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Helping Seniors Move: Design and Downsizing Tips for Senior Living

Claire Samuels
By Claire SamuelsJuly 25, 2020

Helping an elderly loved one transition to senior living is an emotional experience. It also requires planning and logistics — especially when downsizing is involved.

Moving from a long-term home to a small apartment can be understandably overwhelming for older adults. The magnitude may even cause seniors to postpone a beneficial transition to independent or assisted living.

“Often, ‘I’m not ready yet’ means ‘I don’t know where to start,’” says Dolly Wittman, owner of the Kansas City, Kansas, branch of the senior relocation company Caring Transitions. “It’s always easier to come to terms with a move when you have a step-by-step plan.”

Learn how to simplify your elderly loved one’s move by planning ahead, recreating the look and feel of their lifelong home, and following four basic steps for downsizing. For what to expect when moving to senior living during the coronavirus pandemic, read our article on how communities are modifying moving, welcoming, and visiting policies.

Finding the right fit for downsizing seniors

Level of care, activities, and dining programs are all important factors to consider when selecting a senior living community for your aging loved one. But don’t forget the room itself — a welcoming, familiar home base will ease their transition to a new lifestyle.

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Know the details before helping seniors move

You’ve found a community that’s a good fit for your aging parent. Now it’s time to think about the move itself. Salespeople and staff members at the community can provide valuable resources to help you plan:

  • Floor plans. Communities may have these on their website or in brochures. If you need more images of a certain room, ask for pictures or a video of the space. You can also set up a virtual tour of the unit you plan to lease, if there isn’t a current resident living there.
  • Unique apartments. Model units in senior living communities may differ from some apartments. Ask directly about common differences: Will the carpet and wall colors be the same? What about the appliances? Will the shelving in the closet match the model?
  • Measurements. Ask if you can measure walls and alcoves, or if measurements can be provided. You don’t want to show up with furniture that doesn’t fit in the space.
  • Door and elevator size. Even if a 12-person dining table will fit in the new apartment, senior movers may have trouble with the elevator.
  • Community policies. Can your loved one hang their favorite light fixture? Does the community help mount TVs or allow painting walls? Some communities will help new residents paint their rooms, while others encourage artwork or wall hangings instead.
  • Placement. If your aging parent enjoys watching the sunset, ask for a west-facing window. If they enjoy green space, select a lawn view.
  • Inclusive packages. Does furniture come with the apartment? Will there be a microwave? Most communities provide safety amenities, like grab bars and personal alarms, but small appliances and additions like curtains may be the resident’s responsibility.

Make the apartment feel like home

“When we provide senior moving assistance, we focus on the old space as well as the new,” says Wittman. This helps with establishing a familiar environment.

Discuss favorite features. Wittman asks homeowners which rooms make them feel most at home. “Often, there are areas a senior barely uses, like a sitting room or a dining room. They may have put a lot of time and money into decorating them, but the spaces aren’t comfortable or familiar.”

Once you know what makes your aging relative feel most at home, try to simulate these elements in their new space. If your mom eats breakfast in a window nook full of houseplants each morning, look for an apartment that gets light in the kitchen and has room for indoor gardening. If your dad prefers sports on a big-screen TV, ask prospective communities if mounting electronics is permitted.

Sometimes, there’s a fine line between keeping something because you’ve had it a long time and keeping it because it’s important.

Dolly Wittman, owner, Caring Transitions KC

Take pictures. Consistency leads to comfort. Snapping photos is one of the first things Wittman’s team does when helping seniors downsize. “We want to be sure families can establish a familiar environment for nostalgia purposes,” she says.

When decorating, recreate the look and feel of your loved one’s old home: Hang art in similar locations and arrange bookcases and decor based on the photos.

Add excitement with new features. Assisted living offers new opportunities and renewed independence, and a new home can invite updated decor. Wittman recalls helping one recently widowed woman move: She’d lived in a modern house with white walls, but she always loved color. When she transitioned to an independent apartment, she brought favorite keepsakes but purchased a bright purple couch and a sparkling chandelier — great centerpieces she loved showing off to new friends.

If your mom’s complained about an old recliner for years, look through catalogs together to find a replacement chair she loves. It’s one less thing to move and something to look forward to in her new home.

Minimize hazards. Many elderly adults transition to senior living because they aren’t able to remain at home without serious modifications. Apartment layouts should be accessible and easy to navigate without fall risks.

If possible, structure the apartment in a way that mimics their home layout. Having the bed and bathroom in similar locations could limit nighttime falls and confusion, especially in memory care. In addition to unfamiliar layouts, watch for trip hazards like rugs, electrical cords, and ottomans or low chairs.

Downsizing a home: 4 basic rules for moving seniors

Getting rid of the things that don’t matter saves space for the things that do, says Wittman. “Sometimes, there’s a fine line between keeping something because you’ve had it a long time and keeping it because it’s important.” She offers tips to separate the two and provide elderly moving assistance:

  1. Follow the “one year” rule. A good way to tell if you’ll use something is if you’ve used it within the past year. If a baking dish or CD player is collecting dust in the closet, it probably won’t be needed. Note: This helps with common-use items, not keepsakes. A once-read paperback can go; a favorite book may find a place in the new home, even if it hasn’t been read in years.
  2. Keep memories, not clutter. Negatives, duplicate photos, and home videotapes take up a lot of space. Consider consolidating tapes into organized electronic files and only keeping one copy of photographs. Stores like Walmart and online services like Legacybox can convert photos and videos quickly and affordably.
  3. Consolidate collections. Getting a new “Best Grandpa” mug each birthday takes up serious shelf space. Consider bringing the two that are most regularly used and photographing the others to put in a keepsake album.
  4. Sentimental value is personal. “Don’t keep something because you feel like you’re supposed to,” says Wittman. A crystal wedding present may seem important, but a cheap souvenir from a favorite trip could have more sentimental value. Encourage your parent to take what makes them happy.

Downsizing support: Senior movers and other resources

“It’s easier to leave something behind if you know it’s going to a good home,” says Wittman. Just because something won’t fit in a senior living apartment doesn’t mean it has to go in the trash. Here’s how to downsize while staying connected:

  • Donate locally and keep in touch. An amateur astronomer who collected telescopes and star charts could donate pieces to a local school or astronomy society. They could be a guest at special events or request pictures created by their equipment.
  • Use a senior move manager“Move managers and downsizing specialists have networks to find the best homes for cherished possessions,” says Wittman. Professionals can ensure specialized memorabilia is sold to collectors who will understand its value.
  • Find a home with family. One of the best things about a lifetime of possessions is the opportunity to pass them on. Divide sentimental objects between family members who can care for them.
  • Ask about on-site storage. Some senior living communities actually have storage units on-site, while others can recommend nearby facilities. If it’s in your loved one’s budget, they can rent a space to hold extra items and switch them out over time.
Claire Samuels
Claire Samuels

Claire Samuels is a content writer at A Place for Mom. She worked with senior living communities throughout the Midwest before pivoting to writing. She’s passionate about sharing ways of living well at any age.

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