Moving into a senior living community often requires a large downsize. It’s not uncommon to move from a 3,000 sf home to an 800 sf independent living apartment or a 550 sf assisted living apartment.
This reality immediately begs the question, “what do I do with all of my stuff?”
Some of this stuff isn’t just stuff, though. It is years-and-years of bundled-up memories.
In this article, we use nine tips inspired by Marie Kondo’s hit book, The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up, to make this transition easier.
First Off – Who is Marie Kondo?
Marie Kondo is the archetypal tidying consultant from a culture (Japanese Culture) known for bringing simplicity and order out of chaos.
Conventional wisdom argues that tidying should be done in small amounts daily and on a room-by-room basis. Ms. Kondo throws this thought process on its head by saying: “tidy a little each day and you’ll be tidying forever”.
Her method, the KonMari method, employs a dramatic, comprehensive tidying event that involves discarding many things and organizing the rest.
How do you decide what to keep and what to throw away?
Sounds weird, I know, but it is truly magical.
Why Would We Use the KonMari Method?
Ms. Kondo’s method is a perfect solution to make the process of downsizing into a senior living apartment easier, and here’s why:
The method involves one large, tidying event – that parallels perfectly with the major downsize to senior living that occurs all at once.
The method provides a mechanism to decide what to keep and why – Since seniors often have accumulated many things, a blessing and a curse from years of abundance, deciding what to do with those things can be difficult. Ms. Kondo’s method provides a decision tool and thought process to make those decisions easier.
It helps you deal with the emotional aspect of this change – the method provides perspective and insight into the role, value, and purpose of things and how that value changes over time.
The method emphasizes organizing by category versus by location – since you’re moving anyway, you might as well get a sense of all that you own of a particular category. This makes it easier to discard things.
So, without any further ado, here are our nine tips to make moving to a senior living community easier.
1. Use Joy and Gratitude – a Recipe for Letting Go
Moving to a senior living community often requires that you discard many things, and so does the KonMari method.
This can be hard for seniors or their children, but Ms. Kondo offers a nugget of wisdom in deciding what to keep and what to let go of.
She instructs you to hold the object in in your hand and ask yourself, does this spark joy?
Spark joy, eh? Maybe you or your parents are never going to do this, but internalizing the depth of joy required to continue to store and maintain something when space becomes a premium, helps frame the difficult decisions you’ll have to make.
I know what you’re thinking, “But all of my things bring me joy?”
That’s probably not true.
Things are tools that supplement our lives; they aren’t life itself. They may represent a time, a place, an emotion, or a relationship to us, but they aren’t those things in and of themselves.
Things that truly spark joy for you are only those with the strongest of sentimental connections or the most functionality, which make your life richer and easier, today.
This gets us to Ms. Kondo’s next strategy to make letting go easier: having gratitude for how an item has served us.
We do this already, perhaps subconsciously.
For instance, many women store their wedding dresses after their wedding day. They’ll get a beautiful box that perfectly encloses and displays their wedding dress. To protect it from the elements, they’ll store it in an air-conditioned area instead of in the garage or a shed.
In essence, they’re showing respect and gratitude for an item that served them on one of the biggest days of their lives: their wedding day.
They wore the dress while celebrating their new marriage and while surrounded by friends and family whom they love. It is truly something to cherish.
The dress may have been expensive, it may have required sacrifice of time and money to obtain, or deciding on it required tactful negotiations with future in-laws, but it did its part well.
For that they’re thankful.
Over time, however, the cost and difficulty of storing and maintaining or the passing of seasons in life may make the costs of keeping something outweigh the utility it provides to you.
For instance, maybe you’re tired of dusting off the sewing machine from a previous life sewing pillows, or perhaps you’re tired of vacuuming that oriental rug, or maybe your golf fad has passed and the clubs are no longer of use to you. At the time, those things were very useful, but now it is time to let go.
The KonMari method asks us to use the gratitude we already have for things as a means of letting go.
When we decide to discard something, we must first say “Thank you” to the item for its service. By thanking the item, we’ve brought its purpose full-circle.
After being thanked for its service to you, the item is free to be given to and used by others, or perhaps it has no value to others and needs to be discarded.
But to you, at that time, it had tremendous value, and for that you’re grateful.
Now, you can let go.
But this process isn’t just about letting go, it is about deciding what to keep.
David and Nancy Thornton moved to a 2-bedroom and 2-bathroom independent living cottage in Cary, NC several years ago. Moving from a two-story home, that was about twice the size, they had many things to either keep or discard. The move required a major downsize and some of their items ended up in their daughter’s basement, but they also discarded many things.
One set of items that Ms. Thornton couldn’t depart with was her collection of bells.
Ms. Thornton has a collection of ceramic and other bells that she has collected over 50 years. These remind her of places or key events in her life.
When she moved, Ms. Thornton had to discard many things, and she knew that the bells were of no particular value to her kids, grandkids, or others.
They were so valuable to her though, that she and Mr. Thornton had to make space for them. To her, they spark joy.
So, she surrounded herself with them in their new independent living cottage.
2. Create an Order to the Ordering
Ms. Kondo’s method has a very specific order in which you should organize your things. The order is essentially sorted from easiest to decide on, or discard of, to hardest.
Her key point here is that you shouldn’t start with what she calls mementos, or highly-sentimental items. Otherwise, you may not make any progress after trying to decide whether or not to keep the tea set that your father gave to you when you were a little girl.
Save that decision for when you’ve clarified what you need, realized how many tea sets that you already have, and strengthened your intuition as to what is most valuable to you.
Ms. Kondo doesn’t really hit on furniture in her first book, since her book is more focused around tidying an existing space than moving into a new one, but don’t worry, we’ve got that covered a couple of points later.
3. Visualize Life in Your New Senior Living Community
The first step in this process is to visualize your life in your new space. That is, the life that you want to live while in the senior living community.
Are you moving to an independent living community so that you don’t have to mow a big lawn or shovel snow anymore?
What are you going to do with this freed-up time? Maybe you’ll play cards, have lunch out with friends, volunteer, garden more, or spend more time with your grandkids. Think about what you plan on doing, and what you’ll need to do it. Maybe your tennis playing days are over, but you still love to knit, or drink coffee while sitting on the patio, or whatever.
The KonMari method asks you to visualize your ideal life in the space first, because the lifestyle you choose will determine what you need.
After you’ve thought through the lifestyle, look at the apartment or cottage that you’re going to live-in.
If you haven’t already, then it is always helpful to tour the space. This makes it easier to visualize where your furniture and other things will go.
Maybe, you’re moving to the apartment or cottage from out of state, then perhaps pictures, video, or a walk-through virtual tour through facetime or online will have to do.
Next, ask the community for a floor plan or download one from online. With the floor plan in hand, you can get more concrete in visualizing where and how things will fit.
Any furniture drawn on the floor plan is likely not to scale. So that three-piece sectional that you were eyeing for the main living room almost certainly won’t fit.
4. Start with the Most Functional Items: Key Furniture
Applying Ms. Kondo’s thought process, we suggest starting with key furniture, since these are highly functional items that you’ll almost surely need. These typically include the bed that you sleep on, the dresser holding your clothes, other key furniture, and whatever personal items you need to get through the day.
If you get your floor plan and mark where these go then you’ve already defined how you will use some of your new space. Congratulations, your first decision is made. This will frame future decisions, making them easier.
Now you can start finding a spot for secondary things. Since you’re on the furniture category, it’s probably helpful to look at what additional furniture that you’ll need.
If your apartment has a second bedroom, then you can decide if you want that as a guest room or if you’d rather use it for something else. We’ve seen second bedrooms used for a sewing room or as an office. Pick what fits your lifestyle, which you visualized in part one. Maybe you want a quiet place to do some reading. Then a couple of your favorite chairs, a small table, and that lamp you inherited from your mom might be in order.
Does your apartment or cottage have a small eating space? Maybe your large, family dining table where you served great suppers doesn’t fit, but it’s a great spot for that formica table from the 50’s.
5. Follow These Helpful Tips for Additional Categories
People store clothing all over their houses, so it is difficult to know how much they have and use. They store it in their master closet, guest closets, hall closets, hampers, storage bins in attics, etc.. To get a true sense of all you own, gather it together in one place and then you can hone-it down to only those clothes that fit the new lifestyle you’re visualizing for yourself.
Ms. Kondo has a unique method for folding clothes. We’re not going to cover it here, since it’s outside the scope of this article, but you can learn about it in the book or on the tv show.
Ms. Kondo points out that most books are not reread, so their purpose is fulfilled in the initial conveyance of information from when you read it the first time, or in our case, if you ever read it. She recommends keeping only a small collection.
If your community has a library, then you may consider donating your extra books to it. Otherwise, donating to local libraries, churches, or thrift stores can be a good choice.
This quote pretty much sums up Ms. Kondo’s recommendations on papers:
Basically, she suggests getting rid of any papers after their short period of use, except for the small group that you need to keep indefinitely (birth certificates, marriage certificates, etc.). This means throwing away a lot of paper, but it’s better than storing it.
Komono (Miscellaneous Things) –
This category includes appliances, makeup, stationery, sewing materials, household supplies, and kitchen goods.
Disposing of these becomes a clear question of whether or not the item sparks joy.
It’s not helpful to be surrounded by things that don’t bring you joy, and you probably aren’t going to have much space for those in your senior living apartment (or cottage or duplex) anyway.
6. Spread the Joy – Strategically
Once you’ve decided to discard something and thanked it for its service, now you must decide what to do with it. You have a couple of options here: give it away to friends and family, donate it to the goodwill or another thrift store, or throw it away.
Giving to friends and family is always a great option. This is especially true for items that your family members may find useful.
For instance, you may give some of your extra silverware to a grandson that just finished college and is moving into his own place.
Whomever you decide to give it to, and however you decide to give it, it’s key to be strategic.
For instance, maybe you used to store fresh-baked pies in a lovely pie safe. Giving this to your granddaughter who loves to bake is probably a safe bet, and may bring her lots of joy. Giving it to your son that doesn’t know how to sift flour, is probably not a good idea.
Sometimes seniors will let their kids come through and pick whatever they want to keep. If time permits, this can be a helpful process.
By choosing something, they’re showing that the item is of use to them and not unwanted. Just make sure that you communicate clearly with all involved and establish an order, so that there are no hard feelings.
7. An Unwanted Gift – Understanding When Others Don’t Want Your Stuff
Ms. Kondo tells a funny story in her book. When she was developing her method, she got into a deep discarding phase where she was getting rid of many of her own (and sometimes others!) things.
Because some of the clothes that she didn’t want were still of some value to her, she would have difficulty donating or discarding them.
To make herself feel better about discarding them, she would give them to her younger sister, who would passively accept them.
Her younger sister, didn’t want these clothes, but Ms. Kondo didn’t fully understand this until she was later working with one of her own clients.
The client had a closet just overflowing with clothes, about a third of which had been given to her by her sister in a similar fashion. Ms. Kondo suggested that she choose the clothing that sparked joy for her.
What the client inevitably chose to keep were the t-shirts and jeans that she loved, but she gave away many of the skirts or revealing outfits that her sister had passed-off on her.
This struck a chord with Ms. Kondo, when she realized that she’d done the same thing to her younger sister.
The point is, that what you’re giving to someone else needs to be a joy to them and not a burden. It needs to match what their true needs and interests are, not your expectation of what those should be.
This can be difficult to discern, because the way that we see our own things can be so obscured. We may greatly value something because of the way that it made us feel when we were given it or bought it.
For instance, when you were a kid maybe you were having a tough time adjusting to elementary school in a new state. The kids in the new school weren’t as nice and you missed your old friends.
To help make the transition easier, your father bought you a tea set and had tea parties with you. The tea set may not have been particularly rare or expensive, but the way it made you feel was powerful.
The tea set made you feel warm and accepted, and you began to have tea parties with some of your new friends. That’s how you look at the tea set when you hold it in your hands, but others may not get the same feeling.
Your kids and grandkids didn’t feel the struggles in adjusting to the new situation that you felt, and they didn’t feel the comfort and acceptance you felt when your father gave you the gift.
Even if you explain the importance and context of the gift to them, it may be difficult for them to understand.
Your children may carry your DNA, many of your personality quirks, the way you talk, how you look, how you think in some regards, what you value, but they have different experiences.
They have grown up at a different time and with unique context and challenges in their lives. So, how exactly they value something may differ.
If all else fails, you can always give some of your things to a goodwill or other thrift store and maybe they will give someone else the same joy that you have experienced.
8. Tips to Ease the Awkwardness of Choosing for Others
Are you helping a parent move to a memory care or assisted living community? Making the decision as to what needs to be moved and what should we be done with other items can be difficult. Especially, if you’re the only child in the area. Here are a couple of tips:
Share the Burden – if you’re the only child in the area, then ask your siblings to come visit for a couple of days to help with the move. Additional help means that you will have more hands to carry things, more buy-in in making decisions, more people to spend time with your parent/s, and will hopefully avoid future questions about what was done with your parent’s things.
Discard / Move While the Parent is Away – if you can, move or discard things from the house when the parent is away. Seeing one’s things being moved or discarded can be very stressful for anyone, but particularly for someone struggling with dementia or Alzheimer’s. This is another reason why having other siblings around can be helpful. One sibling can spend time with your parent or parents while the other completes the move. Don’t forget to take turns if you get tired.
Ms. Kondo’s book hits on the dynamics of this in her book. Many family members will discourage others when the individual wants to discard or give-away certain items.
Put Yourself in Your Parent’s Shoes –to best decide what to furnish and place in your parent’s memory care apartment, try to think about their things like they do. If golf was important to your father, put his picture of Augusta National on the wall. If your mom has a favorite book, put it on the shelves.
This is pretty obvious advice, but the devil is in the details of truly selecting what matters to your mom or dad.
Many memory care communities have special nooks next to the doors of the apartments. Keepsakes, mementos, and photos can be placed in those nooks so that the residents can find the way back to their apartment.
Think about Safety – one key aspect of moving into memory care is that the community is designed around the safety of the residents. Memory care apartments do not have stoves or ovens for obvious reasons. Cleaning materials and scissors or knives, are among several items that you’ll want to refrain from taking with you.
Medications, even over-the-counter, are usually not permitted in the residents’ rooms. This is because the resident or other residents may ingest the wrong medication or take too high of a dose.
In any case, ask the memory care community for a list of items that should not be moved into the apartment.
9. Know When to Call-in Help
There are a couple of situations where calling in extra help from friends/family or a professional service may be your best strategy.
You need to move quickly for health reasons –
If you have a health event, such as hip surgery after a fall and it looks like you need to permanently move to an assisted living community, then you are probably going to need immediate help in moving your things and figuring out what to discard and keep.
Try to communicate clearly with your family on what you want to keep, since it can be difficult to do this remotely. Perhaps ask for descriptions or photos of items if there are some things that you aren’t sure about.
You’re moving from afar or don’t want to handle the process –
If you’re moving from several states away to a senior living community near your kids or grandkids or a favorite vacation area, then you probably want to call in help.
There are several senior focused services that will help you categorize and move what you want to keep. Anything left they will either sell, donate, or throw away.
We’ve heard of many senior living residents having good experiences from using these services. Removing some of the burden of the move can be a big help.
But be sure to read reviews online and ask for referrals before going with a particular company. Also, be very clear about what you want to go where. The more explicit you are, the better. Explicitly marking items and their future destination is key.
If you just can’t part with some of your things and they won’t fit in your assisted living apartment, then you can always rent a storage unit.
Many independent living and assisted living communities offer storage units for rent, often in the parking garage.
Ms. Kondo won’t be pleased, but don’t worry, we won’t tell her.
Moving to a senior living community can be very difficult. Downsizing from a 2,000-4,000+ sf single-family home to a 300-1,400 sf senior living apartment can be tough.
But if you apply some of Ms. Kondo’s advice, then you may find yourself surrounded by things you love, that let you live the life you want to live.
- Kondō, M. (2016). The life-changing magic of tidying up: The Japanese art of decluttering and organizing. North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.