can probably imagine the scope of “stuff” that we dealing with.

Besides the wonderful finds, such as a photo of my great-grandparents, there were lessons to be had.

1. Downsizing Brings All Kinds of Exhaustion

The process was exhausting in every way. Sure, there is a lot of physical activity in sorting, packing, and moving. In some ways, the physical exhaustion was the easiest kind to deal with.

It was mentally exhausting. Decision fatigue is a real thing. There comes a point where you simply cannot make any more coherent decisions. For my mom, my sisters, and I, that point usually came around the two-hour mark.

It was also exhausting emotionally. We hold so many emotions in the items that we keep. Some are happy, like the doll my dad gave to mom when he proposed. Some are funny, like my horrendous marching band portrait. (I was sure I had burned all of those!) But then there are the sad memories, the things that remind you of people who are gone and the reminders again and again of how time just keeps going on…

2. Downsizing Takes Longer Than You Think

Besides the exhaustion slowing down the process, downsizing encompasses more than you’d think. Even if you’re just decluttering and you’re going to tackle one closet, that one closet has a LOT of stuff in it, all of which needs to be gone through.

My advice: Start now. If you have the luxury of time, take it. When you are hurried, you’ll miss things (like how I almost missed the only photo I’ve ever seen of my great-grandparents.)

Edward and Clara Skinner Starkey, Perry County, Ohio
My great-grandparents Edward and Clara (Skinner) Starkey. This is the first (and so far only) photo I’ve ever seen of them.

3. It’s OK to Let Things Go

Janine and I talked about this in our interview, but the lesson was one that my sisters and I had to keep reminding ourselves. You cannot save everything.

An item in and of itself doesn’t have value. It’s what that item represents—the person or the memory—that is the real value. Getting rid of an item is not the same as getting rid of that memory or that person.

Some items were donated to charity, some went to extended family. Some items are being kept for now, with an eye toward repurposing them so their stories can be better told. As my daughter pointed out in an interview we did on what millennials feel about family history, it’s the story that’s the important thing.

Downsizing a house that’s been lived in for more than 3 decades by a couple who has been married for more than 6 decades is no small feat. We knew it would be tough, but it was still surprising to have these lessons brought home.

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    • So true! My sister and I cleared out my parents’ house after they were gone, and we spent at least half our time discussing stories about some of the items. I also had to learn that letting go of the things didn’t mean letting go of our parents. With some of the items I took photos before letting go so I had a reminder of the memory.

  • “You Can’t Save Everything!” is such an important point. It is always hard for me to remember that I am not disrespecting the person when I don’t keep everything they ever owned. Thank you for the confirmation.

  • Hi Amy,
    Thank you so much – this episode really resonated with me. My sister and I have been trying to help my mum get a flat ready to sell. She doesn’t live in the flat, it has never been her home, but she visits occasionally, and she has a collection of ceramics there, that she and my dad built up together, and some things that belonged to my grandmother, and she is emotionally attached to them. Also it is her link to the town where my dad died. I don’t think we realised that this whole ‘project’ was going to be so difficult, and exhausting (particularly emotionally)- and in fact has failed almost before we began because I don’t think that my mum CAN make the necessary decisions.
    It was so good to listen to your experience helping your parents, and I really appreciate your tips.

  • You’re absolutely right. DON’T WAIT! Downsizing my in-laws was a horrible experience. Pops was gone and Muz had dementia, couldn’t remember anyone or anything, and wanted to give away items to complete strangers. It took me 4 months just to go through a 40 x 60 storage building and decide what was to be auctioned. That building alone yielded one packed 30 cubic yard dumpster. Then there was the garage and house. We filled another dumpster there, and still had enough items for an auction that grossed nearly $30k. That was a year ago, and we still have memorabilia now at our house to go through with those photos with no names. Ugh.

  • Thank you for your perspective on this! About 10 years ago, we moved my mother from her home to our home after my father had passed away. We managed to go through a lot of things, but I have half of a 10×10 storage unit full of her keepsakes, china, glassware, etc. I desperately need to go through it and decide what to do with everything. I have no children, although I do have a nephew, a niece and a great-niece. My nephew and niece were very close to my mother, so I hope they will want some of her things. One thing I have already passed down is my mother’s engagement ring. She always wanted my nephew to have it for “when the time came”. Well, the time came last year. He asked me when I was going to visit for Christmas. Unfortunately we couldn’t visit that year, so when he told me why he was so anxious for us to come, I packed up the ring and sent it to him with my annual package of Christmas cookies (Mom’s recipes, of course!). He finally gave it to his now fiance this past summer. Mom would be so happy! And, amazingly enough, the ring fit perfectly with no adjustments needed! I have another ring for my niece, whenever she decides to marry her boyfriend…

    But I do need to start on the stuff in the storage unit! Thanks for sharing your experience, as well as the interview with Janine. I feel a bit more prepared to take on this task!

  • Thank you for this podcast, Amy, and your ideas. I have decided to create a ‘Stuff’ Memories story with pictures for my sisters and myself. Hopefully they will contribute as we document, with photos, the story of some of our parents stuff that we still hold. It will no doubt make it easier when we all downsize….and for our families as well. Mum and Dad’s first buffet they were given when they married in 1947, is still in my lounge room, looking quite tired and a little worn. Maybe I will not feel so bad about a separation if I have it recorded.

  • I’ve not downsized my parents house but clearing out a loved ones house after they are deceased is similar. I went through similar things when I cleared out my aunt’s house. She had left the house to dad and when he died, I inherited it. The two things that caught me by surprise were emotional exhaustion. Never thought I had a sentimental attachment to the house until the last day of clearing it out, after everyone had gone and I was there by myself. The memories started coming and wouldn’t ease up. And clearing out her house definitely took longer than I had expected. I had started getting rid of some things while dad was still living but it definitely overhwhelmed me as too how much stuff was still there when I was clearing it out to put it on the market.

  • As I downsized, at the ripe old age of Level 61 in the Game of Life I encountered all you write of Amy. I wanted to do it so my children didn’t have to. One thing (and also my own downsizing hack) I did that I am so happy about is I took pictures along the way of the things I wondered if I should let go of. I then sent the pics, a few at a time before taking it off to the thrift store, to my sons and asked if it was something they were interested in having. About 1% was greeted with a “I’d really like that.” So that went in to their box to pick up when they came over the next time. This way they weren’t overwhelmed and they got to make the decision a few items at a time. I thought by having the pictures of the donated stuff it would help me if I wanted to look at it once it was gone. Funny thing is, I’ve never felt the need. Not even once. That saying “Out of sight, out of mind” is so true when downsizing. Good luck to you all in this level you are playing now in the real Game of Life.

  • Such good advice. I have been faced with the same situation and it is so difficult and emotional to let things go.

  • Thank you for your article Amy. I was forced to downsize as I was moving to another country! Still have papers to sort but most of the ‘stuff’ is gone – in one case my daughter gave away a huge lot of my kitchen goods to someone who was starting over after an abusive relationship. Yes it has been emotionally exhausting but I still worry I’ve missed something important. I’ve done this 3x now and still more to go. Great advice to everyone out there!

  • Amy, this is wonderful. It is so nice that you were able to do this with your mom and sister so you could hear your mom’s stories. Once, I told my mom I would come for a visit and help her clean out a few closets. She was thrilled. When I arrived, I asked which one we would start with. She said, “I’ve changed my mind. Let’s go out to lunch, go shopping,….” She just wanted to have a fun visit! A few months later, she died unexpectedly and I had to deal with cleaning out a home of 40 years while grieving. Some things I just boxed up and I’m still dealing with it 19 years later.

  • I agree with Marion Wood. It helped me a lot, although it took a lot of research and time, to donate items from family to research institutions, especially academic libraries and historical associations. One of the points that made items easier to give away was whether there were a lot of unknown people in the book/pamphlet/picture. I felt the item would potentially do good for a lot of other people’s genealogical research. I gave old yearbooks to the Allen Co library, my mother’s college syllabi/diary/photos of unknown classmates to her alma mater; scrapbooks of her school days to her hometown historical society, a collection of Chicago area theater programs to an academic university there and a set of goodbye letters from her 3rd grade classmates in Lakewood OH to their historical society. The appreciation I received was enough to get me through the more difficult items that couldn’t find a second home. I hope somebody out there is sharing stuff on my family that I or my descendants will some day discover!

  • Thank you, Amy. I love reading your posts! I agree with what you’ve said here….and I think I could almost have written it, after having a few years to reflect on the “taking apart” of my parents’ home. My dad had passed away in 2010 and then my mother very suddenly in 2011. Luckily, we didn’t have to rush it, as there were 50 years of things to do through. (They had moved from farm to town 8 years earlier, but still had kept SO MUCH!! We just couldn’t believe the amount of things packed into their home! It was well organized, just voluminous.) We spent 6+ months carefully and completely going through every last piece of paper; my siblings and I are spread across 3 states so we simply couldn’t go every weekend to work on the project. It all worked out. In the end, after we all took what we wanted — and we took what our teenage kids could use in college apts., etc. — we hosted a “free” garage sale and it was wonderful to give away excess items that others could use. We ended up with just one vanload to take to Goodwill! (Note: The item that took the longest to go through was 40 years of farming records including every single receipt for farm equipment. I know have the receipt for the very first, very used, tractor that my dad purchased when he was starting out as a young tenant farmer the year I was born…..it cost $100!) As far as photos go, my mom had 20 photo albums/scrapbooks organized by year (covering 70 yrs.). It took a few years to get around to it but I finally managed to scan each page of every album and put them all on flash drives for my siblings; priceless family history!

  • Downsizing is difficult for all involved. Emotions run high and suddenly that yellow plate that nobody ever wanted before becomes a bone of contention. Even when you are just downsizing your own stuff, it brings up a lot of unwanted feelings of guilt (“But I paid a lot of money for it”) and sometimes unexpected grief. Best of luck to all who are attempting this monumental task

  • I helped my cousin, sole survivor of the uncle who did genealogy for 50 years. He was not interested in anything when we started, but by the end had discovered he wanted to keep a few items. His wife told him any dusty old papers that came into her house would be destroyed. I carted home about 500 pounds of dusty old paper, and scanned every last bit of it. That meant reading every letter because he and others trash talked some cousins or said very horrible things. I redacted that stuff after scanning, and shared everything I could with anyone who wants it. My uncle had told another niece to burn it all and let everyone do their own research! Yikes.

    But I was glad to see my cousin carefully and thoughtfully pick a few items that in the end did mean something to him. And the rest was, yes, exhausting.