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Downsizing: a reality check

by Isabel Fawcett

For many reasons, some elders have difficulty downsizing as they advance in age. Whether overwhelmed at the prospect of major life transition, facing emerging chronic health challenges that may arise as some individuals near retirement age, nostalgia, obssessive-compulsive hoarding, or simple resistance to change, downsizing can be problematic if deferred to the golden years of one's life. Life-long right-sizing may be the least stressful strategy.

Almost 2 years ago, when I chose to become a full-time stay-at-home caregiver to my Mom, within the first 3 months I decided to gradually tackle downsizing and organizing projects at home as this may be the only time in my life where I have the time or inclination to do so. Clearly, I assumed that I would be filing my nails in between juggling assistive care responsibilities and my personal life. In my simplistic view at the time, any such downsizing would be uneventful and likely to be completed within 6 months. Dream on, Othello.

I thought it would have been that simple because I have never been a pack-rat. I knew that the largest part of the project would be shredding Mom's oldest hard-copy records that were no longer needed for any records retention or record keeping reasons. Not only am I not finished with Mom's part of the project, I have only superficially touched my own mid-life transition downsizing. Still, I have made progress, even if nowhere near what I'd originally envisioned. I am bound and determined to get there- before the summer of 2011? (I think I can. I think I can.)

Elders Moving Out and Moving On

I feel for elders and their adult children who are faced with helping elders clear out a lifetime worth of belongings in short order on the heels of the elder's declining health, hospitalization, or pending nursing home placement. I can't imagine downsizing for my Mom if I were to face such stressful conditions out of the blue. I would imagine that it has to be emotionally difficult for all involved, perhaps more so for elders who reasonably view the process as an undesirable end-of-life transition.

There is also a complete loss of control when downsizing is deferred until there is no other choice but to move out and move on. It must be a little like allowing the door to hit an elder on the way out of his or her home.

Competing Visions and Distractions of the Golden Years

Several years ago, a discounted book caught my eye in a bookstore. At less than $9.00, the book was well worth the purchase. Leisureville: Adventures in America's Retirement Utopias,by Andrew D. Blechman, speaks to the good, bad and ugly side of elders-only retirement communities, their origins on the American scene, and more. The primary focus of Leisureville, though, is The Villages, which are ever-expanding and wholly self-contained retirement living in Florida, also described as "senior utopia," by some and "instant cities," by others. The Villages is not a long-term care community.

Leisureville made me think about life after senior utopia and golf cart mania. Unless one dies while a resident of golf cart heaven on earth, there will still come a day and time when downsizing ultimately "right-sizes" elders' lives, more so when there are chronic illnesses involved, or if significant mobility impairment becomes an issue. Then, what?

Leisureville, of course, never speaks to that issue. It can't. Retirement living communities may successfully mask, or needlessly delay the need for downsizing in elders' lives. Leisureville made me reflect and compare the amenities and conveniences of assisted living communities with retirement villages or communities. I was surprised to discover that assisted living appeals to my practical nouveau elder Baby Boomer side.

Assisted Living

After elders' leisureville retirement heaven in Anywhere, USA, depending on an elder's health, assisted living communities may be the next appropriate downsizing lifestyle option. Regardless, transitioning from larger housing and a superficially freewheeling lifestyle to smaller assisted living spaces is still difficult. It is even more difficult if left until adult children need to intervene to assist with the downsizing effort on behalf of their elders.

Unlike many retirement living communities that are intentionally developed in remote locations, almost entirely self-contained and insular, assisted living communitiies have ample provisions for elders who may have mobility impairments and provide or will help coordinate transportation to local businesses and events without promoting an insular age-segregated culture or community to the exclusion of other local businesses and social activities.

As a caregiver who is simultaneously downsizing in my own life and doing the same for my Mom, I'm simply starting to look and plan ahead. As Dr. Stephen Covey says in his 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, it helps to begin with the end in mind.

Advancing Age: A Reality Check

  • In 2003, the Palliative Care Policy Center (PCPC) published "Living Well at the End of Life." The preface of the PCPC's white paper states:


"Most older Americans now face chronic illness and disability in the final years of life. These final years can prove painful and difficult for sick and disabled elderly people who may have difficulty finding care to meet their needs. This period is often stressful and expensive for families."

Of course it has to be stressful and expensive. I would imagine that it is more so if elders and their family caregivers defer or delay looking at aging in America realistically. Not every elder is chronically ill. Yet, age and chronic disease statistics are undeniable.

  • A 2008 report in Louisville, Kentucky's, Courier.com, "Golden Years Rife With Mounting Medical Bills, Rising Expenses," part 3 in a series on Older Americans, makes the point that the years leading up to retirement generally coincide with the onset of health issues.
  • According to the Centers for Disease Control, 41.8 percent of the burgeoning baby boomer population had already been medically diagnosed with high blood pressure between the ages of 55-64 (2003), and 12.5 percent of adults in the same age range were told they had diabetes. While boomers are caring for our elders, more chronic health issues are brewing on the eldercare horizon.


Right-sizing our elders' lives sooner rather than later may be time well spent. If it's exhausting to even think of tackling downsizing for elders in your life, be sure to read Eldercarelink.com's Editor-in-Chief, Carol Bradley Bursack's "Helping Parents Clean Out the Family Home." Carol's article sheds light on the new elder-mover businesses where professionals specialize in the emotions involved in such life transitions. Elder-movers will allow you to be on-call, rather than on duty.

Sure sounds like a winner to me. Then again, I'm still knee-deep in my downsizing project that was only supposed to take me 6 months, or less.

Related Resources and Information

AARP.org's, "Excerpt from 'Leisureville: Adventures in America's Retirement Utopias'," Andrew D. Blechman; AARP Bulletin Today, May 27, 2008