DOWNSIZING YOUR LIFE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

One of my friends, Rachel, is trying to get her 94-year-old mother, Blanche, to clean out the house she’s lived in for 45 years. She’ll be moving from a big house in Long Island, NY to a small apartment in an independent living facility in Portland, OR. That’s where Rachel, Rachel’s two daughters, and Rachel’s brand-new granddaughter live.

Blanche is a ‘collector’ to put it charitably. She doesn’t like to part with anything. She has literally hundreds of paintings, many by her late husband, on the walls and floors of every room as well as in storage in her large basement. She has almost as many photos and photomontages and old holiday cards crowded onto every wall and piled on every flat surface in the house. Then there are the piles of books and papers literally everywhere. Rachel found a file cabinet with tax returns from the 1960s.

An example of a cluttered room

The problem is that everything is precious to Blanche. She feels that the house and its contents represent her life and she has trouble getting rid of anything. To me, she seems overly attached to the physical objects, which only represent the memories of the past. I’m not sure how the move will go because Blanche has not yet accepted that her smaller accommodations will not hold everything she insists she needs.

Another example of ‘stuff’ on every surface

This got me thinking about what I would do if I had to downsize dramatically. What would be important to me to keep with me? A good portion of my memories are in my photo albums. These start with my grandparents and go through my mom’s life, my early years, and my life with my kids. But the albums stop in 2002 when I married Tom. My kids were 22 and 17. My phone has most of the recent photos and I have boxes of photos that have not yet been put into albums. I can be happy with my mish-mash of photographic memories.

Some of my photo albums

I’m also lucky in that I have written a lot of biographical material over the years and I’ve collected my writings into binders. For 40 years I’ve written humorous, rhyming poems commemorating birthdays, anniversaries and father’s and mother’s days. My early poems were ostensibly ‘from’ my young son, David, so they documented his early years and his relationships with his family and loved ones. Then I started doing poems about the birthday person and I branched out into major events like Bar Mitzvah’s and weddings.

But my major biographical opus is my collection of blogs for Serendipity that tell my family history starting with my grandparents’ early years. I documented stories from my parents’ lives, my childhood, and my kids’ childhoods into the present day. I also wrote blogs about relationships that shaped our lives and I arranged the blogs in a sort of chronological order. I ended up with a 370-page document that I am very proud of. I have given copies to both of my children so they will always have their family stories close at hand.

Because I have so many of my cherished memories saved in photographic or written form, I think that I could pack my ‘life’ into just a few boxes. I’m not really attached to my furniture – except for a beautiful, custom made kitchen table embedded with sea glass and a matching sea glass mobile. I do love some of my chatchkis, particularly my glass and paperweight collections and a few things from my mom and grandmother. But I could live with just a few of them, decoratively placed around my living space.

So I don’t think I’ll drive my kids crazy if I ever have to leave my home and move to a smaller place. I’ve already condensed my past into manageable form.

However, my jewelry is another story!

39 thoughts on “DOWNSIZING YOUR LIFE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

  1. I’ve gone through the same downsizing process with my 93 year old mother. My biggest concern would be the increased risk of her falling if I don’t de clutter her new independent living facility. Definitely not an easy task to pull off.

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  2. really great writing especially today as I am getting rid of old paperwork and trying to go paperless. It is so difficult to let go of some things especially cards things of such. I do find that as I age I want my space more organized, An associate shared something with me several weeks ago the person said pick one room each week and work on that room whether it be cleaning, getting rid of things that i have had for years. so far its working thanks for sharing

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  3. It’s not just older people. When we moved into my husbands childhood home, his sister who lives far away had a major problem parting with things and has anxiety when we discuss painting the paneling to lighten the room. She took lots of things with her. Her house is overcrowded.
    But after we downsized so many times, we are now I. This big rambling house full of stuff. I won’t have trouble parting with it, but it’s a lot of work. I’m trying not to be resentful. At least most of the “trash” is gone. … all paper records going way back to 50’s. Ha

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    • Decluttering is not just for old people. Younger people also collect a lot of stuff and end up with no place to put everything. Most can’t afford just moving to bigger and bigger houses to accomodate all their things. So this is a universal issue. The other problem with younger people is that after they put in a huge effort to declutter and reorganize their home, new stuff starts to accumulate. That happened to my son, who even hired a professional organizer to help when he moved in with his now wife and they had to make room for all his stuff in her small house. The place looked great for a short time and now it’s cluttered again.

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  4. You are wise to save and organize your blogs, Ellin. They are an important part of your family history. I had to divest myself of a lot of things when our older son moved back home. He had a lot of stuff.
    Leslie

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    • Owen is moving home, but fortunately, he never collected much — but he STILL has a lot of stuff. Furniture and kitchen stuff and movies and books and paintings. We all have too much of everything and no one to give it to. The household “extras” (kitchen stuff, for example), is easy to off-load. It goes to the Salvation Army or other groups like that. But the library politely refused anymore books. No room! Ditto the Senior Center and three nearby highschools. So a lot of stuff that really IS worth something is going to wind up trash.

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      • So sad that the library won’t take any more books! It is a real tragedy to just throw out books. My basement is full of books, even after many trips to the library with cartons of donations. I have book collections from both my parents, who were avid readers, my ex husband, who never took any of his books when he left, myself and Tom. So not only do I have tons of books, it is a very eclectic collection covering many fields and genres. I could probably spend the rest of my life just reading the books in my house that I haven’t read yet.

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    • Having a child move back home makes decluttering a necessity. That spare room you used for storage is now a bedroom. Thank goodness I have a large basement and attic, although they are already pretty full.

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      • I had this beautifully decorated guest room and everything in its place. Now I have semi- permanent guest and can hardly find anything.
        Leslie

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  5. I can completle relate to this. My parents also moved from a big house to a tiny apartment in another town. All the books that my father has collected over a thousand years will be my guess…. try to organize them in this tiny apartment was first a headache to see where in the world they could fit in, and second backbreaking. My mother was the director of the symphony telling move this to there, t.v here, couch a bit more to the left, e.t.c so she was the conductor of the orchestrated I was the bass player, trombone player, drums player, saxophone player, I got played by my own mother! It´s a nice cozy apartment and with all the knowledge of my mother expertise on how to make small places look big, (she does see a lot of these t.v shows about constructing new houses and then the. process of putting what type of furniture in what type of room, e.t.c), anyways glad your friend has her grandma near to be close to her. I can also relate to that.

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    • I am totally at a loss to know what to do with my two remaining collections. I did get rid of as much as anyone would take, but now all my friends are my age and they are trying to get rid of their collections too. The problem is also that it’s collection on top of collection. The kids have their own stuff and they don’t have big houses to live in (mostly). So they really have nowhere to put anything. And this stuff IS valuable, but to who? If no one is collecting, then it has no value.

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      • I hate throwing things out, specially my little book library. Had to send some to the trash, since the books are in English and I live in Spain. It was actually painful, that is part of who I am.

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        • You can always donate books to libraries. Our local library has a book sale every year and uses the proceeds to fund library projects. The number of donated books each year is staggering!

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          • I did try that in the town I live in, to the only public library there is. They only took three books since the lady said that not a lot of people read English. As a matter of fact in that town not a lot of people read Spanish, period. Full of Marrocans and South Americans, nothing against them but the great great majority, lets say they don’t work and you find them with a bunch of cash so you might figure in what type of job description these guys are in, nothing good. And I live with one, I lived that life before so there is a respect. So I don’t think they will be very interested in poetry.
            The town where my parents live is much better, a lot of tourism and small bookstores, which I´ll try to dispose of some of the books, but it still hurts really. They are mine, I spent years building my little library in English, it´s my baby. I don’t know really what to do, if things get to bad here in Spain (it´s already bad and probably go to worse politically and socially, no jobs the independist terrorizing the population, and more. So who knows where we’ll end up and at that point the last thing in my mind will be books.

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          • Our library can’t take any more books. No room. We haven’t been able to pass a bill to enlarge the library. People seem to have forgotten what libraries are for. And many people really don’t read. We gave as much as the library would take, as much as the senior center would take and as much as the highschools would accept.

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    • There is an art to fitting a lot into small spaces. Hiding storage is a skill touted on HGTV all the time. And tiny houses are a new trend, so there are lots of creative ways to cram a lot into a tiny area. We have a boat, which is the perfect example of space utilization and storage hiding. There are storage bins under the banquette, under the beds, all over the boat. And cabinets are built in all over as well. We have as much stuff on our bot as a small apartment.

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      • Pretty much what my mother did with this tiny apartment, or really she was the boss and me braking my back moving this to there, in this closet put that or other that, e.t.c. She also did quite the reform in order to put as in your boat little hiding spaces you might say into walls or cabinets to put more things in. Quite impressive mom, didn’t know she was so creative with these type of things, she did her homework. Also the painting, since there is a lot of wood in the apartment hand made my the previous owner, and I’m talking made old style, not even the carpenters of my generation could figure how to take all the wooden shelfs since the screws where old school and they didn’t have the tools to take them unscrew them with their new machines so they had to do it by hand, me too, and sweating bullets. Talking about the painting, how if you paint it white in certain parts of the cabinets or doors that are all white it gets more light overall certain areas of the house looks much better the contrast, also all the furniture put in certain places making it look like the room is bigger than it really is. I’m actually starting to like this thing. Might as well try to be an interior designer.
        Have a great sail

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  6. As a doll collector, I read a lot of posts from older collectors who are downsizing their collections because they are moving to smaller accommodation. Sadly their adult children are often not interested in their collections. I get that, everyone is different but I’ve been quite horrified by some comments that I’ve read. People have said that the dolls are ugly and creepy and have threatened to throw them all in the trash if they are left with them. Some have even refused to let grandma give the grandchildren a special doll as a keepsake. I find it so rude and disrespectful that people would talk to a parent this way. Frankly, it makes me glad I have no children. I have a lot of stuff myself and I am not ready to part with it yet but when I feel I must I will make sure that either it goes to people who will care about it or I will direct that it be sold after my death and the money donated to an animal charity.

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    • They also throw away thousand dollar telephones they bought 5 months ago, so why not? They have not sense of history or memories. I have NO idea what I’m going to do with my collection. No one seems to BE collecting anymore.

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        • I think the fact that so many young people don’t have their own homes. They also aren’t married. They don’t know history and have little interest in it. Times have changed … but we still have the things that meant a lot when we got them.

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    • I am lucky that my daughter is studying to become an interior designer, so lots of my old stuff, to her is classic mid century modern! She goes through my basement and attic like a collector pointing out pieces that are beautiful or great representations of a particular period or genre. She is also very sentimental, so anything associated with her childhood or my Mom (who had great taste), is precious to her. In fact, when I try to throw things out, she is often the one who tells me to save things for her!

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  7. Garry’s mom was exactly the same and when she moved to a facility, all her stuff stayed behind with Billy, who acted like a watchdog refusing to let anyone have anything. In the end, years after her death, the three boys had to shovel it all out. There were a few gems in it, but so much was lost in the unimaginable clutter. I’m TRYING to get rid of things, but can’t find anyone who wants them. The problem is that it isn’t junk, it’s not dumpster stuff. It’s real antiques … but I’ve lost touch with that community and all MY friends are ALSO trying to get rid of things. Everyone has more than enough stuff already. But Owen has promised that he will find homes for the pottery and dolls and door stops and all that. And I told Kaity if something happens to us, Duke belongs to HER and I will haunt her for all eternity if she doesn’t take care of him.

    I guess that’s the best I can do!

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    • Local consignment shops should be willing to take lots of ‘junk’ that has some value but you don’t want in your house any more. Goodwill I hear is very picky but there are lots of ‘antique’ shops all over that also might take some items if you want to shop them around.

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  8. With older people, it is difficult to be practical about their stuff. We should do this when we are in our middle age and are not too attached to things. Because when we go their value will diminish to something that has to be taken care of.

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    • I began the process of clearing out about a year ago — the farther into the process I went, the more difficult it became. Some of the ‘stuff’ had to be boxed right away due to Association requirements for re-piping the house and tenting it for termites. Then I got to the paper — how much of that stuff does one have to keep for legal reasons (all my parents’ estate papers, I’m keeping face pages of old tax returns, annual investment reports, Medicare papers, etc….) I am keeping up with the paperwork on a daily basis, but it’s a huge project to get rid of the other papers. Maybe by the time I’m 94 in another 15 years I’ll be able to complete the project!

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      • Some old documents I want to keep for sentimental reasons, not practical or legal ones. I still have papers I wrote in high school and college that I will probably never get rid of. Same with plans for the house I built with my ex that I am still living in. I have papers and other memorabilia that my mother kept from her youth that I can’t bring myself to get rid of too.

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        • Ellin, what a great concept for downsizing! Think even I could follow it.

          Blanche: We had similar problems – downsizing and ultimately cleaning out – after both my Parents passed and it was time to put the house up for sale. So much stuff. Mom was just like Blanche. Garry is so much like Mom.

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    • The problem is that in our middle years, you need more things. Those are usually still collecting years and I doubt anyone realizes when they are in their 40s that someday, they won’t WANT all that stuff. Collectors never see that coming, but it does.

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      • I was never a collector per se so I don’t have hundreds of china cats lying around or anything like that. But I do keep decorative chatchkis that I used in my house in the past, or even that my mother and grandmother used to decorate their homes. Those have meaning to me and I don’t think I’ll ever part with them. My daughter is attached to them too so she will be happy to take them on when I’m gone.

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    • Good point. II think we tend to cling to things rom the past more as we get older. The right time to declutter is before you get to the point that everything in your house is sacred!

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