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Managing Family Dynamics in the Midst of Downsizing

Vickie Dellaquila - May 30, 2018 10:11 AM

When older adults move from their long-time home to embrace a simpler lifestyle, they may also be leaving the house in which they raised their children. These children, now adults, also have emotional ties to their childhood home. Though they do not live there anymore, they enjoy visiting and going through old papers in the attic and boxes of toys in the basement. They may want a voice in the destiny of these family treasures.

It’s a difficult situation because grown children have their own lives, careers, and families. They are part of the group known as the sandwich generation – torn among raising their children, working, and taking care of their parents. When they can help, they may attack it in their own fashion, perhaps planning a week-long assault or a group project. This strategy can leave the older parent caught in the wake of the commotion. It can get even more complicated when siblings are involved and grapple with strategizing and sharing the workload.

Consider these tips for managing family dynamics:

•    Have all the adult children sit down and negotiate and plan a strategy. If a professional has been hired, he or she may be able to attend this meeting to help outline the work to be done and mediate squabbles.

•    All of the siblings should outline how they view this process, without comments or criticism from the others. One may see it as the end of Dad’s independent lifestyle, while another may be delighted that she won’t have to drive Mom to the hairdresser anymore. Each sibling may have different commitments and a different approach to the job of helping the parents downsize and move. If the eldest sister is able to donate a greater share of the professional fees, perhaps the younger brother can agree to devote more time to the downsizing process.

•    List the tasks and assign a role to each person. For example, Jack can find a good retirement community or apartment, Nancy can find a moving company and contact the utilities, and Sue can direct the downsizing while her teenage son John delivers the donations.  If adult children cannot agree to downsize according to their parent’s schedule or wishes, it may be easier to let them build some distance from the situation by hiring a professional.

For the adult child, take some time now, even if no one is considering moving, to clean your boxes out of your parent’s attic, basement, or garage. That includes your old report cards, dolls, baseball card collections, books, or wedding dress. Take responsibility for your own stuff and get in the habit of cleaning out your own home regularly. Organization is a skill you can use for a lifetime.  Give your parents permission to toss out or give away any gift that you have given them. Dad may be reluctant to throw out the ashtray you made in second grade or that orange tie you bought him during the 70s. Let them know that your feelings will not be hurt if any of your gifts end up in the trash or are given to charity.

For the parents, set a deadline. Anything that children or relatives are storing in your house should be removed. You should not have to sort through Uncle Max’s record collection along with your own possessions. Let everyone know that anything not claimed within a certain time period will be considered unwanted and disposable.  Gifts belong to the person who receives them. That means you can return, pass along, or donate anything that anyone gave you. No one should feel guilty or insulted.

Vickie Dellaquila is Western Pennsylvania’s first Certified Professional Organizer in Chronic Disorganization and owner of Organization Rules® Inc. Organization Rules provides compassionate organizing services for every stage of your life®. She is the author of Don’t Toss My Memories in the Trash: A Step-by-Step Guide to Helping Seniors Downsize, Organize, and Move. Please visit

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