Lis Golden McKinley, M.A.
Certified Professional Organizer
Owner, LET’S MAKE ROOM, LLC
It’s time. You’ve set aside the day, taken off work, brought in the garbage bags and the packing boxes. No more excuses. It’s you versus the clutter. This time you intend to win because you’ve decided to put your house up for sale.
“Your house is just a place for your stuff. If you didn’t have so much G-D stuff, you wouldn’t need a house!?”
But what happens when your stuff is too connected to memories? Carlin joked no one wants that stuff either but guess what they do!
When I say stuff, I don’t only mean furniture and household items. I mean the sentimental stuff you’ve buried in your closet or shoved into the back of an attic or basement. Stuff like your son’s grade school artwork, even though he’s in college now. Grandpa’s set of World War II history books. The two crocheted baby blankets grandma made for your kids.
“Keep them for the grandkids!” You protest and back into the closet it goes. Except you have way too much in your closet already. So instead you pay hundreds of dollars a month to store stuff you can’t bear to part with at the local public storage.
That’s when it hits you. It’s not only your house you have to downsize, but your storage unit too.
Exasperated, you slump down in your arm chair and wonder, “how am I going to do this?” and pour yourself another glass of wine.
As Baby Boomers get older – and by the way, I’m one of them — they start thinking about their health and the desire to simplify their lives.
75% of people who want to downsize their lives say they can’t. The reason? They have too much stuff, according to research conducted by Kansas University.
The number one reason baby boomers can’t declutter is they are often sentimentally attached to what they own. There are just too many painful decisions that have to be made about what to keep or go. “No thanks,” they utter, “I’d rather have a root canal.”
The good news is you don’t have to throw the baby-doll out with the bathwater. Instead, you can actually feel good about letting go. Less regret, guilt or incurring the wrath of your family.
It is important to remember that not everything you are sentimental about has to go. Instead, the key is taking the time to curate your collection of sentimental items and giving away what you don’t want to the right people (or places).
Curating is about deciding what is going to be part of your permanent collection and what isn’t and where it can go. It also includes saying goodbye, with gratitude, to the things that have served out their purpose and forgiving yourself for doing the best you can to dispose of them responsibly.
Part of this process always involves making decisions about the items we most commonly get attached to: Books, clothing, photographs, sentimental cards and letters, memories – both ours and our kids.
When it’s time to curate these items, I find it useful to think about them in three ways:
Say goodbye with gratitude
Keep for my new life
Give to others
Say goodbye with gratitude
This collection contains items that are damaged beyond repair or are not worth your time or money to repair.
You can appreciate what they were in their original form and know that their time has come to an end. Anything that still makes you sad to let go of, you can take a picture of. That way you will still have the memory of the item.
Keep for my new life
This collection contains your favorites. Items you love so much you would use or display again. The ones that you would remember and miss if they disappeared. Better yet, they are the ones that fit into your new, simplified lifestyle. These are the best of the best!
Give to others (or giving items new life elsewhere)
This collection contains both high quality and useable quality items you don’t want. They could be of a high enough quality you could sell or consign them, or special enough that you would prefer to give them to a particular person or organization. In other words your decision to let them go is contingent on them getting to the right recipient or organization. This collection also includes useable quality items that could be donated to charities such as Goodwill, Salvation Army or Out of the Closet
If they are not sellable but the recipient is important to you, do an online search by type in your area. For example “Senior center thrift shop near me.” There’s a wonderful place in San Francisco called SCRAP that accepts donations of all types of craft and teaching materials (though they are closed temporarily due to Covid-19). Here are a few other examples of unique places to donate your higher quality items. (Due to Covid-19 some of these will be temporarily closed. Check before going.)
Senior center thrift shop
Church, school or charity auction
Thrift shop for a charity you support such as cancer research
Local animal shelter
Children’s thrift shop for low income moms
There are also online websites such as Nextdoor.com where you can post your unwanted items. Be careful not to post your personal information. Instead ask people to direct message you if they want your item.
Use “Say goodbye with gratitude,” “Keep for my new life” and “Give to others” with other types of sentimental items you have. Here are few tips for downsizing other sentimental household items:
Books (If you are downsizing and you have an excess and need space)
First decide on the greatest number of bookshelves you will keep so you will know how much you need to downsize.
Keep books you still refer to or hold special memories or can’t find online.
Donate duplicate books, books you’ve never read, are not likely to read or don’t hold interest for you. Also donate books from a previous chapter of your life. Someone is bound to appreciate them. Take them to your local library or college. Most Goodwill stores will also accept books for donation but not text books.
Recycle any that have mold. Mold travels and will contaminate other books.
Sentimental Cards and Letters (If you have more than will fit into a banker box or small suitcase)
These are often the hardest to let go. Keep the ones that express a personal sentiment to you, not a generic greeting. You can also photograph these and let the physical card go.
Toys and Childhood Memorabilia (Yours or your adult children)
This is the stuff you’ve tossed in a “keep” box but never looked at except when you’ve moved. It could be anything from rocks you collected, to tickets stubs, to small medals you received as a kid to souvenirs from family trips.
They best represent the “memories” of your childhood. It’s likely none of it is valuable, unless it’s in its original packaging and in pristine condition. If you’re not sure, you can always check sites like Etsy or Ebay.
First sort those into two piles – usable quality and higher quality. As you come across anything that that you don’t want but are afraid of forgetting, take a picture of it! That way you will always have the memory.
If the items are small, you can display them in a large fishbowl, brandy snifter or inside a shadow box. I’ve seen these for just about out every imaginable collectible: medals, matchboxes, toy cars, record albums, sports memorabilia even old postcards.
Check out some “memorabilia storage” ideas on Pinterest or Etsy If you’re not up to this, ask someone in your family who has a talent for crafts or art to do it for you. What a perfect birthday or Christmas present!
If you wouldn’t pay to have the items repurposed into something new, chances are you don’t love it enough to keep it. You can always take a picture of it if you’re scared of losing the memory. If it’s a small quantity of items you are keeping, give them a home in a small treasure box. I always think of a the little cigar box the character Scout kept under her bed from the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Giving away sentimental items to the right place or person is what makes it possible for you to let them go
Don’t use your kids as a reason to keep stuff that you don’t have room for in your new home. If possible, ask them to come and get it by a certain date. If they live far away or don’t care, let them know your plan to donate whatever is usable. Keep your favorites, the ones you consider “heirlooms” and limit them to no more than will fit into a small bin or box. Your kids won’t miss the rest and neither will you.
A final note about trash, landfill and forgiveness
It’s likely you will have to throw out more than you intended. Recycle as much as you can but accept the limitations of what is and is not recyclable in your community.
When you bought it 30 or 40 years ago, you weren’t thinking about whether it was recyclable. You needed it and it served its purpose. Again, dispose of it with gratitude. If it has to go to landfill, forgive yourself. Know that you have learned to be a more responsible citizen and consumer. Now you can enjoy and maintain your simple and spacious new life with the things you love the most.
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It’s common to see adult children moving back in to their parents’ home after college to save money. But here’s a surprising fact:
14% of adults living in someone else’s household are actually the homeowner’s parents – and the trend seems to be on the rise, up from 7% in 1995, according to a Pew Research Study.
It’s one thing for a 22 year old that had roommates in college to move back in with their parents. It’s another thing to be 50, 60 or 70 years old and find yourself living with your adult children in their house, possibly with your grandchildren.
Aside from all the psychological and emotional aspects involved in sharing a home with relatives, there are also the practical and organizational considerations:
Will there be room for my belongings and what’s important to me?
Do I have a say in how things are organized in common areas such as the kitchen, family room or garage?
Will I have to let go of things I love?
Will I have storage areas I can call my own?
What rooms or storage areas will I need to share?
Will I feel safe?
Whether you are moving back in with your parents or your parents are moving in with you, planning for these questions ahead of time will make for a smoother transition and less stress when it comes time to blend the family. Here are a few strategies I recommend you do before you start packing.
Make it safe. Clear all exit routes such as floors, stairs and hallways of possible trip hazards.
Make it accessible. Provide sufficient space and clear access to bathrooms, kitchen and other common areas
Make it private. Dedicate a room large enough for a bed (or beds) with at least one closet or storage armoire for clothing and personal items and natural light from an outside window. If this room was previously used for storage of other household items, find other homes for them or consider donating them if you haven’t used these items yourself for years.
Make it welcoming. Create shared storage areas by making room inside your kitchen cabinets, pantry, utility closet, linen closet and garage. This may be the perfect time to do a little downsizing yourself!
Set clear boundaries. If you know you don’t have room for everything your relatives own (and you probably wont) explain that you only have limited space. Help them decide what they really love, want and use. Let them know they have options but they probably won’t be able to keep everything!
Make it possible. Offer to help with the actual physical move or downsizing if you can or consult with a professional organizer who specializes in residential move planning if you need ideas, hands-on help or guidance.
The American Moving and Storage Association states that the average cost of an interstate household move is about $4,300 (distance of 1,225 miles) and the average cost of an intrastate move is about $2,300 (4 movers at $200 per hour). Both average moving costs are for 7,400 pounds. If you live in places like the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, New York or Washington DC, the costs are even higher. Since movers typically charge based on volume or weight, it follows that the less you have the less it will cost. This is just one great reason to downsize your home. Here are four more great reasons to downsize your home, moving or not:
You can create new memories. If you are holding onto stuff because you are afraid you won’t remember it, it may be time to curate what you own so you can make room for new experiences. Try photographing the things you want to remember but can’t or don’t want to take with you. Have them made into something special such as a memory quilt or photo album. If it’s your work you want to remember, perhaps others want to remember it too. Look into making a legacy donation or creating a special archive in your name.
You won’t burden your kids. The saddest and most difficult task most children face is the death of their parents. Imagine how much more painful it would be if, on top of their grief, they also have to face the daunting task of emptying your home. Make it easier for them and start downsizing now. Let them remember and know you from what was important to you, not from the stuff that wasn’t.
You’ll realize what’s really important. When you make room for what really matters in your life, you discover what’s important and what isn’t. Do you really need 50 plastic food storage containers? Do you really wear 500 pairs of shoes? Do you really use that collection of rusted auto parts? Someone can use them but you don’t have to.
You get to start fresh. If relocating to a smaller home means downsizing the stuff in your existing home, try to imagine your life in your new home. Perhaps you’ll finally have the lifestyle you’ve been dreaming about. Gain the peace of mind that comes from knowing you’ve made great choices about your health and wellbeing. Instead of being burdened by your stuff, you’re having fun enjoying your life!
You would think that with the range of digital devices available from tablets to e-readers to smart phones, most of us would have less books. On the contrary a significant majority of Americans, about 65%, still opt for a print book over other platforms, according to a 2016 Pew Research Study.
So why is it so hard to part with them? Like photographs, books hold memories of important events or people in our lives or ideas we once had. To let go of a book is akin to letting go of a piece of ourselves.
Add to this, people generally don’t let go of their books unless forced to by circumstance, such as when they need to sell their home to move to a smaller home. The anxiety that comes along with moving can further exacerbate the stress of having to decide what to keep and what to let go of and this is especially true of books.
So what do you do if faced with the hard reality of having to part with your beloved book collection? Fortunately, there are some things you can do to make the loss a little less painful. Consider these questions:
Is it a classic or commonly available elsewhere either in a bookstore or online? One of the great advantages of the digital age is that many libraries now offer you a way to borrow digital copies of books through an app called Overdrive. All you need is a library card and some type of digital device such as a computer, e-reader, tablet or smart phone. Once signed up, it takes just a matter of seconds to download your favorite book. If you are not especially tech savvy, you still will probably be able to find the book again at a used book store or at the library.
Are you really going to read it? You’ve had that novel on your shelf for ten years with every intention of reading it but have never gotten around to it. Consider letting it go.
Is there someone you know who would like it? Gift specific books to specific people. As soon as you decide to let go of a book, assign it to someone you know or donate it to an organization, group or charity such as Books for Soldiers, Books Through Bars or your local library. You can also donate books to hospitals, the Salvation Army, Goodwill or a local thrift store. Always check with the charity before you donate and if the books are damaged, consider recycling them as an alternative.
Do you have duplicates? Perhaps you have both the hard copy and paperback editions. Choose which one you prefer and donate the other.
Is it a collectible? Some books such as first editions, antique books or signed books may have secondary value to another collector. If you are not sure whether or not your collectible book has value, you can do a little research online but avoid doing online appraisals. Take your book to an experienced bookseller you trust. Note that you will have to pay for face to face appraisals for high value books. You can also check out the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America for a list of member stores near you.
Letting go of meaningful possessions is difficult, especially when combined with the stress of having to move or downsize. Doing good for someone else is one antidote for the loss of control many, especially seniors feel, when moving. Knowing that something in your home now has a new home, can help ease the pain of downsizing.
If you or a member of your family needs reassurance or help packing, distributing, donating or selling your books, contact a professional organizer or senior move manager in your area. You still may shed some tears, but you’ll know you also did good.
I recently joined a group of skilled service professionals who serve Bay Area seniors and their families. We vetted each others businesses and through this collaboration, we provide a wide range of specialized services, catering to seniors,
Download the Bay Area Senior Services Network flyer by clicking on the link below
If you’ve lived in the same home for 10, 20, 30 or more years, and decided to move into a smaller space, there is a term professional organizers and others such as realtors have adopted from the business world. It’s called downsizing.
In business, downsizing has a negative connotation as it generally means that people will lose their jobs. In the world of organizing, however, downsizing refers to a conscious and deliberate process of reducing the contents of one’s home prior to a move to a smaller space. Although the use of the term in this context is thought of as neutral, people who undergo the process of downsizing may feel otherwise. This is particularly true if you are older, retired or living alone as you will probably need to make decisions about whether or not to keep literally hundreds of items before your actual move day.
Complicating this fact, is that as we get older the part of our brain that helps us with mental tasks such as organizing and prioritizing, otherwise known as the “executive function,” does not work as well as it used to. This isn’t our fault. It’s just a normal process of aging.
When preparing to downsize in preparation for a move, here are a few strategies I recommend to help minimize the stress and uncertainty you may experience.
1. Plan ahead. Start thinking about and planning for your move at least 6 months before you put your house on the market. This could include talking to family members about your plans, determining your needs and goals for your next home and perhaps even researching or visiting other communities you are potentially interested in moving to.
2. Take the time to survey your belongings. Make a point of sharing memories and stories they evoke with those who have offered to help you get ready to move. You may even wish to record those stories in writing or with the use of a tape recorder well before you start packing.
3. Don’t try to do it all yourself. Delegate physical tasks such as sorting, categorizing, packing, transporting and moving to professionals or trusted friends. Elicit ideas and suggestions so you can benefit from the expertise and experience of others who do this professionally or who are knowledgeable about the process.
4. Keep only what you need, love or can’t replace. Don’t become a hoarder. Hoarding is distinguished from collecting in that collecting generally involves objects considered by others to be both interesting and valuable. Hoarding, on the other hand, involves keeping large quantities of things that appear to be useless or of limited value so much so that it compromises your ability to use your home as it was intended. The decision about what to keep and what to sell, donate, or dispose of is yours but only keep what you truly love, will use again or can’t easily replace.
5. Make your wishes clear from the start. If you prefer to be consulted with on certain decisions let others know that in the beginning. Talk openly about how you appreciate help and be willing to accept it when offered. However if you are feeling anxious, say so and take a break. The less anxious you feel, the easier it will be to make decisions you can live with.
6. Conserve your energy. While you think you may be able to work for four or five hours at a time, in reality you may only be effective for two. Commit to doing a specific number of tasks such as packing three boxes, instead of a whole room. If you enjoy it, do so while watching your favorite TV show or listening to music.
7. Don’t hold back (or apologize for) your emotions. Moving is stressful for everyone at any age. As you prepare for your move, you may experience everything from the joy of remembering a happy event to the sadness of grieving the loss of a loved one. Give yourself permission to feel these emotions and recognize that they are a normal response to the circumstances. Your emotions won’t hurt you but suppressing them may. If possible, talk to someone you know and trust who can listen and empathize.
Lis Golden McKinley, M.A., is CEO of LET’S MAKE ROOM, a professional organizing company serving clients in all five counties of the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. For more information, visit their website at https://www.letsmakeroom.com or call them at 510-846-1976 to schedule a complimentary phone consultation.
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