Downsizing? Unclutter Your Feelings First

"Some items have special sentimental meaning; perhaps they represent unfinished business or an unfulfilled dream of some kind. That can make letting go of certain objects really hard to do."
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It had to go. My piano, a big, black upright, weathered eight moves, three amateur musicians, one actual copycat and climates ranging from semi-tropical to sub-Arctic. Every mover had to maneuver its bulky fragility through various combinations of layouts, steps, elevators and driveways. A mediocre player still emotionally invested in my "Great Songs of the Sixties" music book, I never questioned the place of the piano in my household, always looking for the right space, an interior wall, a local tuner, a place for the sheet music from Broadway musicals. The piano's glossy lacquered finish made it an elegant addition to the décor. It was always "there" and we liked it that way.

Until, contemplating an early downsizing campaign, I realized the piano had to go. I was hardly playing it anymore; my daughter plays the bassoon; my husband took lessons but could switch to a digital keyboard. And although there are many other big, bulky and heavy downsize-worthy items in our house, the piano appeared to be the emotional linchpin.

And then I put it off. For all my knowledge of aging at home... for all my love of organizing and tossing things out... this one was hard. It gave me a new appreciation of the hurdles faced by older people. I investigated various sales and donation options. My daughter suggested that her high school music program, from which she is about to graduate, was in dire need of something that could hold a tune. The Music Department said it would be most grateful. It was the right thing to do. And suddenly, I found myself so, so sad.

Luckily, I came across downsizing experts Janet Hulstrand and Linda Hetzer, authors of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home. Maybe they could treat my separation anxiety. The resulting conversation with co-author Hulstrand turned into a three-part look at the feelings, facts and intergenerational concerns pertaining to this common later-in-life transition.

As with so many things, success rests in the emotions.

Hulstrand says they've talked to quite a few professionals who say that it is not uncommon for people to postpone moving out of their homes simply because the prospect of dealing with all their accumulated stuff is just too daunting. "It keeps people from moving even when they know that is the best thing for them to do," she reports.

Then she confirmed my hunch that the piano was more than a piano: "Some items have special sentimental meaning; perhaps they represent unfinished business or an unfulfilled dream of some kind. That can make letting go of certain objects really hard to do."

Sounding more like a great therapist than downsizing expert, she says if that's the case, "It might be time to realize that your life went a different way than what you envisioned originally or that you actually never are going to have the time to do x, y, or z. And that's OK."

To make it easier to let go, she suggests that people find ways to honor, capture and safeguard the memories. "For many people, it's not about the objects themselves but rather the memories connected with them," she says.

Tactics include talking about the memories with family or friends and maybe recording the memories through writing, taking pictures, recording audio/video and so on. That way, says Hulstrand, "The stories that we treasure can be passed down long after the item has gone to a new home."

Hulstrand further reassures reluctant downsizers that, "Asking yourself why it's so hard to do and allowing yourself time to acknowledge and deal with the emotions can help resolve those unsettling feelings."

I wondered about the increasing number of people who say they plan to stay where they are, to have room for a live-in caregiver. Are they cleverly avoiding the work or does that reasoning make sense? Hulstrand says it depends. As the aging-in-place movement gains strength, she finds it another option to consider.

"In this case," she points out, "to make a home safe and functional for a person who needs live-in care, there might need to be structural or other changes made." It's hard to avoid downsizing to some extent; adapting the home might still require the removal of excess furniture and other items.

"These are personal decisions," she reminds me, "and individuals and their families have to take all kinds of factors into consideration." Generally, she believes that people should be supported in making decisions that will allow them to live out their lives in the way that will make them happiest.

Hulstrand and co-author Hetzer learned the demands of downsizing when clearing out their late fathers' longtime homes, filled with three generations of "stuff," from inherited treasures to toxic household cleaners. Having worked through the process, they know it's an emotional journey, one they continue to follow in their blog, Downsizing the Home: Lessons Learned. Still, Hulstrand reports that even those who were at first reluctant to leave their homes are happy and relieved once they do so.

"If the people doing the moving are ready to move and are not being pressured, either by others or by a too-rapid timetable, most of the time it ends up being a good thing," she says. "The main regret that we heard was about having rushed, or been rushed, through the process."

That suggests an early start and maybe phasing the process over time. Put another way, tears now or tears later. As my piano decision attests, I'm opting for tears now and freedom later.

Indeed, "freedom from the burdens and responsibilities of maintaining a house and yard can be very liberating," says Hulstrand. She adds that for many people, moving to a place that provides health-care assistance as needed gives "enormous relief both to those who moved and those who care about them."

Whatever the choice, she says the important message to convey is that downsizing -- or "rightsizing" for a more positive spin -- can be a joyful thing, the next step forward in someone's life. So once my piano is in its new home, we can both make a joyful noise.

Next up: Downsizing in practical terms.

Does the thought of downsizing sound depressing or fun? Do you have items that you know you "ought" to shed but find it hard to do? How do you plan to handle the question of "stuff?"

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