By Carrie Vittitoe

Once a loved one has decided to move to a retirement community and selected the one to call home, the hard work of “rightsizing” begins. This is the process of going through the house and belongings to find what will work in one’s new home and lifestyle. The process can be physically and emotionally grueling, but taking some of the following ideas into consideration will make the process feel much more manageable.

Selecting Your Living Space
Even if the retirement community has been decided upon, selecting the right room or apartment within the community can be a difficult decision. Harriette Friedlander, who is happily retired after 43 years working in aging services, says, “It’s an exploration of what is important to that person.” She says someone with ambulatory difficulties may want to be close to the center of activities and the dining room, while someone who loves to read may wish to be close to the community library. A very private, introverted person would likely not want to be near the hub of activity. Friedlander says if a person knows someone at the community, that also may influence their choice of rooms or apartment. She says that caregivers should consider the personality of their loved one. “Who is that person? All the questions revolve around that question,” she says.
Barbara H. Morris, owner of Smooth Transitions, says most communities have floor plans that potential residents can see, which will help them begin the next step after selecting their room or apartment, which is determining what possessions will move with them.

Determining What You Have
When working with her clients, Morris encourages them to begin with the rooms they actively use now rather than starting with the attic, basement, or a den they only vacuum periodically. In each room, they should write down what they actually have. How many sets of sheets? How many forks, spoons, knives, serving plates? How many blankets, wall hangings, picture frames, and sets of china? This process doesn’t have to be a whirlwind of activity. Morris says it can be as simple as doing one drawer at a time while sitting down in front of the television.
Morris has created a workbook to help individuals who are not using her services to begin deciding what they have and what they need for their new living space.

Measuring the New Space 
Morris recommends measuring furniture with butcher paper and tape and seeing how it will lay out in the new living quarters. Furniture may technically fit the new space, but not well and may require some creativity. An item may need to be used in a new way from how it is currently used. For example, an end table in the living room that has been passed down and has special meaning may become a bedside table in the retirement community apartment. Morris says, “You also want to allow space for future needs,” like a walker or other medical equipment.

Determining What Goes Where
Once a client knows what she or he actually has, Morris says it is essential for someone who is moving to ask themselves, “What is special? What brings joy and has meaning to my life?” An individual might own a lot of stuff, but asking this question helps pare down what is special from what has simply been accumulated. If an individual owns collections, it might be necessary to take only two or three of the items in the collection and take pictures of the others before dispersing to family or selling at auction. Morris asks her clients to think about what they are realistically going to use in their new living space. She says, “If all meals are going to be provided, you don’t need to take a lot of kitchen items, especially bigger items like baking pans and roasters.” When it comes to linens, she typically tells clients to take two sets of sheets and two sets of towels. This purging of items can be tricky for family members to navigate with their loved ones. The person who is moving into a retirement community may want to hold onto many items that have sentimental value, which can be frustrating to their caregivers. One of the benefits of hiring an objective party to help organize and dispose of items is that it can reduce friction between the individual who is moving and the family members who are helping with the process. “We’re Switzerland, we’re neutral,” Morris says about herself and other professionals like her.

What Do You Do With What You’re Not Keeping
Morris stresses that people need to have realistic expectations about what money they may get from their furniture and household items that are for sale or auctioned off. “Just because something is appraised for a certain value doesn’t mean you can get that,” she says, and adds that yard sales can be very demoralizing. She is reluctant to recommend Craigslist or ads in the newspaper simply because of the potential of unscrupulous people. There are auction houses and consignment shops around town, but there are some furniture pieces for which there is little local need or desire. “You can’t give dining room sets away,” Morris says.

Friedlander says many people who rightsize ask family members to hang onto special items or pieces of furniture so that the items stay within the family. Many people who have rightsized more than once try to sell their items the first time but realize it is a lot of work that doesn’t always pay off financially. “When I move people the second time, they don’t bother sending items for auction; they just donate them,” Morris says.

Give Yourself Permission to be Flexible
When a loved one moves into the new living space, whatever furniture arrangement they first choose doesn’t have to be the arrangement they stick with forever. Friedlander says it may be a good idea to go into the new apartment or room with the idea that this is the furniture arrangement for a month to see how they like it and how it works with their lifestyle. If an individual is going to slowly clean out their former home, they have some flexibility to change furnishings around if they want to.

Help the Staff Understand Your Loved Ones Needs
One of the most important things caregivers can do to help transition their loved one is to help the staff of the retirement community learn the needs, likes, and dislikes of the new resident. Being an advocate for your loved one and allowing them to feel in control of their life is critical. Even though rightsizing can be a positive change, it also means loss, which you can’t sweep under the rug. “Most important is to respect their autonomy and keep them making decisions. If it is too much, then slow down,” says Friedlander.

Is it time for your loved one to move into a longterm care community? Read this for tips on what to do.

Illustration by Silvia Cabib