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Helping Parents Downsize their Home, Part 2: The Process

Helping parents downsize their home can be a challenge, but these decluttering, organizing, and moving tips will help keep everyone on track for the transition.

Last week we talked about how to find the help and resources you’ll need when helping your parents downsize. We covered getting support, both physical and emotional, and how to use estate sales or liquidators to get rid of the extra stuff.

Now the question is, how do you know which stuff to keep and which to let go of? Or more importantly, how do you help your parents make those decisions in the least stressful way possible, while still staying on a deadline to move out?

That’s really the crux of the matter when it comes to downsizing and moving to a smaller house or living situation, and it’s the issue that can cause the most stress between family members. Let’s talk about how to make it easier!

Helping Parents Downsize Their Home Part 2: The Process

Helping Parents Downsize

In this post we’ll cover how to organize, declutter and make decisions about keeping the household items your parents love and need. Then we’ll talk about how you can help make that process easier for them. Finally I’ll give you all my moving tips to help with that part of the process.

So let’s get started with the decision-making.

Decision Time: Decluttering and Organizing

This is the process for how to figure out which things to keep and which things to let go. Here are some of my best organizing and decision making tips to help you and your parents figure out how to actually downsize.

Obviously, your situation will be unique, based on how much stuff they’re starting with and how much space they’ll have available after the move. This is just a basic framework for how we made decisions about the clothes, furniture, decor, and family heirlooms we had to evaluate throughout the downsizing process.

Downsizing is a lot like decluttering and organizing. We’ll use the same framework I always recommend, with a few small tweaks.

Keep/Donate/Trash + Heirlooms

My method for decluttering usually revolves around three categories: keep, donate, and trash. Here we’re adding a category for heirlooms. We’re also slightly flipping how to corral each category.

In a basic decluttering/organizing situation (not downsizing to move), I put trash in a black trash bag, donations in a white kitchen trash bag, and all the keepers go back into the room or closet that I’m organizing. This is the most streamlined way to organize when you’re staying in place, like when you’re cleaning out a pantry, closet, or garage.

But it’s a little different when you’re moving because the stuff you keep is actually going out the door (to the new house) and the stuff you don’t need anymore is staying in place for the estate sellers or liquidators to pick up.

That means the process is sort of opposite.

In this downsizing and moving situation, you’ll pack up all the keepers, and leave behind everything that falls into the donation or trash categories. When you’re done, the boxes (keepers) go to the new house and everything left behind becomes someone else’s problem. I mean, project.

Heirloom Category

While helping my parents downsize their home, we found we needed to add a fourth category for items that should stay in the family and go to someone else, such as my brother or cousins. These items went into their own boxes which were labeled for the recipient. Then before moving day, we distributed those boxes to the right people, so they didn’t get lost in the move or sold by the liquidator.

A note about heirlooms.

My parents were great about not saving too many “heirlooms” for us. We’d had a few conversations over the years, usually when my mom was ready to get rid of something that used to belong to my brother or me. Like my high school prom dress or his letter jacket, both of which were hanging in a closet she wanted to reclaim for craft supplies.

I once had a client who spent most of her adult life amassing heirloom furniture and dishes for her sons. She was devastated when they told her they didn’t particularly want the pieces, didn’t have room for them, and worst of all, their wives had no attachment to these family heirlooms because they were never a part of their life before marrying into the family.

These conversations can be pretty tricky to navigate, and I suggest you talk early and often about expectations. Hopefully you’ve had most of those conversations prior to the actual downsizing process, so you don’t suddenly inherit a houseful of furniture to save your parents’ feelings.

If those questions do come up during the downsizing process, I think it’s better to gently share your honest feelings when your parents want to pass down something that you have no attachment to. Your parents deserve to know you’re not going to keep that giant crystal vase, in case they’d rather give it to someone else or maybe make a little money on it at the estate sale.

It’s OK to let go.

Sometimes (actually pretty darn often) we want to give things to family members because we can’t stand to let go of them even if we don’t have room for them. It’s a form of deferred decision making, and can really derail the whole downsizing process.

Here’s what to say (as gently as possible!) to your parents if you find heirlooms becoming a problem during your downsizing: “Resist the urge to think that everything that was once special to you is a family heirloom that should be preserved for posterity. It’s OK to let things go to a total stranger at an estate sale when you no longer need or have space for the item. That’s actually better than burdening a family member with something that causes the same problem down the road.”

Easier said than done.

The household items that potentially fall into the “heirloom” category are the trickiest decisions to make, and depending on your parents’ personalities and your family dynamics, these can be difficult conversations. Try not to have too many on one day.

If you find yourself deep in a contentious decision about personal treasures, try backing up to a different area of the house for a little break. Maybe clean out a bathroom in between to give you all a breather and let emotions calm down.

Helping without Hurting

Speaking of emotions, let’s chat about how to help your parents downsize without hurting their hearts through this difficult time. Here are a few things that I learned as we were going through our downsizing process.

Find the Light at the End of the Tunnel

When going through a big life change, it helps to know your Why. My parents’ reason for moving was clear, but leaving their beloved home was a tough pill to swallow. It helped immensely that they were able to find a new home to fall in love with and feel like they were moving toward something good, instead of just away from something they loved.

Take some time to try to find something positive with your parents about their move. Hopefully they’ll be going into a new situation that may be different, but will also be better in some way.

Keeping your eye on the light will help get you through the dark times.

Be Patient but Set Deadlines

One way or another, this move’s gotta happen. That’s just basic math. Once your parents have decided to move, it’s time to get started on the process. No waiting till the last minute!

If you break the process down into smaller chunks and stay on your timeline, it will be easier to be patient and make adjustments along the way. If you wait till you’re crunched for time at the end, everyone’s patience will be sorely tested.

I’m a master procrastinator, but even I knew we didn’t have the luxury of putting this one off, and sure enough, we were still working right up to the moving day!

Start with the Easy Win

When faced with an overwhelming project, I like to start with one of the smallest tasks. I like the jolt of confidence I get from an easy (and early) win.

When we started the downsizing process, we started with the least emotional space in my parents’ house, a rarely used guest room. It was pretty quick and easy to decide that most everything in there could be let go. That helped us feel like we’d gotten through a whole room in pretty short order. The rest of the rooms were harder, but at least we had one behind us!

Progress over Perfection

This is a good time to remember that any progress is good progress. Not every day is going to be filled with big wins and noticeable gains, but every day that you’re working, something is getting done. And sometimes that’s enough.

Balance Logic with Love

I LOVE organizing and decluttering. It’s real easy to tell other people what to get rid of. And so satisfying!

Throughout this whole downsizing journey, I found that I could make much more logical decisions than my parents. (Don’t tell them I said that.) But you know what?


The decisions that made total sense to me sometimes got caught up in a flood of emotion and nostalgia to them. And that’s OK. Just because there is a logical answer to something, that doesn’t make it the best answer.

If my mom loves her giant canopy bed, even though it doesn’t really fit the new bedroom, then by golly, we will find a way to make that bed fit.

As far as telling you how to balance logic with love, I would say this: Use logic as sparingly as possible and lean on love as much as possible. That should get the basics done and keep your relationship intact.

Facilitate, Don’t Force

Finally, let’s talk about your role. Your job is to help this process stay on track, provide support to your folks, and be the person who helps get things done.

At the end of the day, it’s not your house, it’s not your stuff, and it’s not your life.

Well, it is a little bit because I know this is affecting your life. But in the long run, your parents are the ones who have to live day in and day out with these decisions. So don’t make them get rid of something they really think they’ll want or need in the new house.

Sometimes the only way to know that is to make the move, live with the new situation a while, and then figure out what to keep and what to get rid of. While it’s not satisfyingly efficient for the moving process, it’s the gentlest way of going through this transition.

So help as much as you can, but your parents will need to make their own decisions, and you can best serve them by supporting them.

Helping Parents with the Move

Once you’ve decided what to keep and what to let go of, it’s time to get ready to move all the keepers to the new place. Whether you and your family are doing it yourself, or you’re hiring a moving team, here are a few suggestions to make everything go a little smoother throughout the process.

Before Moving Day

As you and your parents are going through the house, decluttering and organizing, be sure you keep track of what will be left behind for selling or donating, separately from what they’ll be packing and moving to the new house.

With my parents, we used a system that designated a couple of areas in the house for “take with us” items, and everything else was to be left behind. That way, as we went through their belongings, we would just move them to the “keep” area to be boxed and moved.

(In their case, they hired not only movers, but also packers. This was a life-saver for all of us. Of course, it’s an extra expense, but well worth every penny.)

If you are packing yourself, or doing the whole process yourself, I recommend packing boxes immediately as you go through belongings. That way, everything packed in a box will be moved, and everything not packed will be left behind for the estate sales people.

And of course, as you pack boxes of things to keep, be sure to write on the outside what’s in the box. It’s one thing to label “kitchen” but it’s much better to label “silverware.” More on that in a moment…

Go Bag

One extremely important thing to pack is a “go bag.” This is a bag or box of the items that your parents need every day. This way, once the move happens, they can take their time unpacking boxes because they won’t be frantically digging through each one to find their evening medications.

Woman in striped shirt holding an orange suitcase

Go Bag Contents:

  • A couple days of clothes, underwear, and pajamas
  • Toothbrush, toothpaste and grooming essentials
  • Medications
  • Towel, washcloth, soap
  • Snacks
  • Water bottles
  • Picnic silverware, plates, cups and napkins
  • Phones and chargers

Funny story… We didn’t think to pack plates and silverware for easy access on moving day. After I left for the evening, my parents realized they had nothing to eat on or with. So being the resourceful people they’ve always been, they ordered pizza and a salad for dinner. They knew if they ordered pizza, they’d get a box of pizza, but the salad would also come with forks and paper plates.

I arrived the next morning around breakfast time to find my dad eating dry cereal out of a box with a fork! Oh well, at least they weren’t going hungry.

On Moving Day

Moving day can be a stressful experience under the best of circumstances, but with mobility-impaired parents, it’s essential to get help. I’m here to tell you that it will be very difficult for you to tend to their needs throughout the day if you are also trying to pack a truck.

I know not everyone can afford a moving company, but it’s worth calling a few for quotes. I was actually surprised at how affordable it was to use a reputable local moving company. If that’s not an option for your family, hopefully there are friends or other family members who can help.

No matter who’s doing the heavy lifting, someone needs to be in charge of decision making for the day. We designated my mom, who has the strongest opinions (rightfully so) about her things. We parked her in a comfy chair and crowned her the queen of the move. Anyone who had a question about where something should go knew who to ask. That streamlined the process considerably.

That also freed me up to do the running back and forth that goes along with moving. I could keep an eye on my parents, go grab lunch, take the endless phone calls, and make sure everything was running smoothly.

It was an exhausting day, but we all got through it, and no one even cried!

After Moving Day

Once your parents have moved, it can take a while to unpack and organize, even to know where things should go. Give it time and plan to stay involved in the process on a consistent basis.

Sometimes it can be easy enough to get through the moving process running on adrenaline, but the reality can set in much later, so watch for changes in your parents’ physical and emotional health.

In our situation, I try to go over to the new house about once a week. We chat, maybe unpack a box or two, and spend a few minutes decorating together. It helps all of us feel that their new house is really their home now.

I also try to bring the granddaughters over frequently. Nothing makes grandparents happier than having their grandkids around! Also, I may have ulterior motives for teaching my children how to take care of parents.

Speaking of Good Parenting…

Growing up, my parents taught me we don’t always get to choose what happens to us in life, but we can always choose how we respond. That is the lesson I appreciate most from my parents, and the one I’m still trying to learn, as well as trying to teach my kids.

Helping your parents downsize can be tough on everyone, but tough times are what family is for, right?

This is one of those times when I admire my folks for their strength, their faith, and their unfailing great attitudes. And now that we’ve all gotten through it, we can have a lot more fun just being together.

I hope if you are going through this journey with your parents, that yours are almost as wonderful as mine are.

Have any of your own tips on helping parents downsize their home? I’d love to hear them! Leave me a comment below.


Thursday 6th of October 2022

I'm enjoying the visual of my uncle eating cereal from the box with a fork. Love you guys!


Friday 14th of October 2022

Right?! He's a trooper! Love you too!


Creating a color-filled life. Conquering my little world one DIY project at a time. With lots of coffee and chocolate. Albuquerque NM. Pinterest ~ Instagram ~ Facebook