How to Help Your Parents Downsize Without Losing Your Mind

Sharon & Nikki McCutcheon under Creative Commons

The era of heirlooms is over.

The idea of inheriting dishes or furniture items from a family member? It’s fallen out of fashion.

It’s not that we don’t appreciate what our families own. We just don’t feel compelled to keep all of it forever.

It’s an issue that’s plaguing plenty of families, reports The Washington Post: Baby boomers want to downsize, but their millennial children aren’t interested in taking on those additional burdens.

“Many millennials raised in the collect-’em-all culture (think McDonald’s Happy Meal toys and Beanie Babies) now prefer to live simpler lives with less stuff in smaller downtown spaces, far from the suburban homes with fussy window treatments and formal dining rooms that they grew up in,” the Post’s Jura Koncius writes.

Downsizing: Stressful, but Necessary?

The urge to downsize can be stressful, from the idea right through to execution. A parent in declining health may want to deal with his material belongings quickly. A move into an assisted living community might be on the horizon, requiring a dramatic decrease in belongings. Maybe a marathon of a hoarding reality show caused general nervousness.

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My mom decided to relocate a few years ago, forcing my sister and I to come to terms with our childhood bedrooms and a basement filled with stacked possessions. We spent a few weekends at home with mom, reminiscing and sorting into piles: keep, sell, donate. We had yard sale that pulled in about $250. Everything that didn’t sell was quickly deposited at the nearest charity thrift store.

We never looked back. I feel lucky that I spent that time with my mom and helped her complete the task, and I’m relieved to know I won’t have to deal with that level of sorting and purging again. But some of my friends don’t have it so easy.

One friend contacted me a few weeks ago to ask for advice with his mom’s downsizing efforts. He doesn’t want anything he left at home a few states away, and has told his mother repeatedly to dispose of it as necessary. But now that his mom’s cleaning out her own belongings, she thinks everything has value. And she wants to make money.

Real Talk: Is Your Parents’ Stuff Actually Valuable?

That’s when downsizing gets tricky. You can give something away to a family member, Freecycle stranger, or thrift shop — no problem. But stuff hangs around longer when you’re trying to get the right price for it.

One auction house interviewed by the Post noted the number of requests they get to buy out entire homes of furniture, from dining room sets to bedroom suites. Even if it’s good quality, furniture that’s not truly antique often sells at rock-bottom prices. The demand just isn’t there.

But no one wants to tell their parents that the items they worked hard to buy for their family haven’t held their value. And no parent wants to hear that their child doesn’t want to inherit beloved items.

So what do you do when you know for sure that nobody wants to match the price your mom paid for her fur coat in the 1970s? How do you help your dad clean out his massive collection of old magazines without becoming a slave to eBay?

How to Help Your Parents Downsize

These tips will help you help your parents downsize, without ruining holiday dinners for the rest of your life.

Talk — A Lot

Get the lay of the land by asking your parents why they want to downsize, what results they want and what method they think is best. If mom wants to make top dollar on eBay by selling a China set you’d then have to ship across the country, you may need to work through the details. If your parents are more interested in donating most of their unwanted possessions, your approach will be different.

Be Honest

Don’t take on items you don’t want or need out of guilt. Have honest (but gentle!) conversations with your parents about the items they value and how they fit into your lifestyle. Sometimes those conversations are as simple as, “My apartment is small, and work might transfer me to a new city next year. Your antique hutch is beautiful, but it’s not a good fit for me.”

If things get tense, take a break. Don’t expect to settle every downsizing question in a single day.

Show Off Your Research Skills

If your parents turn to you for technology help, this is your time to shine. Start Googling!

“You can help your parents by researching names of local charities, what types of donations the charities accept and how to make donations (drop off times, days of weeks, locations) to those charities,” Erin Doland suggests on Unclutterer. Looking up trash service guidelines or hazardous waste policies can help determine the best way unload the items that can’t be enjoyed again.

Help Sell What You Can

If your family’s stash of collectible figurines would only sell for pennies on eBay, it won’t be worth your time to type up every listing. But if you do have items that are worth selling, offer an eBay or Craigslist tutorial. If you have more time, you can list those items for your parents. Be prepared to talk a lot about what items are worth in today’s market and what level of return to expect.

You’ll also want to be prepared to talk about safety — it took my mom a long time to get comfortable exchanging money and goods with strangers through Craigslist. Some police departments now offer their parking lots for Craigslist transactions so sellers don’t have to meet interested buyers at home.

Call In the Experts

If you’re fighting regularly with downsizing parents, or they refuse to take your (researched, well-supported) advice, it’s time to call in an impartial third party to help move the process along.

Doland recommends searching for a professional organizer through the National Association of Senior Move Managers, who are specially trained to help the growing Boomer population. If your downsizing project is large, this could be costly. But a particularly stubborn parent may respond better to someone who doesn’t have an emotional tie to your family’s belongings.

And if you can’t be present to help your parents through the downsizing process, a professional can fill in for you. Just don’t expect them to want to take your collection of Beanie Babies home with them.

Your Turn: Have you helped a parent downsize? What strategies worked for you?

Lisa Rowan is a writer and editor living in Washington, D.C. She cohosts Pop Fashion, a weekly podcast about fashion, retail and the business of style.

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