“As the year 2011 began on Jan. 1, the oldest members of the Baby Boom generation celebrated their 65th birthday. In fact, on that day, today, and for every day for the next 19 years, 10,000 baby boomers will reach age 65.” And that is just in the United States.
In 2003, when I started working as a professional organizer, my clients were moms with young children, much like myself. I helped them set up household systems and routines and organize their physical space. At that time, I knew I didn’t want to work with seniors because I didn’t think I could relate to where they were in life and how to help them.
As my business grew, my clients were shifting to solopreneurs, much like myself. I helped them get their business operations and workspaces organized.
Later, as my children left and went to college, and I became an empty nester, those were the clients I attracted. I helped them right-size their home now that their children had moved out. I also helped them with those organizing projects they had put off doing “until they had time,” such as organizing photographs and other memorabilia.
Well, now that I am in the 55+ age group, I understand where seniors are in their lives, and enjoy helping them downsize and prepare for their next chapter.
Here’s an example of one client’s downsizing story.
In 2012, Priscilla was eighty-six years old, and her husband, Don, was ninety. Don had dementia, and it had progressed to the point where Priscilla was taking care of everything in their 2,000-square-foot home—the housework, their finances, meal planning, and preparation, arranging for home repairs and maintenance, yard work, all the driving. Everything! Priscilla also had neuropathy in her feet, causing difficulty walking, and she had experienced a few too many falls. It was time for Priscilla and Don to move to a community where they had freedom from all of the day-to-day chores and upkeep, with onsite care.
They found a wonderful community. But the apartments are tiny (500 square feet). That was when Priscilla contacted me.
She said, “It is one of the moments in your life that you know is coming, but you can quickly get overwhelmed by the thought of doing, downsizing, and moving. Because, before the move, there is the enormous task of going through all of the stuff, stuff, and more stuff.”
Priscilla and Don were wildflower and scenic photographers, and they traveled the world for years. You can’t even imagine the thousands of slides they accumulated over the decades.
Techniques Used to Downsize Priscilla and Don
As with any project that seems overwhelming, it is helpful to break it down into tasks with deadlines. It can help you and your client gain control and feel a sense of calm. I pulled together our project plan and gave Priscilla tasks that she could complete on her own, such as change of address notices, canceling utilities, mail forwarding, changing home insurance, collecting necessary papers/valuables, and so on.
Priscilla and I went through their entire house and put color “dot” stickers on everything they wanted to take with them. The dots made it very easy when I worked with the movers to pack. If it had a dot, it got packed; if not, it was left behind. It took quite some convincing for Priscilla not to pack up her entire kitchen. I had to remind her one of the reasons for the move was so she wouldn’t need to meal plan and cook as much—if at all. The one area she would not downsize was her spices, not even her pumpkin pie spice.
Priscilla wanted some new furniture, and we needed to maximize their small space. We designed a floor plan to determine where and how the existing and new furniture would fit.
We went to Ikea. I thought Priscilla would faint at the enormity of it. Even though we were armed with a plan of what specific items we wanted, we were there three hours. I was exhausted, but not Priscilla! From there, we went to several stores in search of wall-mounted switch lamps—not an easy find these days. We found two at a hardware store. I drove Priscilla home and continued to the Container Store to purchase elfa drawer systems and other organizing products for their downsized space.
Other Techniques for Working with Seniors
- Safety is always the first issue to address with any client, but even more so with the aging population. Help them be safe:
- Remove trip and fall hazards (clutter, loose rugs, etc.).
- Suggest the use of slip hazards (for example, for getting in and out of the shower).
- Watch for medication hazards. Help them keep track of what they have taken to avoid over/under dosage.
- Keep things within reach, so they don’t have to move anything out of the way.
- Seniors are often concerned about people forgetting them after they are gone. They hold on to their things to represent them after they are gone. A useful technique I apply with seniors who are reluctant to let go of their belongings for fear they (the client) will be forgotten is for them to tell me the story behind their belongings. Remind clients that their legacy comes from more than their possessions. I record their storytelling and take a photograph of the client with the possessions they are letting go of for them to share with their family.
- Affirm clients by treating them and their belongings with the utmost dignity and respect and by acknowledging the legacy they are creating.
- Work on reducing their papers to fit in a single file cabinet or banker’s box.
- Set up automatic withdrawals for payments or online bill paying.
- Place their name on the do not mail and do not call lists.
- Use a large font with clear letters so they can see it.
- Simpler is better.
- Suggest assistive devices like grab bars and grab handles.
- For memory challenges, leave notes in visible places.
- Work at the client’s pace. Be patient and compassionate.
Resistance from Priscilla
None! Her son kept trying to convince her she needed to keep things she didn’t want to. But Priscilla was firm and didn’t move anything she had already decided not to pack. Don was very resistant to moving. People with dementia have great difficulty with changing their environment. He was depressed for several months after the move. However, once his new home became familiar to him, the depression lessened.
The weekend of the move, Priscilla and Don stayed with their daughter. At the same time, my team and I worked with the movers, assembled furniture, installed lamps, shelves, and pullout drawers, got all of their electronics working, and organized their downsized stuff in their new home.
Following the move, we held a two-day estate sale and then had a service come in and take away everything that didn’t sell to go for donation or disposal. Next, the housecleaners came and did a thorough cleaning in time for the new homeowners to move in the following day! It all took place over five days!
What I Know Now That I Wish I Had Known Then
I enjoy working with the senior population. Starting out in this profession, I didn’t think I would enjoy working with seniors because I didn’t feel I could relate to them. With just a few years away from being a senior myself, I find I now relate very well with the senior population and understand their needs and struggles.
 Pew Research Center, accessed June 12, 2018, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2010/12/29/baby-boomers-retire/.