A retired couple in their small rental home with their three grandchildren to illustrate a story about downsizing tips for seniors.
Janet Swearengin and her husband, Gary, downsized twice when he retired in 2019. They sold their house so they could move to be closer to their grandchildren. They went from a longtime home to a smaller house, then to 55+ rental housing two years later. “There’s no easy way to get rid of a lifetime full of things,” she said. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)

What are we going to do with all this stuff?! 

It’s a question more people confront every day as they or their parents reach retirement age. 

Approximately 58,000 people aged 65 and older live in Wichita, according to latest census figures. Slightly more than half of these retirees will downsize from their longtime residence, moving into something more manageable — a smaller home or a senior living community. 

Common reasons to downsize include saving money on a smaller home, eliminating home maintenance chores, moving near family or a better climate and taking health-minded steps to age more safely, near readily available medical care.  

While downsizing offers such benefits, it can also be more complex and emotional than they realize, said Katherine Ambrose, a real estate agent and president of the nonprofit Empowered Senior.  Some seniors experience such a severe reaction that it leads to medical problems.

“Everything we accumulate in our house represents ideas, dreams. That’s why it’s so hard,” says Ambrose, a certified senior downsizing coach in Wichita. “We are facing our mortality and saying goodbye to chapters of our life, our younger days, our children’s younger days.” 

These downsizing tips for seniors make one thing clear: The best way to ensure a good experience is through planning.  

When is the best time to start household downsizing?

It’s better to downsize while you’re younger and still healthy than when you’re forced to make a move by bad health, experts say. Ideally, the downsizing process could take several months to a few years. 

Ambrose suggests allowing one to five years to purge a household, connect to vendors and consider where you want to move. 

Make sure you have a place purchased or leased to go to, she said, before you put your house on the market. Moving trucks also need to be booked weeks in advance and sometimes need to load your things in advance of your move-in date if you are moving out of state. 

Janet Swearengin and her husband Gary of Maize, who retired in 2019, downsized twice. They went from a longtime home to a smaller house nearer their children, and then to 55+ rental housing two years later when health and mobility issues made it necessary to live where yard and home maintenance are provided.  

Each move they got rid of more possessions, with an estate sale on their last move. The company took two weeks to price everything, sell it and clean out the house. The Swearengins then put the house up for sale. They had already signed a lease with The Villas at Hampton Lakes, but had a two-month wait for new construction to be completed.

Downsizing tips for seniors: Should I do garage sales or an estate sale?

“It was hard to find an estate sale company,” Swearengin said. “Some would not do it if you did not have $10,000 worth of goods to sell.” Others were booked too far ahead to use.

She admitted it was a stressful time and she had emotional attachments to some items she now regrets selling. “I had a bad time letting go of things, but I didn’t have room.”  

Ambrose’s downsizing tips for seniors include picking estate sales over trying to have your own garage sales. “They may take 35-45 percent of your sales, but they will make you more money by attracting the right shoppers and getting the prices you deserve.” 

Many only do one sale a month, and they are often booked for several weeks ahead. Her nonprofit Empowered Senior has consulting services and can help you interview and negotiate rates. She has resources for moving and resettling as well as professionals who can help you with legal documents. 

Her own mother, Barbara O’Connor, relocated from the Chicago area back to Wichita two years ago. Her husband was a shopper at garage sales and flea markets. “He was constantly bringing stuff home.” After he passed away in 2014, she moved his things to the attic for five years, then sold them on eBay. “It was like having another job, writing everything up, getting payment, and shipping.” 

How do I find a smaller place to move?

Finally, she told Ambrose she wanted to move back to the Wichita area, and Ambrose  found O’Connor a place at The Villas at Hampton Lakes, urging O’Connor to sign the lease and move in sight unseen because of the scarcity of units. 

O’Connor sold her house in Illinois after she moved, but she felt rushed. “I wish I had taken a little more time before I put the house on the market. I gave away a lot of furniture and had to bring fancy pottery, glass and dishes with me that I sold through people in Wichita who do estate sales. 

“People hang on too long,” O’Connor said. “They’re afraid to make a move. They know it’s coming, but they wait. It’s more traumatic. There’s no easy way to get rid of a lifetime full of things. The market is flooded with stuff.” 

What is relocation stress syndrome?

Downsizing and moving when you are an older adult are not the same as when you are younger. It’s much harder physically and emotionally. If you have to rush into a relocation decision or go through your possessions at the last minute, it only adds stress. It is not uncommon for older adults to have a health crisis soon after moving. 

Relocation stress syndrome (RSS) is a medical condition described by Deborah Moyer of the Downsizing Institute in Oregon. RSS is when older adults experience a severe emotional response to some type of stressful transition such as a downsizing move. 

Examples are a fall, stroke or other severe illness that requires them to be hospitalized. RSS can also create a temporary condition that can last up to six months with anxiety, brain fog, sadness, sleep disturbance, appetite issues, even hallucinations. If this happens to you or a loved one, it’s best to address the symptoms and talk them through.

It is helpful to enjoy your favorite daily rituals and set up your new home to mirror where you had items in the same place as before. 

Where can I find downsizing tips for seniors?

There are more resources than ever before for older adults to get help with downsizing.  “People need to realize they don’t have to do it all themselves,” said Kirsten Awe, founder and CEO of Rightsize Moving Solutions in Wichita. She said the National Association of Senior Move Managers has people all over the country trained to help in a compassionate and caring way.   

Her moving services include helping in transition, from floor planning to professional packers, including organizing your home or helping with the leftover items. “People are more willing to give away items with emotional attachments to a charity near and dear to their hearts,” such as homeless and women’s crisis shelters and veterans’ organizations, she said. 

Her business has seen a big increase as more people are aware that companies like hers exist.  “People are living longer and are healthier.” She said they may move a few times in their later years, from independent 55+ communities to assisted living, and then to nursing homes. 

“It’s good to remind ourselves that the difficulty in downsizing is not about being lazy, slow or disorganized,” Ambrose said.  

“It’s about facing the most meaningful parts of who we are, decisions we have made, how we parented, everything about how we have lived our life. It takes boldness and courage to tackle this before we are forced due to an urgent crisis — which becomes a default future. Downsizing is about creating our future by design.”

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Cecilia Green is a freelancer covering issues relevant to seniors. She was an award-winning PR director for professional associations in Chicago for 25 years before she and her husband moved back to Wichita...