The home that your elderly parent lives in now was probably once an appropriate size for them. But by now, their home may be too large for them or simply too hard to manage.
It’s likely that your aging parent already realizes they need to downsize. But publicly, they may still refuse to consider doing it. If you want to get them to change their mind—and their surroundings—you’ll need to master the art of gentle persuasion.
Here’s how to persuade your elderly parent to declutter and downsize:
In this article, I’ll explain why using logic and reason generally won’t work to persuade an older person to declutter and downsize—even if they obviously need to. And I’ll explain which persuasion tactics do work and why.
By the time you’ve finished reading, you’ll have a clear sequence of actions that will guide you in helping your aging parent downsize with more dignity and less drama.
How to Persuade an Aging Parent to Declutter and Downsize When They Refuse
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already tried to convince your aging parent to declutter and downsize. But by now it’s become clear that they’re not interested.
Maybe they’ve even promised you they’re finally going to tidy up! But somehow, it just doesn’t happen. It can feel like your conversations about clutter go around in endless circles.
What’s even more frustrating is that—over time—your aging parent is likely to accumulate even more clutter, and lose the interest and energy they once had to manage it.
The sooner you can talk with your aging parent skillfully about this sensitive topic, the more enjoyable the journey ahead will be—for you both. Here’s how to master the art of gentle persuasion around senior home downsizing and decluttering.
Understand Why Elders Resist
There are two main life stage goals that largely influence seniors’ decision-making and behavior: (1) maintaining control in the face of loss and (2) establishing a legacy.
Seniors’ first life stage goal is maintaining control of things while they still can. Aging parents often cannot control things like declining health, dwindling financies and disappearing friendships. This can be very hard for anyone to bear. For these reasons, aging parents often try fiercely to control what they still can: their home and the physical things in it.
Seniors' second life stage goal is establishing a legacy. Seniors are acutely aware that their lifetime is limited. They begin now to want to be remembered for their special qualities. This life stage goal is not about holding on to things but rather about letting go—of past identities and hoping others will remember them after they are gone.
The skillful support person to an elderly parent will make an effort to understand and support these two penultimate life stage goals—just as we do with the life stages of toddlers, teenagers, new parents, etc.
Develop a Mindset of Empathy
Stubborn, resistant behavior in seniors can try anyone’s patience—even more so when that person is your parent—and especially if your relationship with them is complicated or difficult.
Do your best to develop empathy around their two senior life stage goals: maintaining control and establishing a legacy.
When your elder parent senses that you understand and respect these critical life stage priorities, you will see them begin to relax and stop fighting you so much about decluttering and downsizing.
After that, they are much more likely to view and trust you as a compassionate guide who is beside them on their involuntary journey into old age.
Start a Fresh Conversation
Once you have expanded your mindset to include empathy for the life stages, experiment by adding gentle comments or questions about your elder’s life stage goals into your regular conversation. See what resonates with them.
In most cases, your elder won't be consciously aware of their life stage goals. So insightful, gentle comments from you may help to plant some important seeds that will germinate into thoughtful and newly productive conversations later.
When you finally reach a new point of connection with your elder parent, this is your signal that you can slowly explore the sensitive topic of downsizing again. Just make sure that, this time, you explicitly recognize your elder’s need for some control in the process and understand their natural instinct to develop a legacy.
Listen to Your Parents’ Stories
Without empathy and understanding of the life stages, elderly parents’ stories about old belongings can be hard to endure. It is common for younger people to feel they don’t have time to listen to stories that no longer seem relevant, appropriate or even accurate.
But, if you can make time, listen for what is really being said. In stories about war memorabilia or flowery china, your elder is likely trying to communicate to you who they once were and how they would like to be remembered after they are gone.
Were they brave, discerning, kind, persevering, warm-hearted, devout? If you can help them identify and say out loud the positive qualities of their younger self, you are helping your loved one accomplish their goal of establishing a legacy.
Once their legacy qualities have been heard and ‘received’ by you, it will actually become easier for your aging parent to let go of physical belongings they had been holding on to to remind themselves and their loved ones of who they once were.
Help Them Identify What’s Important Now
In the KonMari Method®, which I use to help my clients downsize, people work to identify their current values and ideal lifestyle before they even begin to declutter.
For seniors, values like comfort, security, physical safety, general ease, enjoyable activities and uplifting relationships may be most important to them.
If you can help your aging parent articulate the lifestyle values that are most important to them now, you can use this information very effectively while helping them downsize!
For example, if they’ve said ease in daily life is highly important to them, ask out loud during decluttering whether each belonging they’re reviewing actually contributes to ease.
If your elder hesitates, gently ask them why. Encourage them to talk out loud about the specific ways an item contributes to ease now, and also how it does not. Allowing seniors to express their mixed feelings about an item often aids them in letting go of the item.
Give Them Some Control
Another key feature of the KonMari Method is that the person downsizing always makes the final decision whether to keep or discard each belonging.
It’s many seniors’ worst fear that someone else will throw away their life’s important belongings—because these items are the tools they’ll use to help them develop their legacy.
Without these belongings, their life stage goal of legacy establishment can be harder to achieve.
Once your aging parent understands that you are willing to give them space and structure to make their own informed decisions about their belongings, they will be more likely to discard items on their own.
Remember, one of their two life stage goals is maintaining some control in the face of change. Allow them one hand on the metaphorical steering wheel while you travel alongside them on their downsizing journey.
Help Your Elders Make a Positive Plan
For seniors, the thought of decluttering a lifetime of possessions often feels overwhelming. The good news is the number of items in any home is finite. Therefore, a big decluttering project can be divided into positive, progressive steps.
Having a plan for decluttering from start to finish keeps everyone on track when individual motivation is flagging. The KonMari Method is perfect for this big task.
Here are the KonMari steps you can use with your aging parent—or anyone else who needs support decluttering and downsizing:
You may feel tempted to rush your aging parent through the decluttering process—so they can move out soon or to preserve your own sanity. If time permits, declutter with them slowly and regularly. Making many consecutive decisions about belongings can be tiring, especially for people approaching their final decades.
Setting up regular times to declutter together can be a good way to keep a good project pace and prevent the overwhelm that might cause them to change their mind about downsizing.
Encourage Enjoyment of Cherished Items
One of the benefits of decluttering methodically is the rediscovery of especially cherished items in deep drawers and crowded closets. Help your elderly parent choose a few rediscovered items to display with delight in their home, even as they are letting go of many more old items that no longer serve their needs and values.
Consider Hiring a Professional Organizer
If you’re helping your elderly parent downsize and the job feels overwhelming to you, consider partnering with a professional organizer. A good organizing professional can keep the downsizing project moving forward steadily. She or he can also offer you—and/or your elder—personalized support and guidance if stumbling blocks arise along the way.
Practical Considerations to Convince Aging Parents to Declutter and Downsize
If you’re still in the early stages of persuading your elderly parents to downsize, be sure to bring up the following considerations. These points can be very motivational!
Less Housework to Do (Ease)
Although it’s hard to give up a home that was loved for many years, smaller homes and apartments are so much less demanding. It is a lot easier for seniors to clean and maintain smaller homes.
Less cleaning also means more time for other satisfying activities that add value to your aging parent’s life.
Easier to Move Around (Safety)
With clutter off the stairs and out of the main walkways, your parents will be less likely to trip on something—which could result in injury and loss of their mobility and independence. They also will be happy to find things like their keys, phones and glasses much more quickly!
More Incentive for Family to Visit (Relationships)
A newly decluttered home can be a magnet for invited friends and family to visit. If your aging parent is feeling lonely after the pandemic, a downsized and refreshed space can signal a new era of socialization and boost their social confidence.
Be Surrounded By Most Cherished Belongings (Connection and Joy)
Placing rediscovered cherished items around the home can be immensely reassuring for seniors. A flattering photo of your aging parent when they were in an earlier life stage can remind them—and others—of the values and milestones they cherish and for which they want to be remembered.
Better Sleep (Health)
Decluttering and downsizing can help resolve open life issues of all kinds!
After processing emotions that inevitably surface during this process, your elder is likely to feel much ‘lighter’ and more at peace with the past, present and future. This generally contributes to a more peaceful demeanor and more restful sleep.
By going through this process, your elder also make progress on their life stage goals. This, too, reduces the worry that can interfere with sleep.
Emotional Considerations of Downsizing for Elderly Parents
Before you begin the downsizing process, keep in mind the emotional effects of doing so.
Some Items Come with Heavy Emotional Attachments
If you are part of a parent’s downsizing journey, you are likely to experience some strong and perhaps unexpected emotions of your own along the way.
Know that this is part of the process. You’ll have to decide how much of your own emotion(s) you want to share with your aging parent.
Resist Being A Sole Support to Your Elder
Being a sole supporter in a senior decluttering project can drain the energy from you that you need to stay in good health and keep your elder motivated and on track.
To the extent possible, strive to obtain steady support of various kinds from other willing siblings and family members. This could be helping you bring items to a donation center, selling items of value online, or sharing on-site ‘declutter coach’ duties. Recruit a small team of well-meaning supporters who may have their differences but who all respect and care about your aging parent.
It’s a struggle when an aging parent won’t entertain the idea of downsizing or decluttering. Rather than using logic and reason alone to convince them—or worse, forcibly decluttering their home—try understanding more about their life stage goals, and then working through the steps of gentle persuasion outlined in this guide.
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Certified KonMari Consultant Julie Heckscher helps people of all ages downsize their belongings and live life more joyfully!