How to Help an Elderly Loved One Downsize

There comes a time in many seniors’ lives when it is no longer safe to reside alone, especially when they live in a large home without daily social contact. Although they may prefer to stay in their long-time residence, this may not be feasible. Health conditions, finances, and isolation are all hazards that seniors face.

Often, home modifications can prolong a senior’s independence, but that is not always the case. If you have found that your senior loved one is no longer able to maintain their home or health, you can encourage them to consider their options. Although it is emotionally challenging, moving into a smaller space does have its benefits.

What are their needs?

When it’s time to begin the discussion about moving, avoid the temptation to dive right in with relocation as your first suggestion. Instead, initiate a few casual conversations about their needs. Talk to them about their daily habits and any struggles they may have. They might mention, for example, that they have not cleaned a second-story room because walking up and down the stairs has become difficult, exhausting, or painful. During your talks, make sure to ask about their nutritional needs. Are they still able to cook for themselves? Do they need help getting to the grocery store?

Make mental notes of any issues you discuss. While your first course of action should be to try to help the senior remain where they are if that is their wish, once you realize that it is not possible, you can explore options together. 

Keep in mind that many seniors value their independence, which, according to VANTAGE Aging, provides them with a sense of purpose. For this reason, once you are ready to bring up the idea of alternative living arrangements, make sure that you can point out ways that each can help them maintain their self-reliance while improving their quality of life.

Senior housing options

Many aging adults may find that simply moving to a smaller home with a single floor will allow them to enjoy their privacy with fewer safety hazards. A home with a smaller yard or a condominium with a covered parking garage can also reduce or eliminate the possibility that your senior loved one will slip and fall on ice during the winter, an issue that Cleveland Clinic points out can easily send an elderly person to the ER. A smaller home means less maintenance, fewer responsibilities, and a smaller mortgage. If your senior loved one has plans to travel, they can even use the money they make from selling their current property to both pay for their new home and to fund their adventures.

There are many different types of accommodation your senior can choose from if living alone is not an option. The most common are independent living, assisted living, and retirement communities.

Independent living is often a great choice for seniors who like to remain active and want to come and go just as they would in their current home. These are typically set up as a small apartment, but your senior may have anything from a two-bedroom home to an efficiency studio. Those in independent living usually don’t have to worry about home safety or maintenance, and these campuses have resort-like amenities, such as on-site dining and entertainment.

For those who need a little extra assistance with activities of daily living, an assisted living center is a smart choice. Seniors still have their own private space, but these are almost always in a single building. Assisted living residents receive hands-on help, which is helpful if they have dementia, mobility issues, or declining vision.

A retirement community is similar to an independent living campus. These, however, typically have less structure and offer very little daily assistance beyond home and lawn maintenance. A retirement community may be designed with continuing care in mind, meaning the level of services your loved one receives can grow as their needs change. also lists adult family homes, nursing homes, and memory care units as options.

Make a plan

When a decision has been made, it’s time to sit down and formulate a plan. If their new home, for example, only has one bedroom, you should know which pieces of furniture will move along with the senior. Next, create a timeline of when the move will take place. This will help you better manage the next steps of sorting, dispersing, and packing.

Clean, sort, and sell

No move should begin without first cleaning the home from top to bottom. This will give you an opportunity to remove trash so that you and your loved one can better assess their furniture and personal belongings. If your senior is apprehensive about the move and showing signs of resistance, it might be easiest to start the sorting process by cleaning out the closet.

There is a good chance that they have clothing languishing in the far reaches of their bedroom and guest room storage spaces. Sorting just one piece at a time, ask your loved one if they have worn it in the last year. If they have not, see if they are willing to let this one piece go. This may be just the icebreaker they need to get into a groove and pick up speed with the least sentimental items in their home.

Follow this with books, trinkets, old sheets and blankets, and other items that they are unlikely to have a personal connection with. Continue throughout each room. Hopefully, your parent or grandparent will be willing to part with more items the further into the process you get. This initial sweep should leave you with the foundation of what will become your “donate or sell” pile.

Next, tackle larger items, such as furniture. Discuss your loved one’s future space so they have a better idea of what will fit. If they are moving into independent or assisted living, they may be limited to what they can bring, so make sure to ask for a checklist of allowable items before you move on to this step.

Like clothing, furniture and other household items may be donated or sold. A garage sale is a quick and easy way to get many items hauled away for free while putting some money in your loved one’s pocket. However, if the majority of their belongings cannot move with them, you may be better off hiring an estate sale company. Although this can be expensive — notes that commission can range from 25% to 45% — the company can assign a more accurate value to everything. This is crucial if the senior has high-end furniture or a unique collection. An estate sale company also won’t overlook valuables that you may have thrown away. Reader’s Digest points out that vintage clothing, old vinyl records, and antique books might be worth more than you think.

Family heirlooms, jewelry, and other items to which the senior is emotionally attached may be more challenging to tackle. These important pieces may be distributed among family or kept in storage until a decision is reached.

Packing tips

Packing is a practical matter best begun early. Waiting until the last minute is a huge mistake, and one that can painfully prolong what may be an emotional process for your entire family. Begin boxing things up at least a month in advance, starting with items they do not use every day, such as old photo albums.

If possible, create a staging area in an empty room. This is where you will keep packing materials, including boxes, tape, markers, bubblewrap, and newspaper. Liveability’s packing checklist goes into greater detail on what you need to get the job done.

Pay attention to the weight of each box. Most movers will recommend that nothing is over 50 pounds. Some will even charge additional fees for anything exceeding that weight. Seniors may not be physically able to lift more than 10 or 20 pounds, so you have to take their abilities into consideration, even if you do not plan on them doing the work. Chances are that they will want to help anyway. Moving Insider notes that most boxes actually list their weight capacity on the bottom — this is a great place to start, and you can make adjustments from there.

Just as important as the weight of each box is how you pack the items within them. Dishes, for example, cannot be thrown haphazardly into the bottom of a large box. These and other breakables must be strategically loaded so that the few precious personal items that make the move with your loved one do not wind up bashed and broken along the way. 

Make a point to label each box before they are sealed. This way, you always know what is inside, and your loved one can easily find their essentials as soon as they arrive. Having access to things like their hygiene products, family heirlooms, favorite pajamas, and medication will help them feel more comfortable in the first few days and nights in their new home. 

Choosing movers

Hiring a moving team is not a complicated process, but does deserve attention. One of the most important things you can do when picking a professional moving company is to stick with someone local if you are moving within your home state. Get at least three estimates, and point out any large, unusual, or valuable items they will be required to transport. 

Once you have made a decision, check their credentials with the Department of Transportation to ensure they are properly licensed. You can also check websites like Yelp and Google for user reviews.

Settling in

Moving into a new home — whether it is a single-family residence, or assisted or independent living campus — can feel very lonely. It may take several weeks to get fully acclimated to their new surroundings. Make yourself available for a week or two so that they can call you for a visit when they are feeling isolated. If they have a refrigerator or pantry in their room, stock it with some of their favorite treats to stave off hunger and homesickness. Know that in time, they — and you — will settle into a new sense of normalcy, but until then, be the listening ear they need and encourage them to socialize with the people in their new environment.

Downsizing into a new home is not always easy. It is an emotional process that requires hands-on work, attention to detail, and diligence. When it is time for your elderly parent or grandparent to make their own late-life move, your assistance can go a long way toward opening their hearts to the next chapter of their lives.