By Brian Goslow
When Heidi J’s mother decided it was time to prepare to move from her longtime Boston area home to a nearby life care community, she was faced with the challenge of what to do with her collection of antiques.
“She had 50 years of ‘treasures’ stored in a basement, garage, closets, drawers, etc. which could not all fit in her new apartment,” said Heidi, who asked that her last name not be used to protect her mother’s privacy.
Heidi was fortunate to have had the benefit of time — approximately two years after her mother, then in her early 80s and widowed, first expressed her desire for a new living space — to help prepare her for the move by deciding what to do with the amassed collection.
“Downsizing had to be a team effort,” she said.
Going through each piece together was like opening “time capsules,” with Heidi’s mom remembering where she got each artifact and the story that went with each one. “However, reminiscing about each and every item only made them more difficult to part with,” Heidi said. “Sometimes the process was stressful, as we knew she could only take a fraction of her belongings to her new apartment.”
Many of the items were given to family members. Others were offered to antique dealers, a transaction that was sometimes difficult as Heidi’s mom felt her “treasures” were worth way more than what the dealers were willing to pay for them. “My mantra was, ‘We can’t take all this stuff with us,’ ” Heidi said. “Over time she was willing to sell more items and pocket a little mad money.”
A professional moving service brought a small assortment of items to Heidi’s mom’s new home, while storing whatever items remained.
“It was a very emotional process,” Heidi said. “Downsizing and moving is saying goodbye to not only a house and the things in it, but to bygone times. There is a finality to it. A period at the end of a sentence.”
Years ago, many items from a downsize would end up at the local dump. These days, professional move managers can help find willing buyers for in-demand items and non-profit organizations that have families that can benefit from donated items.
Laurie Nordman, owner of NextStage Associates, a professional move management company based in Westborough, said the best time to downsize is when someone is doing it by choice, and has the luxury of time in making decisions on what to do with prized items.
The best scenario for her clients, time wise, is when they have approximately two months for the process. “We set up a weekly appointment with them and we just sort of work at it a little at time, and by the time they’re ready to move, by the time the house is ready to be listed, they’re ready and they haven’t had to make any fast choices,” she said.
In addition to providing improved time management, Nordman said, a move management company often has a better idea of what items might have value and reusability.
“If there are things someone wants to consign, things that are (perceived to be) popular and desirable, that changes over time,” Nordman said. “A lot of times, the families will throw away the stuff that’s actually popular now and save the stuff that had the value when they bought it. What a lot of clients don’t realize is what people want now is stuff from the ’60s and ’70s.”
One example would be good china, which many perceive to have great value, so they hold onto it for decades, even if it’s never used, while throwing out currently-in-demand ’60s-era Mod plastic dishes.
When it comes to what family members want, “use creates meaning,” said Nordman. “Very often when we’re talking to people, they say, ‘My kids don’t want the good china’ and what I often say is, ‘How often did you use it?’ Because if you used it twice a year, it has no memories for them. But ask them (their children) if they want the cookie jar or ask them if they want the bowl they ate their cereal out of, chances are pretty good that those are the things they want.”
Catherine Evans, 64, of Maynard, decided it was time to downsize when she realized her house contained “too much unused stuff.” Without a timetable, she and her husband are going through the process themselves, with the help of their teenage grandchildren. “It’s been great,” she said. “We have these discussions as I tell the stories connected to the pieces. It lets them know me and my husband better — and differently.”
But Evans’ upbringing makes it somewhat difficult for her to discard things. She grew up on a farm where folks created what they needed out of whatever was available. “You didn’t go to the store for a ‘something,’ ” she said. “It has always been for me, well, that I might need it sometime.”
Secondly, she’s an artist who’s made a name for herself repurposing discarded materials. “My creativity kicks in. I see multiple uses for most things,” Evans said. “I can think of dozens of things to use an empty toilet paper tube for.”
Then there are the emotions that return with each object in the house. “Every single piece of paper has to be rethought,” Evans said. “Every old photo brings back memories. With some things, it feels like broken dreams, things I hoped for that never materialized.”
Toni Coleman, a psychotherapist based in McLean, Va., has worked with people going through downsizing or are helping their parents with it; she has personally gone through it with her own parents and in-laws.
“The overwhelming feelings folks experience are a sense of loss over their youth and past life and a nostalgia about what they have lost and must give up as they move into the later stages of their lives,” Coleman said. “They may make attempts to hold on to things they no longer need and offer resistance to those helping them declutter. They also often push their kids and/or grandkids to take useless and unwanted things and use them as a way of holding on to their past and memories.”
Sometimes the pressure to downsize comes from relatives.
Clinical psychologist Natalie Gelman has been running a discussion group on aging at the Mastick Senior Center in Alameda, Calif. When the subject of downsizing came up, some of the participants felt they were being hassled to do so by their children and as a result, were resentful and angry toward them.
“What stood out for me as the strongest issue was that they felt their power and control were being challenged,” Gelman said. “They did not like being parented and felt capable of making their own decisions.” They generally believed the objects they had stored away were too valuable to discard, but the perceived value was not always financial. Rather it was frequently tied to memories the owners felt were too precious to dispose of.
So where’s the best place to start a downsizing project?
With books. Once someone has read a book, most likely, he or she is not going to read it again, pointed out NextStage Associates’ Nordman, noting that books are perfect to offer to others.
That includes that pile of cookbooks taking up valuable space. “We always can tell the best cookbook in the house because it’s the one with the most dog ears and the most grease stains — that’s the cookbook that you keep,” she said. “The one that doesn’t even have the binding cracked, that’s the one you can donate (or pass onto a friend) because that cookbook has never been used and it probably never will be.”
For the most part, unless there’s a rare book, it’s not cost effective for Nordman’s company to try to sell a collection. It normally tries to match the books with a charity that can do something with them.
People who haven’t made the transition to computers tend to be paper savers. “That’s tough,” Nordman said. “For example, if you’re got recipes from the ’80s that you’ve never tried, yet they’re still sitting there in your box of recipes, you have to ask yourself, ‘Am I ever going to make this or do I just like the idea of someday making this?’ If it’s something that you actively use, if it’s a friend, then you keep it. If it’s an acquaintance, you think about keeping it, and if it’s a stranger, you let it go.”
Before getting rid of personal papers, Nordman suggested contacting a lawyer and banker to make sure they have no further use. Then, to protect that information from getting in the wrong hands, take advantage of shredding services at office supply stores. “They shred by the pound,” she said. “You can have 40 years of no-longer-needed records gone in a matter of 30 minutes as opposed to you spending weeks and months and years with a little cheap shredder trying to do it all.”
Whether it’s newspaper or magazine articles, recipes, paper items, tools, linens, kitchen items or tablecloths, Nordman shares one basic rule to make the downsizing process much easier: “Realistically, if you haven’t used it in the past five or six years, chances are pretty good you’re not going to need it, so it’s probably OK to let those things go,” she said.
When Nordman’s company surveys a customer’s property, it prioritizes the client’s wishes as well as where items that aren’t being sold or given to family members can find new homes. For example, kitchen items can be utilized by Household Goods Recyling of Massachusetts in Acton, yard tools by Habitat for Humanity, women’s clothing can make a difference at Abby’s House in Worcester, and More Than Words in Waltham has homes for all those books you’ll never open again.
Nordman estimates that 30 percent of her company’s business is caused by an “unanticipated transition” due to a sudden death or an illness forcing someone to move. “We can more than handle an emergency transition and we can do it really well — it takes the stress out of it for the family,” she said.
Resources: Household Goods Recyling of Massachusetts, www.hgrm.org/; Habitat for Humanity, www.habitat.org/; Abby’s House, www.abbyshouse.org/; More Than Words, mtwyouth.org/; NextStage Associates, www.nextstageassociates.com.