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Adult Children Helping Aging Parents to Start to Downsize

Updated on June 22, 2014

Adult Children Helping Their Aging Parents to Start to Downsize

Have you had to help your aging parents downsize from their family home to something smaller and more manageable?

With the American population aging at an unprecedented rate, more adult children than ever are having to help their aging parents start to downsize.

In 1995, my brothers and I were faced with a dilemma: Dad was dying from cancer, Mom had moderately-advanced Alzheimer's disease, and they were no longer able to manage living independently in their single-family home.

Everything came to a head when Mom wandered away from their home and was found by the local sheriff's deputy. The deputy called me to say that they had admitted Mom to the local hospital for her own safety and that we had just 24 hours to get her admitted to a nursing home or they would do it for us.

That phone call began a six-week odyssey of traveling to their home, finding a suitable, available nursing home, getting Mom settled in, providing around-the-clock care for my Dad, all the while dealing with their 2700-square-foot home that was stuffed FULL of their belongings from a fifty-plus-year marriage.

Read on to learn how we coped (or didn't) and discover ways you, or someone you know, can help aging parents downsize their lives.


Have You Had to Help Your Aging Parents to Downsize Their Home?


Have you already experienced downsizing your aging parents?

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My Parents' Declining Health Contributed to Housecleaning Difficulties

Since my husband and I lived several hours away from my parents, we were only able to drive out to see them about every four to six weeks. Several months before we had to intervene in their lives, I noticed during one visit that their house was not being kept in its usual meticulous condition.

Even though we grew up on a farm where dirt, mud and manure were constantly being dragged into the house, Mom had always taken great pains to keep everything spotlessly clean, tidy and looking its best. She continued that same practice in the house they built in town after they retired from farming. Now, however, I began to see and smell that all was not well in the housecleaning department.

When I gently asked Mom if she wanted me to help her with the housecleaning, she was very insulted and angry. Later, when I asked Dad if he had noticed the declining condition of their house, he said he and Mom were just a little tired and it was nothing to worry about. Dad had always been a very strong-minded, stubborn, independent person, who didn't welcome interference, well intentioned or not.

Neither my husband or I, nor my brothers, realized at that time that Mom was suffering from Alzheimer's disease; that revelation came a few weeks later after my sister-in-law and I brought Mom to Mayo Clinic where her condition was diagnosed.

It was at Mayo that it began to dawn on me what my mother were dealing with and how it was manifesting in her day-to-day life.

Dad's cancer had been treated and he had received a clean bill of health, but he did not seem to be himself. Not long after Mom's diagnosis, we learned that his cancer had returned with even greater virulence.

It was obvious they both needed more care, but would they accept it?


It was Hard for My Parents to Ask for Help, Even Though They Needed It

Both of my parents, but especially my dad, were very independent people, rarely complained about things and never asked for much help from anyone.

Because they were not very demanding, coupled with the fact that we were busy with our lives and did not see them often, it was more difficult for us to realize the degree to which they needed some help with day-to-day living.

Once we did, we contacted their local county health department and arranged for an in-home visit by the public nurse.

The Challenge of Role Reversal: What Happens When Parents Can't Parent Anymore

My dad is on the far right in the picture, above. He is shown with two of his brothers, both of whose farms were within a quarter mile of ours.

Dad is wearing what was essentially his uniform: bib overalls with a blue chambray shirt in the summer, changing over to a plaid flannel shirt in the winter. Farming is not for the faint of heart, but I truly believe he loved what he did; he didn't have to answer to anyone and was his own boss.

He was a bit of a perfectionist and always insisted on having the neatest farmyard, he washed and waxed farm equipment and insisted on clean fields, without rocks or weeds.

From the time we were old enough to be more help than hindrance, we had chores to do every day. As I got older, it occurred to me that keeping everything just so must have been his way of wearing out the three of us kids so we had no energy to get into trouble!

Regardless of his motivation, it worked. He was the boss and we did what said.

Fast forward to 1995. The combination of his being used to running things, his diminished mental capacity due to the ravages of the cancer, and Mom's increasingly advanced Alzheimer's symptoms, made it very difficult to get either of them to understand that he and Mom needed more day-to-day help in order for them to be able to safely stay in their home for much longer.

His response was that he was not going to move out of his house unless he was carried out and that is where the discussion ended.

However, a couple of months later, Mom wandered off, and I received the county official's ultimatum to deal with the situation immediately.

After that, everything changed and Dad had no influence on what happened. By then, however, he was pretty much too sick to care.


How I Wish I Had Known About This Book When Dealing With My Aging, Ailing Parents - It is a must-have, must-read, must re-read book!

The Complete Eldercare Planner, Revised and Updated Edition: Where to Start, Which Questions to Ask, and How to Find Help
The Complete Eldercare Planner, Revised and Updated Edition: Where to Start, Which Questions to Ask, and How to Find Help

When I was unexpectedly thrust into the situation of having to deal with my aging parents, I had nowhere to turn and virtually no one to help me through that difficult time. Unfortunately, this book, "The Complete Eldercare Planner, Revised and Updated Edition: Where to Start, Which Questions to Ask, and How to Find Help" by Joy Loverde, had not been written. Now that it exists, I would encourage everyone who is, who will be, or who knows someone who is or who will be caring for an aging parent, to read and implement the information found in this planner.

It is a practical, A to Z, how-to guide that clearly lays out everything needed to prepare and execute a plan of action that will benefit you and your aging parent. The book includes detailed chapters covering common legal matters, insurance, managing medical care, addressing money matters, emergency preparedness, creating a care team, and communication.

Most importantly, in my opinion, it also has a chapter covering vital information on how to be kind to yourself, the adult child of an aging parent, during this stressful process.


Enter My Brothers and Myself, the Caregivers - I was SO NOT READY for the job!

Okay, my brothers and I were considerably older than this picture indicates when we realized we would be taking care of our parents, but, speaking only for myself, I felt about as young and unprepared for the job as I looked here.

I remember telling my husband that I was not old enough to be dealing with the situation we were facing, and that I seriously doubted I ever would be.

But that did not change the fact that something had to be done and someone had to do it.

That someone was mostly me.

When I was told by the deputy that Mom had to enter a nursing home ASAP, I called my twin brother, who lived on the family farm four miles from our parents, and updated him on the situation. I told him I was driving out and that he needed to find a place for Mom.

Now. Just do it. Figure it out. Make it happen.

Then I called Dad and told him I would be arriving in less than two hours and we would talk more when I got there.

After that, I called my older brother and told him what was going on and to be at Mom and Dad's house the next morning to decide who would do what.

The upshot of everything was that my brother found a nursing home, but it was seventeen miles away, the closest one with an immediate opening.

That night I packed Mom's clothes and went the next morning to check her out of the local hospital, where she was in protective restraints to prevent her from wandering off. I drove her to the nursing home, dreading the moment when I would have to walk her in, find her room, then leave her there.

It was hands down the most horrible moment of my life.

Mom still had enough awareness to know that her life was changing and would never be the same. She begged and begged me to take her home, and she did not understand when I told her I could not. It was an awful experience I will never forget.

When I got back to their house, it was decided that I would stay with Dad during the week and my brothers would alternate spending the weekends with him. The fact that Dad did not fuss about the arrangements told me how ill he really was.

During the next six weeks, I cooked him his favorite meals, for which he had less and less appetite, due to the spread of the cancer. As the days passed, he spent more and more time sleeping, leaving me with lots of free time.

I decided to start cleaning the house and thought I would start on the spare bedroom.

What a shock awaited me when I opened that bedroom door...


Hoarding - An Alzheimer's Symptom - I opened the bedroom door to find an avalanche of paper, clutter, garbage and clothes

As I opened the door to the spare bedroom in my parents' house, I was stunned at what I saw: it was quite literally an avalanche of paper, clutter, garbage and clothes.

I was speechless.

As I began to go through the debris, I discovered that tucked inside newspapers, magazines, letters, garbage bags (full of garbage), used bakery boxes, pockets of clothes, dresser drawers and under the mattress, was money.

Lots of money, as it turned out.

I found over $400 in cash and coin. Evidently hoarding, to one degree or another, is a fairly common symptom of Alzheimer's.

At that moment, I realized I would have to go through absolutely every single piece of paper, magazine, newspaper, closet, cubby, box, bag, drawer, and cabinet in the entire house to make sure I did not accidentally throw away something of value.

It took every last day of the six weeks I stayed in my parents' house to go through it, all 2700 square feet.

I washed every stitch of my parents' clothing, bedding, toweling and linens, since I could not be sure when it had last been done.

As I sorted through everything, I had Dad tell me what to keep, throw, give away or sell, but his strength was limited, and I was soon on my own.

Shortly into the beginning of the sixth week of my stay, Dad was too weak for me to care for him any longer, and he was admitted to the hospice wing of the local hospital.

Five days later he died, just as I finished with the last bit of cleaning.


Where Are You On The Downsizing Spectrum?

Image from Microsoft Office

How would you classify yourself?

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The Lessons I Learned From This Experience

1. Be prepared.

I was not and it made the whole event extremely difficult.

2. Communicate with family.

Our family has never been great at communication and that hindered the process.

3. Start the downsizing process early.

We should have started much sooner by winnowing out the unnecessary items in their house. Too much stuff is not good.

4. Educate people.

TODAY is the day to think about how you will start to downsize, for your parents and for yourself.

Organize Your Stuff - Sort. Stow. Smart.

NeatReceipts Mobile Scanner and Digital Filing System - PC
NeatReceipts Mobile Scanner and Digital Filing System - PC

Tame the tangle of store receipts with this invaluable mobile scanner

Small Space Organizing: A Room-by-Room Guide to Maximizing Your Space
Small Space Organizing: A Room-by-Room Guide to Maximizing Your Space

Every room in your home will benefit from these surprisingly easy-to-implement organizing options found in this clearly-written book


What Did You Take Away From This Lens? - I would be honored to hear from you

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    • bead at home mom profile image

      Teri Hansen 

      4 years ago

      Thank you for sharing your insight and what you went through. As I read your story I touched many cords with me. I have made peace with the fact that I have reached that season of my life where this will become more regular reading for me now and not so much the love novels. Ahhh, such is life as the cycle turns.

    • LaPikas profile image


      5 years ago

      I have already worked with my mom, it's easy. But when I read your lens I realized the very most important truth: Better to do it yourself when you are able to decide and organize, avoid giving headaches to your family. Don't wait until everything is more complicated. And immediately I thought about my mother in law, but as well in my family. Time to checkout how are our things doing. AMAZING LENS!! Congratulations!!

    • Wednesday-Elf profile image


      6 years ago from Savannah, Georgia

      I didn't have to face what you did with parents, as my parents downsized early on and didn't have a lot of stuff to sort out. But I was widowed myself 5 years ago and after sorting out my husband's things I realized that when my time comes my children (who all live far away) will have to deal with whatever I leave behind. Therefore, I am currently downsizing to keep only what I need and use to make things simple for the 'kids' some day -- and to simplify my current lifestyle! To that end, I have already given the kids some family mementos (and furniture, etc.) now instead of 'waiting'. It IS something one needs to think about as a 'senior citizen' sooner rather than later. One never knows what the future will bring, as you found with your parents. Thanks for telling us your story. It is very helpful in many ways.

    • Millionairemomma profile image


      6 years ago

      My own mother has already thought about this luckily. She doesn't shop for unnecessary items anymore. Great thought provoking lens.

    • KathyMcGraw2 profile image

      Kathy McGraw 

      6 years ago from California

      We are dealing with this at the moment as my mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Even though she knows she has to do something, she won't. She likes to be in control and it is very hard on the kids. One of these days soon, we will have to bite the bullet and take the control from her, and that will be hard I am sure. You gave an honest insight into what happens when someone isn't prepared. Thank you, and hope you are taking care of yourself!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I sure do appreciate how openly share this very hard time you went through. We are discovering many signs with Mom that she needs more support but she is at a distance and that makes it harder especially since she has always been pretty private. Day passed away about 25 years ago and Mom has managed well in their home. She still runs to the mailbox, mows her own lawn and shovels snow. Physically she is very capable but is becoming forgetful. We have to start sizing down with here and are seeing some of the hoarding that you talk about but she does it very neatly. You have been very helpful, thank you and be blessed!

    • verymary profile image


      6 years ago from Chicago area

      this is a very hard process in so many ways -- clearning & downsizing are important and very taxing, but it seems like just talking one's parents into moving can be so wrenching emotionally. very very hard. love your lens & blessed it!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Very hard to part with the belongings, as it is I try not to buy things that are not essential. Mom fairly downsized her stuff by giving it away having a hunch that it is going to happen and some of the stuff that we had after she expired was donated and distributed.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Don't keep what you aren't using.

    • tvyps profile image

      Teri Villars 

      6 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      That was a while ago but my Mom's stuff is still in the old house, a chore now made easier by your lens. Thanks for posting! blessed by a Squid Angel.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      My mother is the last of our aging family alive ... she lost her male companion in January 2012 when he passed away suddenly at her house. We've now got mom moved from Florida to Ohio with my youngest sister. Her fifth wheel and conversion van have been disposed of and her house in Brooksville is next. It is quite a process! Good to have some tips on how to accomplish this smoothly.

    • EpicFarms profile image


      6 years ago

      I'll add a P.S. to my comment and say that my parent's move really upset my mother mentally. She was like an early stage Alzheimer's patient, and really scared us all. By spending every waking moment after work and on weekends over there, we were able to get them unpacked in short order and her things organized enough that she has returned to her regular self. Major changes like a new home can really "upset" older folks (but don't tell my mom I called her that ;o) and they are likely to behave strangely until they can get their bearings again. My dad was stressing, but he was not nearly as scrambled as mom was by the move.

    • EpicFarms profile image


      6 years ago

      A renewed appreciation for my parent's willingness to be proactive. They just moved into to a smaller home much closer to ours - and got rid of a ton of stuff too. Excellent lens with a hugely important topic to those of us with aging parents.

    • KayeSI profile image


      6 years ago

      Thank you for an interesting lens and some great tips. It's never easy for any of us when caring for the aging parents in our family, so extra help is always appreciated. I was blessed on one side of our family with parents who were very prepared BECAUSE they had taken care of elderly parents and relatives decades earlier who were not. I, too, recommend Joy Loverde's book - an excellent resource. Thanks again.

    • kougar lm profile image

      kougar lm 

      6 years ago

      Informative lens. Thank-you. When my father and I started to "downsize" I called it getting organized.

    • HealthfulMD profile image

      Kirsti A. Dyer 

      6 years ago from Northern California

      Very important topic. Thank you for sharing your story. Goes along with the Too Much Stuff movement.

    • CCGAL profile image


      6 years ago

      This lens tells a moving and powerful story, and it's one that nearly everyone is going to have to face at one point in their lives. I've been through the loss of both of my own parents and my mother in law, and as a result, my husband and I are working hard to downsize our belongings so as not to leave that chore for our children.

    • chezchazz profile image


      6 years ago from New York

      This lens does a great service to many. Blessed and featured on my "Still Wing-ing it on Squidoo" lens.

    • AgingIntoDisabi profile image


      6 years ago

      At some point most families face this same struggle. Thanks for sharing yours with us.

    • Lady Lorelei profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 

      6 years ago from Canada

      A high five to you for such an excellent personal article on life with aging parents. There are so very many issues that come along when it is time to care for your parent rather than have them care for you.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Very, very good information here - not an easy thing to deal with at all. Blessed by a SquidAngel!

    • FanfrelucheHubs profile image

      Nathalie Roy 

      6 years ago from France (Canadian expat)

      It is a hard time for both you and your parents, but at least (even is they don't realize it yet) they are lucky to have someone who can take charge when they no longer can

    • artbyrodriguez profile image

      Beverly Rodriguez 

      6 years ago from Albany New York

      Great topic and very well done lens. I did go through this with my Parents. It can be overwhelming,

    • Sylvestermouse profile image

      Cynthia Sylvestermouse 

      6 years ago from United States

      Thank you for writing and sharing so much about your personal experience. Perhaps it will help the rest of us be prepared or at the very least, not shocked by what we will eventually face ourselves.

    • JoyfulPamela2 profile image


      6 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      Thanks for sharing your story and advice. I know we will be crossing this road with both sets of parents in the future.

    • TransplantedSoul profile image


      6 years ago

      Pitty my kids!! I'm a hoarder - but so is one of them. LOL

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      informative lens! I have learnt that its surely a good thing to live with the things that we use often. The others are just clutter.

    • Grasmere Sue profile image

      Sue Dixon 

      6 years ago from Grasmere, Cumbria, UK

      Very moving and very useful A great lens written from your personal experience. Blessed.

    • Demaw profile image


      6 years ago

      You are quite correct, downsizing should be done earlier or be continuous to prevent what you and others had to go through.


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