Deciding What to Do with a Life's Worth of Possessions and Memories

The sooner you begin the process, the more you can make the best decisions for your living situation.

At some point in their lives, many older adults have to contend with the task of downsizingmoving from their family home to an apartment or from an apartment to assisted living or other living arrangements. Deciding what to do with a life's worth of possessions and memories can be very challenging.

The ability to recognize the need to assess your living situation and make changes early on can make a big difference. Following are two real life situations.

Liz lived independently in her family home of more than 40 years. At age 87, she suffered a stroke. It took many months of rehabilitation to regain her speech and some mobility. It became evident that Liz would need help with her activities of daily living and that she would no longer be safe in her two-story family home. Her children came to her aid and helped her move into an assisted living facility. They brought some of her belongings to her new home and the rest they put into storage. Her children were able to sell her home, which helped pay for her rehabilitation and a new home. Even though Liz worked hard to regain her health, she suffered from bouts of depression and anger because she had not been able to make for herself the important decisions about selling her house and moving into a smaller facility along with deciding what to do with her belongings.

Experience the pleasure of sharing old stories and giving your treasured possessions to loved ones.

John and Mary experienced a different outcome. They decided to downsize from their five-bedroom family home when they retired. They chose to go through their possessions and keep only what would fit in their much smaller apartment. Their decision to downsize turned out to be wiser than they anticipated. Only a few months after their move to their new home, Mary was diagnosed with cancer and John became her full-time caregiver. The new smaller home meant that John did not have to spend too much time with household chores and could spend more time with Mary. As time passed, John also developed some health issues, so the couple decided once again it was time to change their living situation and move to an assisted living facility.

As they sorted through their belongings, John and Mary decided to give their family members and friends items that were meaningful to them. What arose from being able to gift their family and friends was the opportunity to tell cherished stories of how the possessions came to them and why they wanted to gift them to that particular family member or friend.

As these two stories show, there are many reasons to consider downsizing:

  • The sooner you begin the process, the more you can count on your health, be mindful of your choices, and make the best decisions for your living situation.
  • You can experience the pleasure of sharing old stories and giving your treasured possessions to loved ones.

Downsizing can be a challenging job, but once it is accomplished, many people feel released from the burden of a lifetime of possessions. Here are some tips that can help you start the process:

  • Ask for help. At the beginning you may feel overwhelmed. Your family and friends can help you make this process less challenging.
  • Consider distributing your beloved items to family, friends and neighbors. Items that are valued that you don’t want can be disposed of through an auction, garage sale, or online (for example, Items in good condition that you don't want can be donated to charity.
  • It is never too early to start downsizing. Begin with the room that contains the most items—like the basement, attic or garage—and work on one room at a time.

You can find many resources to help you downsize, whether it is moving from your home, reorganizing your current home or getting help to pack up your belongings. One helpful resource is the National Association of Senior Move Managers (877-606-2766). Professional "senior move managers" can assist older adults and their families with the emotional and physical aspects of relocation and/or aging in place. They can help you find local moving resources and all of their members carry liability insurance. Their website includes many helpful tips on how to downsize.

—Susan G. Dailey, Renton Housing Authority

Susan G. Dailey, MSW, coordinates resident services at Renton Housing Authority. She is coordinating "The Full Continuum of Hoarding," a training for human services professionals, on Friday, January 11, 2013. For more information, visit

When You Can't Take It With You

A guide to recycling, donating and disposing of household belongings, courtesy of the Local Hazardous Waste Management Program in King County, a multi-jurisdictional program that focuses on reducing public and environmental exposure to hazardous materials

For information on home collection, safe disposal of medications or chemicals, recycling and donating, visit Disposing, Recycling and Donating a Household of Stuff.