From dealing with your stuff to finding a new place to live, downsizing difficult decision for Atlantic Canadian seniors

A house may simply be four walls and a roof, but the amount of memories packed into a dwelling means it's difficult to make the decision to leave it.

St. Peters Bay, P.E.I. resident Aileen Dwan knows a little something about that after making the decision to downsize.

Aileen married her beloved husband Earl in 1955, and initially, the couple moved into Earl's parent's homestead in Five Houses for a year before they built a family home together.

"Over the years, we were truly blessed with a family of three boys and three girls. We were married for 64 years," says Aileen.

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"When we were in our 60s and 70s, we were both strong and had no health problems. We had no pensions. Earl did seasonal work and I went to work outside the home. At some point, we knew we would downsize, but we got along.”

Then Earl was diagnosed with Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), which there was no getting better from.

"Without retirement pensions and an aging home that needed repairs, our plans to sell had to begin," says Aileen.

Then Earl had a stroke, which was shortly followed by a heart attack. He eventually had to go on home oxygen. Aileen took care of him at home until he passed away on Sept. 7, 2019.

A change in plans

Aileen was 83 years old when she put her family home up for sale and it took a year to sell. Her children helped clear out the family home and move.

She recalls the day she left her family home.

“I turned the corner from my home and it was like a curtain came down. That chapter is over. I am now on my own now," she says.

The couple had originally planned to sell their family home, purchase a mini home and put it on the original Dwan homestead land in Five Houses.

Instead, Aileen found a duplex to rent in Charlottetown, where she planned to live with her son and split expenses.

“I wasn’t in a good frame of mind to make decisions, but I thought I was," she says now.

“Living in Charlottetown was a lonely time due to COVID, and although I had nowhere to go, I slowly lost the will to drive again.”

Aileen lived in Charlottetown for a year. Her friends back in St. Peters Bay tried to convince her to return. They looked for a place for her to live, but available housing was at a minimum.

When Aileen decided to return to St. Peters Bay, her daughter Lynn and son-in-law Andrew Goodwin began building her a two-bedroom bungalow in August 2020. Aileen moved into her new home that December.

Her new house was built on the Dwan family homestead – where she and Earl had originally intended to move after they downsized.

Aileen said it was like “the alpha and the omega" - the beginning and the end.

"I got back but Earl didn’t. I am content where I am now, but my heart is still with Earl in the house at the corner at the Bay.”

Considerations for seniors

Before deciding to downsize and sell, says Kelly Corkery, seniors should be doing a lot of thinking.

Corkery is a professional organizer and advance planner who owns A Sorted Affair in Upper Lakeville, N.S. She's become an expert in decluttering, organizing and simplifying spaces, downsizing, moving and rightsizing, as well as simplifying end-of-life planning.

"In this market, I always recommend that seniors consider where they will be living next," she says.

She then recommends thinking about the financial elements of moving as well as the actual physical layout of their next home.

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“Planning a budget for your move is important. There are costs associated with selling, like hiring professionals such as a lawyer and real estate agent or using a moving company and storage units," she says.

And, she says, make a plan on what you'll bring with you to ensure it will fit in the new space. She suggests creating a floor plan and taking measurements of the larger furniture items that will be moved.

“Additions like better lighting, grab bars or, moving laundry facilities to the main floor can often keep seniors in their homes for longer."

- Kelly Corkery

“It’s better to find out if your sofa will fit in your new space now instead of being stuck on moving day," she says.

Also consider whether it's possible to age in place in the new location. Consider elements like access to medical care or whether there are easy fixes or renovations that could improve your current home.

From dealing with your stuff to finding a new place to live, downsizing difficult decision for Atlantic Canadian seniors

“Additions like better lighting, grab bars or, moving laundry facilities to the main floor can often keep seniors in their homes for longer," she says.

James Beaton of Goose River, PEI is a realtor and sales representative with EXIT Realty PEI. He suggests seniors considering downsizing consider things like what floor plan will best suit their needs in the future, including things like potential future mobility concerns.

"Whether it’s a wide bathroom, no stairs, or low cupboards, what are the things you need to maintain your independence?" he says.

Beaton also suggests talking about any concerns with the realtor you're working with, as well as asking for testimonials.

"Discuss your concerns and fears with a potential realtor and ask them how they will address these issues of anxiety," he says.

"(Ask) the realtor how they will market your property and stand out above the rest."

Start now

One of the first things Corkery recommends to someone thinking about selling the family home is to start early.

“It can be difficult to know where to start," she says.

“Don’t wait - downsizing a family home full of decades of memories and objects takes longer than you’d expect. Time is a major advantage; it allows a gentler approach to making difficult decisions."

Involve family and friends or hire outside assistance, she suggests.

"Having support, both emotional and physical, is key to reducing the pressure of hundreds of decisions that you’ll have to make," Corkery adds.

Beaton also believes starting early is key.

"Start decluttering now," he says. "An estate sale or garage sale is likely the best way to get the most money in your pocket. This is all something a realtor can help you with, generally at no extra cost to you."

How to approach downsizing

“How do you eat an elephant?” asks Corkery.

“I’ve found that the best way to accomplish a significant event like downsizing is to approach it using bite-sized accomplishments."

Pick a shelf, a surface, or a closet and get started, going room by room.

“I suggest digging into the room or space that causes you the most anxiety. Once you face down a difficult task, it demonstrates that goals are manageable and achievable," she says.

Keep a few basic tools at hand - she suggests an empty laundry bin to collect misplaced items that belong in other rooms; garbage and recycling bags or bins

Kelly says “when I take on a downsizing project, it’s good to be prepared with a few basic tools. An empty laundry bin is useful for misplaced items that belong in other rooms, and keep garbage and recycling bags or bins close by. She suggests creating piles of like items and using labelled boxes to determine where things belong.

"I use categories like keep; toss; donate; sell/consign; store; family/friends," she says.

Dwan took this approach to giving some of her belongings to her children and family. She now goes to her children’s homes and finds herself saying, “That dish looks like mine,” and then realizes it was hers.

It makes her happy to see her family heirlooms in her children’s home, she adds.

Don't be afraid to declutter, says Corkery.

“Removing excess clutter simplifies your spaces by reducing risk of injuries as well as making cleaning easier,” says Corkery.

“Keep what you love and get rid of what you don’t. Streamlining your possessions allows you to focus on the move ahead."

Common challenges downsizing

One of the biggest challenges Corkery sees when decluttering and downsizing is dealing with sentimental items like pictures, family history, artwork and personal mementos - it can be overwhelming and extremely emotional, she says. Corkery recommends leaving these things until the end of your downsizing because “it’s easy to get wrapped up in nostalgia which can slow or halt the process entirely."

And, she adds, “it’s important to remember that letting go of an object does not equate to throwing away the memories associated with the object."

She suggests setting realistic goals, working in 30-minute intervals if necessary, asking for help and taking breaks if you’re feeling stuck.

"Focus on what you should keep rather than what you are throwing away. Choose a lovely box to store precious keepsakes," she suggests.

Another common challenge is family dynamics.

“Squabbles over possessions are an unfortunate reality of downsizing, but it also provides a great opportunity to avoid unnecessary tensions," she says. "Have sensible discussions as to who gets what or who wants what before it becomes an issue. Label or number items and keep a simple running list in a notebook or spreadsheet."

Don't forget, she says, there are benefits to downsizing.

“As a professional organizer, I find that it’s exceptionally empowering to simplify your own space," she says. "Additionally, it encourages you to communicate your wishes to family and friends now. That way, there’s absolutely no confusion as to who gets what."

Questions to consider

James Beaton recommends seniors ask themselves the following questions before downsizing:

1. Does it make financial sense to downsize? - Beyond the mortgage, compare costs for insurance, maintenance, and necessary renovations.

2. Does my current property still fit my needs? - Perhaps the family has all grown up and moved on, or a partner has passed. Are all these bedrooms and space still practical or needed?

3. Will I still have a car? Does an attached garage make sense to have? - Not having to clean the car off in the winter is great, but more importantly, not worrying about slipping on the snow/ice getting to your car.

4. What would I be excited to leave behind the most? - Maybe it’s the shovelling, cleaning, or dealing with a wood stove or furnace in the winter months.

First-hand recommendations

Having been through the process of selling her family home and downsizing, Aileen Dwan has some recommendations for other seniors who might find themselves in a similar situation:

- Do not work under stress

- Start your downsizing early

- Make sure you have plenty of time to make decisions

- List all your items that you are going to have to get rid of

- Ask family members what special things they may want. Place their name on it and the date the decision was made. This can stop avoid hard feelings later.

- Your items of sentimental value will be the hardest things to get rid of.