Why It’s Tough Letting Go of Stuff

by Deborah Moyer

Facing a downsizing move can be difficult for many seniors

Over the past eleven years, I’ve helped hundreds of clients as they navigated through what I think is the worst part of the downsizing process: Purging.  Getting rid of things, especially items that have a lot of emotional value, can be difficult because we humans LOVE to acquire!  

For most of us, giving up stuff ranks at the bottom of the fun meter of life and so it’s not unexpected that when a client is downsizing, they’re going to get frustrated.

It can be a spouse that isn’t quite as “on board” with purging as their partner.  It can be an adult child, who’s trying to help their parent go through years of accumulated memories and “treasures”.

In each case, the question is asked: “Why are you holding on to THIS?  You haven’t used it in years!”.

And the person will inevitably answer: “Because I might need it someday” or “I use it ALL the time!”.  Of course, the reality of it is that they won’t need it, especially if it’s something that’s been out of sight and mind for years hidden in some corner of a closet or dusty garage box.

My own mother used the “I use it ALL the time” response when I was helping her purge her kitchen in her first downsizing move.  I had found an old bread making machine stuffed way in the back of a cabinet. It had clearly not been used in years because of the tell-tale layer of dust gracing its top.   Nonetheless, she insisted we put it in the “maybe” pile to be decided on later.

The next day, she came up to me looking rather sheepish and confessed that the machine had been broken for some time and it should be tossed.

That was the first moment I truly understood I had experienced an “emotional reflex action” that had nothing to do with how she really felt about the item.   I have seen that reaction thousands of times now in my senior downsizing business working with clients who often need to reduce their personal items and furniture by 50% or more.

Think about it.  If you were to go to your own bedroom dresser, closet or a living room cabinet and look inside, how many items stored there are you truly using on a day-to-day or regular basis?  Would you even know what’s IN the cabinet or drawer if you didn’t open it?  

Research on this topic has shown that we actually use only about 20% of the items we own.  After over a decade of working in the downsizing industry, I’d say it’s even less.

Understanding the emotional tie that we attach to stuff is essential to being able to successfully work with clients in the downsizing field.   A Senior Downsizing Specialist is equal parts organizer and coach as you help your clients go through the emotionally painful process of releasing items that no longer serve them.  

But, it’s not necessarily the item itself that they are struggling with.  It’s usually the memory or association they have connected to it such as:

  • A direct memory of a lost loved one that owned it or gifted it to them years earlier.
  • A memory of growing up with severe financial struggles during the Great Depression.    
  • Cherished memories of raising their family, favorite travels or beloved hobbies or activities they are no longer physically capable of enjoying.

The one common denominator to it all is a sense of loss, a bereavement of a person, place or time that they will never get back.   

So, how can we help our clients or family move through that emotional loss in a more manageable way? 

First and foremost, we need to use compassion instead of giving into the natural impatience we, or their family, might feel from their resistance to letting something go.  Sometimes it just takes acknowledging the reasons behind their pain, letting them know you understand how hard it is to undergo a major life change, to let go of things dear to them and acknowledge the fear that comes with moving forward into unknown territory.  This is especially true if they have lived in the same home for decades.

Secondly, we can encourage them to see the changes in their life from a different perspective. One of benefits, not losses.  It’s about honing in on the positive things that they will enjoy after the move has been completed.  For instance, having less stuff means less to maintain and more time to spend on doing things they truly enjoy in this season of life.

If they are moving closer to family, underscore the joy of spending more time with people they love. 

Maybe they are moving to a retirement community and will enjoy more social interaction, make new friends and have more activities they can participate in. This can be really crucial for people who have felt isolated in a home for a long period of time due to health issues or the inability to drive.  For my own Mom, it was not having to shop for food or cook that she looked forward to most.

No matter what the reason is behind the move, there are always positives to focus on.  Managing the mindset of a client is one of the things that sets a professional Downsizing Specialist apart from other services.    

Yes, we help people move from A to B. But, what’s truly magical is what can happen during that process if we can help them see their transition from a different and healthier perspective, that they aren’t in it alone.

Sometimes a life-changing moment can come from just stopping for a moment during a particularly difficult moment just to listen to their fears, provide encouragement or humor (or both!) and letting them know you’re there to ensure they will not only survive the move, but thrive in their new home!

There are no words for it at the end of a long move day. The client is settled into their new home and you and your crew are about to leave for the day.  You will see it in their eyes and in their words.  It’s not about the stuff they had to get rid of.  It’s the pride of accomplishment and a bond that you were “in it” with them to the finish.

“I couldn’t have done it without you!” they’ll say.  And you know they mean it with every fiber in their being! 

If you are interested in learning more about becoming a Senior Downsizing Specialist, check out www.thedownsizinginstitute.com for more information.