Updated: Mar 15, 2022
The Idea of Rightsizing
Today I welcome Susan Gardner as a contributing author on a series of articles about moving. Whether you're moving cross-country to "be closer to the grandkids," finally going to your dream home, or finally going to a retirement community, you have to move. As our author would say, you get to "pick up every single item and put it somewhere else." Susan's expertise in this area is hard won. Enjoy this series.
When we have one major change in our lives, it is common to have others close by, like dominoes falling. With retirement often comes a move, if not immediately, then eventually. Moving, even for the best of reasons, is one of life’s major stressors. Not only is the physical mountain of work moving creates hard to climb, but also coming into play with this change are often-unrecognized mental, emotional and spiritual dynamics. In this first article, I will lay the groundwork for positive changes, starting with some of those underlying issues.
Finding a Role Model
My teacher about positive change came early in my ministry. Mother Harris, whom I met just prior to her 100th birthday, was virtually blind and deaf, yet she was able to establish new relationships. She not only knew when I had come to visit, but she also recounted to her son our conversations. From her son and daughter-in-law, I learned her story of resilience and self-control over her changing circumstances.
As a widow in her middle years, she moved in with them while they were both in professional careers and rearing two small children. She made this three-generation household a delight with positive attitudes, loving spirit and efficient care. Later, as her son and daughter-in-law approached retirement, Mother Harris said one day, “I know that when you retire you’ll want to travel and have time without being concerned for my well-being. I found a nice place to move to that is nearby. I’ll be near you and my friends.” Her daughter-in-law said they hadn’t even considered this possibility, but they were appreciative of her thoughtfulness towards them.
Years later, when the couple was building a house on the daughter-in-law’s home place in Tennessee, Mother Harris once again maintained control over her own destiny as her health was declining. She asked them to find an appropriate place for her to move into near their new home, saying, “I don’t want you to have to come back to Georgia to care for me, and I’ll be able to adjust to a new place just fine.” It was in this place, a nursing home, where I met her and came to love her unconquerable spirit.
Mother Harris was able to accept her changing circumstances. With a keen mind she thought through her options and communicated with her family. She knew the secret of facing change without adding extra layers of uncertainty and grief. She also drew upon her great self-confidence to know that she would be able to establish a sense of belonging wherever she lived, especially if she remained close to her family. The way in which she managed those transitions continued to increase the bonds of family, especially with her grandchildren and their children. She is a role model for us.
Dealing With Possessions
Dealing with possessions may at first—and even second—glance seem like just a practical task of making a move, but it is so much more. Let’s explore some of those below-the-surface dynamics that make preparing for a new home so challenging.
In some ways, retirement is similar to early adulthood in that you are figuring out what you want to do with the rest of your life—a major emotional and spiritual issue. You also are wondering what kind of living places you want to call home. Even before a decision to move, you begin preparing. Getting in touch with your possessions is a perfect way to regroup in retirement. Evaluating possessions offers the opportunity to reflect—remembering, perhaps grieving, celebrating. The task also becomes an opportunity to anticipate and to renew as you consider what you need and want for your life ahead.
“Rightsizing,” clearing the emotional space and getting the square footage that will adapt with our changing physical and social needs, becomes a healthy response to the huge amount of stuff that many of us have easily accumulated in the culture of consumption. As one woman said to me, “I just woke up one day and couldn’t imagine how I ended up with so many small appliances and gadgets in my kitchen.” With that realization she was able to laugh at her itch for the latest “timesaver” and to let most of them go without batting an eye. She marveled at the accessibility of the things that remained when they were no longer packed into the cabinets like puzzle pieces. While letting go, she asked her children if they wanted any of the excess items and was proud of them for not adding novelty to their own kitchens, content with what they already had.
Many of us have lifetime of accumulating. When we began housekeeping, grandparents were ready to give the grandchildren their unmatched dishes and flatware. Parents let go of a few pieces of furniture. Wedding gifts arrived to be used—or stored. Fifteen years after being married, my husband, Bud, and I discovered we had a whole box of brand new towels and washcloths in a closet. I don’t think we have ever bought a towel for ourselves! And with growing careers, some of us were able to move beyond that “early attic” style and choose things we liked for ourselves. Then we began inheriting items from parents and other relatives. Expecting that our children would need or want a significant portion of what we had, we kept them, only to learn that our Millennials by and large do not want the same things we value.
Culling through a lifetime of treasures brings up memories, feelings, and unexpected challenges, as well as delights. Still that task is there. To deal with it all, we need a sense of proportion, an eye for aesthetics, a balance of emotion and practicality, and positive outlets for things being culled.
A sense of proportion is necessary as we rightsize our belongings. We need things that fit in our space comfortably and that are “user-friendly.” It is time to exchange the quantity of things we have for the quality of life they provide. Having the right number of things makes life easier. Fewer knick-knacks mean less dusting. Getting rid of clothes no longer worn leaves more space to choose more readily what you will wear after “business casual” has given way to “mostly casual”! The kitchen is easier to use when things are single-layer in cabinets. Proportionately smaller furniture makes a smaller home feel “just right” rather than “too small” as it would with furniture made for a large house.
Now is the time to enhance our eye for aesthetics. Keep what you love and love what you keep! If you have held onto something because you feel guilty letting it go, it’s time to feel guilty! Souvenirs from your past are nice to remember again, but only keep what means the most to you. If the banana peel picture from Kenya no longer speaks to you, the memories of the trip will not disappear if you let the image go. Have you seen a picture you love more than any you already have? Now is the time to surround yourself with things that give you the most pleasure and speak deeply to your soul. Now may also be the time to get the word to your children that they need to come get their possessions from childhood and adolescence out of your space!
It is especially important to balance emotion with practicality. The china cabinet has held your wedding china as well as your mother’s china and your grandmother’s china for decades now. The joy of having the choice of which to use during dinner parties over the years may now become a responsibility that you can no longer maintain. Such realizations come with much emotion. These feelings are rooted in a life-time of relationships and come from good memories as well as memories of loss and grief. In a home that has not been culled for a long time, these memories may be part of a problem of accumulation that is excessive. The emotions do not go away. They must be gone through, and there will be other emotions that take their place. If the balance is difficult to achieve, I suggest you go through the process with someone else who can hear you speak your feelings and give you support while you make difficult decisions. After a while, you will probably find that the decisions come more easily and the accompanying feelings, including grief, are more bearable.
Finally, enjoy finding positive outlets for things you are culling. First, offer things to family and friends. It is nice to choose a handful of items especially for your children and grandchildren—but not things that will overwhelm them (unless with joy!). Then let them tell you what else they would like to keep. Remember that younger people, especially, tend to want less and less now. Then consider how you want to dispose of the rest of your things: yard sale, donation, consignment, for example. If you are ready to let something go, don’t wait! A positive release happens when we clear away stuff and find ourselves surrounded with things that mean the most to us. During this process, you also begin to figure out what kind of place will be best for your next home, or you may even discover hidden possibilities in your current home when clutter and excess are gone.
I probably will not move from my house for many years, but I am already letting things go when I no longer need them or when the children say that they do not want them. The space that opens up looks great. So far it doesn’t look sparse, and I still have what I need for both regular and occasional use. By the time Bud and I reach retirement, we will have done much of the first work of rightsizing our home.
Remember, even before you know where you want to move, you can begin, like Mother Harris, to recognize that change is coming and embrace it positively. You can find your way home—to your new home—as you address your possessions and rightsize them to your new lifestyle.
In my next article, I will address in detail practical issues of moving, such as how to sell items, choosing charities for donating, preparing for an estate sale, and working with family and friends in a move.
Susan Gardner, CPO-CD®, MDiv, is a professional organizer certified in Chronic Disorganization. Through Clearing the Way Home, she guides people in areas like organizing their homes, downsizing, or shifting expectations of organizing to meet individual challenges. Following a career as a pastor, Susan has organized for the last twelve years. She is a member of the Institute for Challenging Disorganization and the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals.
Published January 24, 2022 for distribution May 15, 2022