Senior Downsizing Guide
Many seniors look around in their sixties, seventies, or beyond and realize that the home that they live in is too big, full of clutter, expensive to live in, tiring to take care of, or isolated. The solution to these problems is often to downsize by moving to a smaller home, moving in with a relative, or moving into some kind of residential community designed for seniors. The thought of starting over in a new location can be overwhelming, however. Some seniors and their families find it incredibly difficult to begin the process.
For those who realize they need to downsize their lifestyle by selling their home, or for those who want to help their elderly loved ones with the downsizing process, we have put together tips to make the process easier. Below you’ll find information on the different types of downsizing, reducing stress during downsizing, an in-depth downsizing checklist, and more.
Find a Place That Meets Your Current and Future Needs
Once seniors decide that they need to downsize, they and their loved ones must decide what kind of situation will meet their current and future needs. With so many options available for places to move, this decision can be difficult. We’ve split the choices into two basic categories: residential communities and aging in place.
Moving Into a Residential Community
The term “residential communities,” in this case, refers to any situation where the senior leaves their own home and moves into a facility designed to house multiple unrelated seniors. Examples include adult foster homes, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities, but other types of residences may also fall in this category.
Features of Residential Communities:
- Residents are renters and aren’t responsible for yard work or maintenance
- Residents can have private or semi-private rooms or apartments
- Cooking and cleaning is often done by staff
- 24/7 supervision and assistance, memory care, or skilled nursing care are sometimes available but may be optional or cost extra
- Social activities are encouraged and facilitated by the staff
Before deciding on a residential community, take time to consider exactly what the senior’s current needs are, as well as what they are likely to need in the future.
Ask the Following Questions When Deciding if a Residential Community Is Right for Yourself or a Loved One:
- Does the senior need constant supervision and help, or just relief from the burden of homeownership?
- If the senior’s needs increase over time, can the facility then provide more medical, household, or supervision services to him or her?
- Does the senior prefer a large or small group setting?
- Does the senior want a full apartment, a private room, or a shared room?
- After the home sale, what can the senior afford to pay monthly for his or her living situation? Can Medicaid or insurance help?
Aging in Place
Many seniors who need to leave their current homes are hesitant to move into residential facilities, especially if facilities in their area have a reputation for sub-par care or are far from the senior’s relatives. Others simply would prefer to stay in a comfortable, home environment and continue to live in the communities they are familiar with. These seniors may be able to “age in place” instead, either on their own in a smaller, safer home or in a family member’s home.
Aging in Place with Minimal Care Needs
For seniors in excellent health, the need for assistance with daily activities and chores may be minimal. These seniors may wish to leave a home that feels too large for them, but they will need to decide if they should just move into a smaller home and live independently or move in with relatives. When making this decision, they should ask themselves how many years they are likely to still be independent. It can be helpful to ask doctors and adult children for their opinion on this.
Aging in Place with Complex Needs
If a senior has complex needs such as a disability or disease that limits mobility or cognitive function, the best aging in place solution is usually to live with a relative. In the case of cognitive impairments like Alzheimer’s, the senior may not be able to provide guidance on the subject. Becoming a caregiver for a family member can be a serious physical and mental strain, so many caregivers supplement the care plan with weekly or even daily visits from home health aides who can assist with difficult tasks like bathing.
Questions To Ask When Considering Aging in Place:
- If the senior were to move to a smaller home, will it be safe for him or her to drive or take public transportation to attend events or run errands?
- If the senior were to live with relatives, what kind of personal space and boundaries would he or she need?
- How will moving in with a relative affect the relative financially?
- If the senior’s needs increase, what plan is in place for hiring home health aides or for moving to a residential facility?
- Can the senior get Medicare, Medicaid, Veterans Affairs, or insurance help with home modifications, durable medical equipment, or home healthcare needs?
- Is there an Area Agency on Aging that can assist in the senior’s move?
Types of Downsizing
Now that you understand the basic differences between living in a residential community and aging in place, you can explore specific examples from both categories. When it comes to downsizing, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Each solution has different effects on the senior’s budget, lifestyle, and relationships.
A Smaller Home
Some seniors who are in relatively good health but who own large homes choose to downsize to smaller homes. Reasons for downsizing include the desire to spend less time doing chores, to live closer to relatives, or to profit by the sale of the larger home, buy a less expensive home, and use the funds for other needs.
The Pros and Cons of Living in a Smaller Home
- Pride of Ownership: Seniors who move to smaller homes can enjoy the feeling of owning their own place while also enjoying the freedom of lower costs and less responsibility. Even a small home may have space for gardening, entertaining, and keeping pets.
- Better Location: Seniors who own large rural homes often need to relocate to a better location as they age. Trading a rural home for a smaller home in town gets them closer to hospitals in case of emergency and makes it easier to be socially active.
- Upkeep: Although caring for one or two-bedroom homes with a small yard is far easier than caring for a large home on several acres, it is still work. As seniors age, they may have to start hiring others to cut their grass and clean their rooms.
- Isolation: Moving to a smaller home closer in town may make life easier, but there’s no guarantee that it will solve isolation problems. Independent living means there’s a significant risk of feeling alone, particularly if the senior no longer drives or is single.
A Gated Retirement Community
Some towns have gated communities with strict homeowners’ associations and age requirements for living in the community. Homes within these communities tend to be on the small side, perfect for just two or three residents.
The Pros and Cons of Living in a Gated Retirement Community
- Secure Premises: Most community gates are operated by remotes or keypads, and some have guards on duty. Gated communities usually keep out foot traffic and salespeople very well, and crime rates are lower than average in these communities.
- Prime Location: Many of these communities are situated in premium parts of town, close to grocery stores, medical complexes, and maybe even the grandchildren’s school.
- Quiet Neighbors: The neighborhood is likely to be free of loud parties and speeding cars. Thanks to age requirements, the neighbors may have a lot in common with one another and enjoy social time at exclusive amenities such as a community pool.
- High Costs: Homes in these communities cost more than similar homes that are not in gated communities. Residents are required to pay monthly homeowner’s association (HOA) fees as well.
A Room in a Relative’s Home
For close-knit families, moving a senior relative into a spare room is often a sensible, natural answer to the senior’s growing needs. Seniors who move in with their adult children often enjoy connecting more deeply with them.
The Pros and Cons of Living in a Room in a Relative’s Home
- Safe Environment: Living with family members who can help with chores and other care needs means that a senior will be less likely to overexert themselves. If the senior is forgetful, it also decreases the danger of leaving the stove on and other safety concerns.
- Social Connection: Seniors who lose their ability to drive or who have mobility issues often miss out on social activities that they used to enjoy. Living with family can minimize unhealthy isolation.
- Low Costs: Moving into an extra bedroom in a relative’s home is probably the lowest cost option available for senior downsizing. The senior will still have all of his or her regular medical, insurance, and food costs, of course, but not needing to pay high rent costs is a huge benefit.
- Limited Possessions: A senior who moves from a home into a single room has to sacrifice a large portion of the items that they used to own. The amount of selling, giving away, and throwing away that will need to happen prior to the move cannot be overstated.
- Less Privacy: Seniors who enjoy quiet time alone may have a hard time adjusting to not having a home that’s all theirs. The adjustment may be especially difficult if the household that they move into includes children or if there’s only one bathroom in the house.
- Caregiver Burnout: Family members often take on caregiving duties for seniors who need 24-hour supervision, such as those with serious disabilities or memory disorders, This arrangement works well for many families, but the caregiver is vulnerable to exhaustion, financial problems, and feelings of isolation.
A Mother-in-Law Suite
A mother-in-law suite is an apartment-like home built as a secondary residence on a property. Mother-in-law suites can be attached to or separate from the main home but will have their own exterior doors and usually kitchens and bathrooms. Some mother in law suites are built at the same time as the main residence, and others are added later.
The Pros and Cons of Living in a Mother-In-Law Suite
- Flexibility: When seniors first downsize to a mother-in-law suite, they may be very capable of cooking and cleaning for themselves. A mother-in-law suite gives them the freedom to run their own household as long as they are able, and if they become unable later on, help is next door.
- Optional Social Time: Not all families enjoy the constant closeness of sharing a kitchen and living room, so a mother-in-law suite provides the option of alone time. Seniors who haven’t lived with others in many years may especially appreciate this.
- Land Requirements: Many families build a mother-in-law suite specifically for a parent, but having a larger-than-average plot of land is a prerequisite. Moreover, some cities have restrictive zoning regulations. Just because you have a roomy lot does not mean that the city will allow you to build a second residence on it.
An Assisted Living Community
Assisted living communities are fully staffed apartment-like buildings that house seniors in private suites. Seniors pay rent for their apartments and some amenities, and many seniors opt to also pay for cleaning, laundry services, and meals, when necessary. Seniors are able to retain their independence as much as they wish, but in most states, assisted living facilities are required to make assistance with activities of daily living like eating, bathing, and dressing available to residents.
The Pros and Cons of Living in An Assisted Living Community
- Close Neighbors: Assisted living communities provide many opportunities for interaction, both because neighbors are just down the hall and because there are usually numerous group settings such as dining hall meals and planned activities.
- Dining Options: Many assisted living apartments have kitchenettes. Seniors usually do not need to eat every meal in the group dining area unless they want to. Each facility will vary in exactly what appliances are available within its apartments.
- Memory Care: Some assisted living communities include a memory care unit for those with dementia. Even if this level of assistance isn’t a need at this time, seniors may find it comforting to know that if their needs increase, they won’t necessarily have to move to a new facility.
- High Costs: Living in an assisted living facility require significant monthly income. Current estimates from Genworth Financial put average assisted living costs at roughly $4,000 a month.
An Adult Foster Home
Adult foster homes are households where paid caretakers live with a small group of seniors and provide them 24-hour care. Adult foster care can be medical or non-medical, and those who enter these homes have a wide range of needs. Other names for adult foster care include Adult Residential Care Homes (ARCH), Adult Family Care (AFC), elderly foster care, small group assisted living, and domiciliary care.
The Pros and Cons of Living in An Adult Foster Home
- Few Patients: Adult foster homes, with their small scale, make someone’s needs being overlooked unlikely compared to large care facilities. In an adult foster care setting, there will probably be six or fewer residents plus a resident staff member or two.
- Lower Costs: Running an adult foster care home generally costs much less than running a nursing home does. Care in an adult foster home, which includes room and board as well as potential medical care, may cost seniors or their insurance around $2,000 or $3,000 per month.
- Limited Availability: Not all states have a large number of adult foster homes. Moreover, although Medicaid provides waivers to help with costs in some cases, patients may experience waitlists to access these benefits.
A Nursing Home
Seniors who need full-time supervision, high-level medical care, and help with activities of daily living often eventually go to a nursing home. These facilities are an especially common solution for seniors who have fallen many times or who have advanced forms of Alzheimer’s or other dementias. The atmosphere of a nursing home can feel similar to a hospital in some locations but more like a family home in others.
The Pros and Cons of Living in a Nursing Home
- Social Time: Nursing homes often have an activities director who coordinates holiday parties, game nights, and visits from community volunteers (including service animals). Many nursing homes also have a common area where patients can mingle even if nothing is planned.
- 24-Hour Medical Staff: For seniors who need regular health monitoring, physical therapy, wound care, or help with complex medication regimens, a nursing home may be the most appropriate place. These facilities are medically equipped and staffed with CNAs, RNs, LPNs, physical therapists, and more.
- High Costs: Genworth Financial says the average cost of a private room in a nursing home per month is about $8,500. A shared room or “semi-private” room may be slightly less but is generally still over $7,000 a month. Medicaid or insurance can cover costs for some, but Medicare usually won’t cover a long stay.
- Varying Care Quality: Most seniors have heard stories about nursing homes that are understaffed and neglectful of patients. While this isn’t the case in most nursing homes, the quality of care offered does vary depending on the facility. Families should carefully investigate the reputation of the facility in question.
Reducing Downsizing Stress
Stress and conflict are all too common during the downsizing process. Sometimes the prospect of that stress is enough to discourage seniors and their relatives from exploring their options. Instead of avoiding the problem, take a look at our tips for reducing the stress of downsizing below.
Most American seniors have spent decades buying and holding onto possessions. To put everything in the home into boxes and cart it to a smaller place is unthinkable, and though decluttering ultimately makes moving easier, getting started on the task may be equally daunting. If you’re going to declutter, you’ll need a strategy.
Organizational and decluttering experts abound, each with their own theory. There may not be one “right way” to let go of unnecessary items, but we’ve provided some tips below.
- Make Three Categories: Keep, give away, and throw away are the categories that you’ll need. Designate someone in the family to periodically cart away trash and donations so they don’t obstruct movement. Pack up as much as you can while you declutter.
- Start with What’s Easiest: Many experts suggest beginning the sorting process with a category of belongings or a room of the house that the owner has little emotional attachment to. For some, clothing is the easiest category to start with. For others, sorting the laundry room, linen closet, or other small areas works best. Starting with easy areas makes acceptance of the decluttering process easier.
- Recognize that Someday Means Never: For the vast majority of items in a home, saying “I’ll use that someday” is the same as “never.” Do your best to eliminate almost all items that you’re tempted to label as “someday.” Letting go can be a freeing experience.
- Say Goodbye to Duplicates: Many people have duplicate items that they bought on sale or were given. Seniors may feel that letting go of duplicates is wasteful, but doing so is necessary when downsizing. Giving away duplicates may feel better than throwing them away.
- Prepare For Exhaustion and Allergies: As you sift through things that have rarely been touched, you’ll probably come across layers of dust, pet dander, or maybe even mold. Respiratory reactions, combined with physical exertion can take a toll quickly. Have any necessary inhalers and medications on hand and take breaks.
Be Realistic About Timing
The timeline for downsizing, from the initial decision to the first day in the new place, changes from person to person. It’s very difficult to generalize since factors like the local real estate market, the attitudes of family members, and the availability of a new place influence timing.
The Basic Phases of the Moving Process Include the Following:
- Discussion of the need for downsizing
- Choosing the location that the senior will move to
- Taking care of moving plans (this includes hiring help, selling the house, decluttering, and packing)
- Settling in and updating access to public and private services, like electricity and internet
Most families will find that they are in the middle of multiple steps at the same time. Some may find that they live through the steps in a different order. Regardless of your exact experience, keep in mind that for most seniors, decluttering and packing will be a slow process. It’s safest to plan for about one month of decluttering, maybe even two. Our moving checklist at the end of this article can help you manage all of these phases.
The more decisions that the senior makes regarding his or her move, the more crucial details that you can’t afford to forget. Keeping a “moving binder” that can act as a central file for all move-related information makes everything easier.
Moving Binder Tips:
- Make a Comments Section: Throughout the packing and moving process, family members will make random remarks like “I put all the batteries in the blue plastic tub.” Jot comments down even if they seem obvious to you. The binder will help in situations where you aren’t available to help with the move-in process.
- Record Contact Information: As you make contact with real estate agents, assisted living communities, moving companies, and any other service providers, write down vital contact information in your notebook. You may want to add this information to your phone at the same time.
- Include Contract Copies and Other Papers: Any estimate, contract, or informational flyer related to the move can be filed in clear plastic sheet protectors. It’s also a good idea to include reassembly instructions for disassembled furniture here.
Refrain from Judgment
Saying goodbye to memory-filled places and possessions can be emotional. It’s important to refrain from applying negative labels and judgments within the family when strong emotions surface or when the moving process reveals someone’s personal failings.
Helping a Senior without Judgment
If you’re helping a senior parent move, you may find that he or she has strong reactions to steps in the process that seem neutral or trivial to you. Responding to a senior’s emotions with statements like “you’re overreacting,” “that’s silly,” or “that’s not important” can make them feel unsupported and alone. Of course, the process of moving needs to continue, but seniors need to know that it isn’t selfish to need a moment for reflection and expression.
Recognize that your senior parent may find relief in telling a story connected to the house or possession. Check in with them on their moods, and help them to relax and rest when they seem overwhelmed. If the moving process reveals that they’ve been hoarding, living in unsanitary conditions, or otherwise neglecting themselves or their home, do your best to express that you want better for them without shaming them. If a hoarding problem is very severe and unsafe, consider consulting a therapist to learn compassionate strategies for helping your loved one.
Helping Other Family Members without Judgment
Other close family members, like adult children and even grandchildren, often also feel strongly about the downsizing process, although they aren’t themselves moving. We’ve included a list of common emotional “trouble spots” to look out for.
Relatives may react strongly due to the following:
- Struggling to accept the facts of their parent’s health or mental state
- Grieving over losing the ability to visit the place they grew up
- Fearing that family time and holidays will be different in a new location
- Being exhausted from the work of the move
- Mistrusting the abilities or motives of real estate agents, new caretakers, or assisted living staff
- Seeing the parent or grandparent sell or give away things that they assumed they would inherit, including furniture, small items, vehicles, or even the home itself
Some concerns may be more or less reality-based than others. Try to see the fear that may be behind an emotional outburst, and always refer those who are upset to the wishes of the senior and the practical realities of the situation.
While friends and family can help with many moving tasks, paying a professional to handle some moving jobs can reduce stress. Hiring someone who has handled a specific aspect of moving hundreds of times before brings efficiency to the project.
Senior Move Managers
Senior move managers help with decluttering, packing, planning the layout of furniture in the new home, hiring Realtors and movers, setting up furnishings in the new home, and much more. They can typically do as little or as much as the customer wants, so costs can be tailored to the senior’s budget. Visit the National Association of Senior Move Managers website to learn more.
Using a moving company is often simpler than trying to round up a bunch of friends and family to make the move. Be aware that sometimes criminals pose as professional movers to steal household goods, and sometimes professional movers attempt to charge unfair prices. Before hiring anyone, protect yourself from fraud by reviewing the moving company red flags that the Department of Transportation provides.
Real Estate Agents, Brokers, and Realtors
It may be tempting to try to DIY the home sale, but the truth is the home sale will go faster and smoother with the help of a licensed real estate agent, broker, or Realtor. The differences in education, experience, and licensing between these professional titles are explained in detail in the above link.
To get the home ready for tours, consider hiring a professional cleaner to spend a few hours or days to make everything sparkle. Your real estate agent or senior move manager should be able to point you toward a reputable cleaning service in your area. Ask about background checks before allowing a cleaner into the home.
Senior Downsizing Checklist
If you want more help navigating the demands of the downsizing process, you can check out our Downsizing Checklist below. You can print it and keep it in your moving binder, or you can just use it for reference online. You’ll find helpful links included in the online version.