Sherry Sherwood found that one of the keys to sifting through a lifetime of memories when she helped her 93-year-old father, Don Goldberg, move into assisted living was to share the process with others.
“Like, I think, most people, when you go to your parents’ house, they have things from their sister that passed away or their parents, and they have put them in a box,” she told the AJC. “There’s so much stuff.”
Sifting through a century of stuff
The prospect of sorting through things that belonged to their father and other family members was daunting for Sherwood, but her sister, Debbie Jenkins, helped. Instead of getting frustrated and beginning to pitch things, though, they made a conscious decision to sit with the memories they encountered and honor them once again.
“There’s so much stuff to go through, and you have to make decisions. At one point, my sister and I just said, ‘We can’t anymore today because we were just saying ‘dumpster, dumpster,’ and we thought, ‘We don’t want a dumpster,’” she said. “I think that’s what people need to do is to sit down and go through the memories of what’s in the house — look at the Christmas ornaments, think about things: ‘Do you remember this, do you remember that?’ It’s a little bit easier to let go of some things that way. It’s not such a slap in the face.”
Sherwood recalled that this approach slowed things down and that there were crying sessions. Goldberg has seven grandchildren who took some things, and his children ended up with a good amount of them. When the thinning project was over, Sherwood remembered feeling relieved, but when the house sold, the closing was still difficult for her, and she wanted to move it along before the feelings became harder.
A smaller, new home
Tim and Diane Hanley also chose to make their recent move into an opportunity to downsize and organize their belongings. Their edit was born out of necessity as their new living space was significantly smaller than the one they sold.
They purchased a 2,700-square-foot home in a Cumming 55-and-over community, Nestledown Farm. It was a significant change from the 5,400-square-foot Dahlonega dwelling they came from. Both 80, the Hanleys wanted simplicity.
“It’s a lot less maintenance and upkeep, particularly when you look at a big home that’s approximately 21 years of age,” Tim Hanley said.
Into their new space, they brought a more curated set of belongings thanks to the review they undertook before packing to move.
“We pretty much knew what we wanted to take and what we didn’t,” Tim Hanley said.
They gave lots of things to charity, including a large couch. After their kids took some things, there was still a lot to get rid of as the Hanleys got used to their new home. They decide to donate a lot of it to the thrift store at The Place in Cumming.
The Hanleys handled their own organization process, but they contracted with Dawsonville-based Real Order, an organizing and move management service, for the move itself. Tim Hanley said the team simplified the move, but eliminating even more belongings beforehand would have helped.
“It eliminated a lot of the hassle that we had to deal with,” he said of using Real Order. “The only thing I would’ve done differently is I would’ve gotten rid of a lot of things before we moved because we were moving into a smaller home.”
Enter the organizer
As member move manager at Park Springs, an assisted living, independent living, and memory care facility in Stone Mountain, Joey Adams sees lots of older adults and their families get bogged down. He helped start a moving company in 2008 where he realized his affinity for assisting this demographic. For the past four years, he’s helped older adults coming to Park Springs organize and downsize their collections of belongings.
“Downsizing is an overwhelming process, and people just don’t know where to start, and so, I’m here to tell them to go slow and steady,” he said.
He starts working with older adults before the move, and he encourages them to tackle one room at a time.
“I don’t want them to look at their entire house as a whole picture because that’s overwhelming and too stressful,” he said. “So, I have them focus on one room and one area.”
Over the three months prior to the move, he gives them a 15-minute task every day. These jobs might include throwing away expired toiletries and cosmetics or cleaning out a junk drawer.
“We sort of go with ‘What have you seen, what have you touched, what have you worn?” he said. “If you haven’t seen it, touched it, or used it in a couple of years, then you need to get rid of it.”
Adams acknowledged that the emotional work of downsizing isn’t easy.
“The biggest challenge people go through is getting rid of their stuff because a lot of them are emotionally attached to those items, but I try to create an open living space where we’re not having wall-to-wall furniture. So, their biggest challenge is just getting over the sadness,” he said. “Within a month, you see a difference because they get excited: ‘Hey, Joey, we got rid of this. We got somebody to take this.’”
In the spirit of moving beloved possessions to loving homes, Adams puts clients in touch with estate sales, auctions and charities.
“I want them to say, ‘Hey, let’s let someone else make memories with those things,’” he said.
Moves also include the organization of personal information. Adams recommends older adults change their addresses on subscriptions, cancel their utilities, transfer prescriptions, register to vote, and use up the food in their pantries as moving day approaches.
“I’m trying to get them to where everything that needs to be donated, gotten rid of, or sold is gone in the last two weeks, and all they are worried about now is the stuff that’s going to go to their new home,” he said.
A new dwelling shouldn’t be totally unfamiliar, he said. He instructs movers to take photos so they can place items in corresponding spots in a new home. He also works with older adults — not just on downsizing but on making room for what matters to them ― even if they want to take big items such as book collections or baby grand pianos.
“Think outside of the box. It doesn’t have to go in a normal dining room. Let’s turn your sunroom into your playing place,” he said.
One couple he helped had an art studio, so they took a wall out of their new living space to make a large closet into a new studio.
A slow process
For some families, the stress and emotional work of organizing for a move pay off in the end. One factor that eased the transition for Sherwood was knowing her father was going to a place that met her and her family’s expectations for his care.
“Some places, you knew it was truly a job for them to go to every day, and I didn’t think they would treat my father with the respect of being his age and the wisdom he has,” she said.
The staff at The Terraces at Peachtree Hills Place, the Buckhead assisted living facility Goldberg and his family chose, has become like family, she said. Although the facility is pet friendly, Goldberg had to give up his beloved dog during a hospital stay before his move. Now, he enjoys The Terraces’ signature outdoor spaces. A side porch near his room allows him to enjoy the passing scenery — including dogs.
“He sits and watches the cars and watches the people,” Sherwood said. “I think my dad is friends with all the dog walkers down there.”
She looks back on the way she and her sister methodically handled his downsizing.
“It’s a slow process,” she said. “Don’t do it in a hurry. Do it slowly … You need to include as many people as you can because it makes it easier for you and everyone.”
Even at 93, her father’s memory is still sharp. He sometimes asked about the whereabouts of some of his possessions after the move, but because of her careful considerations, she knew they’d been placed with appropriate caretakers.
“Our standard answer to him now is, ‘Oh, I don’t know dad. Somebody’s got it,’” she said.
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Joey Adams’ 10 tips for downsizing:
- Create a schedule that spreads tasks out over a month so you don’t become overwhelmed.
- Focus on one task a day — cleaning the junk drawer, organizing the linen closet, getting rid of shoes you no longer wear, or decluttering two kitchen cabinets.
- Don’t keep things because you used to do something with them. Think about your future lifestyle and the items that will be helpful to you in pursuing your current interests.
- Take your time, incorporate your family members, and relive the memories. Then decide if you will give that item to a family member, or donate it to another family to create memories.
- Make room for what’s important. If you can’t imagine giving up your book collection, consider having built-in bookcases installed in your new home. If you play the piano daily, perhaps the sunroom in your future home can become a music room.
- Consider digitizing paperwork and old photos and videos, which can take up a lot of space. There are services that help with this process.
- Don’t get pulled into side projects. For example, if you take donation items to the garage, don’t stop to organize other items in that area. Save the next task for another day.
- Don’t forget to schedule days for stopping and starting utilities, changing your address on subscriptions, and getting your medical records transferred, if necessary.
- Have a small suitcase that you pack with everything you’ll need in the first day or two after moving to a new home — a change of clothes, medications, toiletries, etc. — so you can easily locate these items.
- Make a folder or binder of all essential moving documents with key contact information, and keep it with you.
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Credit: Jess Rapfogel/AP