Depositphotos 155266558 xl 2015
Home Services

Downsizing: When Emotions Are Involved

by Sean Tienhaara, Life Transitions


I look back with fondness on the years we spent visiting my mother-and father-in law in my wife’s family home. My father-in-law was the city attorney and his wife was the editor for the local newspaper. The Christmas after Jan and I were engaged, I received a Webster’s Dictionary with a handwritten note that said, “I read a letter you sent to my daughter. I hope this dictionary can help”.  I used that dictionary many times during my undergraduate studies and even into graduate school. A few years later we were concerned when Jan’s mom began to miss editing mistakes at the newspaper. Shortly after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. During the next seven years, we helped oversee her care and she was able to spend her last days in their home with her husband of fifty years by her side. After her passing, Jan’s dad came to live near us and our five children in Fishers, Indiana.

The one huge problem we were left with was what we were going to do with their home filled with 50 years of treasured belongings.

This task was daunting, and more so because we lived in another state. After successfully navigating the difficult and emotional journey of downsizing their home, my wife and I asked each other if there were any resources to help people through this experience. Seeing an important, unfilled need in society, we founded Life Transitions, originally Senior Life Transitions, in 2009.  In the last 10 years we have helped over 5,000 families with their downsizing and transitions needs. We would like to share with you a few tips that we have learned along the way. Hopefully they will help you in your own journey.

It is never too early to start the downsizing process.  

For many of us, the idea of downsizing causes anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed.  Simply put, sorting through possessions collected over a lifetime makes us face our own mortality. Peter Walsh, host of TLC’s Clean Sweep says, “It is so emotionally charged because this is not about the stuff, it is about dealing with fundamental issues of families and growth, and loss and love.” I remember one 95-year-old client who needed to move to an assisted living community. I could hear crying before we even entered her home.  She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “This was not the plan. I was supposed to go through that door in a casket.”

Downsizing can be an opportunity to redefine your life.  

It can help you create a “best of the best” lifestyle.  I have witnessed hundreds of people at the front end of their downsizing process who were overwhelmed, stuck or resistant to the idea, but in the end said, I wish I would have started this earlier. I feel so much more free.  One of our clients said to us, “I have been saving all my best stuff for special events. I’m now going to use my best for everyday”. Her downsizing has created a new liberty to use the best of her best.

Set reasonable goals for sorting.   

Whether you have two weeks, two months or two years to downsize, set clear and reasonable goals.  When sorting, ask these questions: Do I love it? Do I need it? Will I use it? If you don’t “say” yes to one of these, the items go.

Start with the room you use the least and are not as emotionally attached to.

For example; a pantry, a closet, a guest room. This will strengthen you to tackle the area you’re more attached to. Mark Brunetz, one expert on living clutter free says, “The more you do it the easier it gets.  It’s like a muscle that’s been dormant. Use it and it gets stronger.” As you work your way through one area, you will see progress and gain the confidence to go onto the next. Be patient with yourself. You can absolutely do this.

Purge early and often!

Tao Te Ching chapter 63 says, “Confront the difficult while it is still easy; accomplish the great task by a series of small acts.”    Trash costs a lot of money to get rid of in bulk – so start taking a few things out to the corner each week. Watch for your community’s HAZMAT days – these are important for getting rid of chemicals, paints, etc.  Goodwill, Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, and Big Brothers and Big Sisters will sometimes come to your house to pick up items you want to donate.  

The more you give away the less there is to sort & downsize.  Jan and I recently spoke at the Home Economics Guild recently and one of the ladies told us about her “Blue Light Special” give away.  This creative home economist would use holiday gatherings at her home as opportunities to bring out all the things she wanted to downsize. She would place it in one room and invite family and friends to take freely. Giving things away to family and friends can be an enjoyable experience.

Challenging categories. Some items that are tough to let go.                                                                       

Jan’s parents were avid readers, belonged to book clubs and had collected many books.  Books can feel like family. One place to donate books is your local library, used book store or charity. Last month we took hundreds of books to be sold at Half Price Book Store.  All the books earned a little over $200, the exception was one Bible that sold for $1000.

Many of us have too many clothes.  Remember the rule; Need, wear, love.   Do you love how it looks? Do you wear it? Most people wear only 20 % of the clothing they own.  Most times when downsizing to a smaller home, closet space is at a premium.  Measure your new closet space. Measure what you have in your current home.                                                                                                     

Regarding family photos, Peter Walsh says “photos have a particular power and importance that make it feel like sacrilege if you throw them away.” This was one of the most emotionally difficult parts of downsizing Jan’s family home. Choose the best one or two and have the rest digitized for easy storage and easy access. This new technological age, all important documents can be scanned and stored.  

Start a conversation with your family.

Have your kids tell you what they want. Most people believe that their children and grandchildren will want their prized possessions, but that is often not the case. Author Marni Jameson says, “Keep what you love and what nurtures you.  Hold dear your memories along with a few treasures from those who loved you and whom you loved. Leave a few treasures for those you love to remember you by…hold on to a heartful—not a houseful—of memories.”

You don’t have to do this alone.

Our company, Life Transitions specializes in helping people of all ages downsize, often when they are moving from one home to another. If you find yourself with such a need, please feel free to give us a call.    


Sean Tienhaara

Life Transitions