August 25, 2017

The downsizing dilemma

How to lose the clutter without giving up your memories

By kathleen freimond

Making the decision to downsize is the easy part. It’s when you actually start clearing out your possessions that things get tough.

“That’s because when people are dealing with their possessions, what they’re really dealing with is their personal history and everything is imbued with memories,” says professional organizer Susan Borax, co-owner of Good Riddance Professional Organizing Solutions. Her partner, Heather Knittel, adds, “It’s more about the memories associated with an object than whether it’s something that is actually going to be used.”

Downsizers often don’t realize how emotional the process is until they start, says Allison Queeley, owner of Serenity Now Organising. “You quickly get a great sense of the enormity of the task and then often stop because it’s just too much to deal with,” she says. “You don’t think you’re that tied to material objects until you try to get rid of them.”

And it’s not just a sense of loss that homeowners struggle with. Once people clear out their cupboards, basements and attics, they are often surprised to discover how much they own, and disheartened to realize how money and time they spent acquiring possessions that have sometimes never been used. “The sheer amount of what they own often makes people feel guilty,” says Queeley. “It takes some time and some practice to get used to dealing with that, acknowledging it, and still continuing to purge.”

“You don’t think you’re that tied to material objects until you try to get rid of them.”

– Allison Queeley

Emotional issues aside, downsizers also need to plan for the size of their new place, and what will fit in it. “It’s difficult to grasp the difference in scale and accept that it’s necessary to buy furniture that will work in the smaller space,” says Lise Brown, owner of Start Fresh Organizing, who notes that downsizers often hope to continue using their old furniture, even if it won’t fit in the new home.

Marilee Congo of Upscale Downsizing, who focuses on relocation and interior redesign, says space planning for the new home is critical. “Many people don’t have a good spatial sense and when they look at a show suite, they often don’t recognize that the styling, the mirrors and the smaller-size furniture are what make the suite look larger.” She suggests taking a cue from show suite stagers and using mirrors to reflect light and space, glass tabletops that don’t occupy visual space, and round dining tables that are often a more comfortable fit in a smaller space. And, she says, if you do want to keep favourite pieces, occasional chairs and small chests of drawers can work in smaller spaces where traditional dining tables and sofas might not.

Queeley encourages downsizers to think of the move as a new beginning and an adventure. “Consider the size of the new home and what you want it to be,” she says. “A great question to ask is: Do you love this (item)? If you had the space, would you buy it today? Often the answer is no—so why bring it into a new home?”

“Encourage family members to walk through the house and choose anything they would like
to keep.”
Lise Brown

Even once the decision has been made to get rid of clutter, it can lead to the challenging situation of what happens when parents want to gift items to their children and family. “People hold on to items for years thinking their children will want them, but that is often not the case. And feelings are easily hurt when this happens,” says Brown. “I suggest they make a fun evening of it and invite their loved ones to a family garage sale. Encourage family members to walk through the house and choose anything they would like to keep.”

Instead, look for appropriate organizations to receive unwanted items. “It helps if we can help find good homes for unwanted belongings, either through sale or donation,” says Knittel. Selling online and using consignment stores are other options, but Borax cautions people about over-valuing their possessions. “A difficult part of our job is explaining that if you have owned something for 20 years and it’s worked for you, then it doesn’t owe you anything,” she says.

There are ways to get rid of items and still preserve memories. “For example, making a quilt from clothes or other fabrics lets you reminisce about many life events with just one keepsake,” says Queeley. And, she adds, “These days, people keep photos on their computers, so working with someone to digitize photos can be really positive. People who receive them often post them on Facebook or share them on social media, and enjoy them.”

Finally, if the downsizing process seems too overwhelming, the experts suggest that people seriously consider working with a consultant who specializes in downsizing and can help make the process more manageable.

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