Downsizing comes with a tremendous amount of benefits, particularly for the older person. Reducing clutter and having less to maintain can reduce stress and improve quality of life. Research consistently shows not only the economic benefits, but also the health benefits that come with getting rid of unnecessary items and acquiring more "age appropriate" housing. Yet sometimes parents have a hard time letting go of things and taking the necessary steps to downsize.
What is Downsizing?
Downsizing can best be described as a move to a property that is more accessible, easier to take care of, and smaller than the current residence. It could also mean re-purposing an existing property to make it more aging-in-place friendly, or moving to a retirement or assisted living community. One thing it means in all aspects of downsizing is change. Change can be harder for some than for others, but downsizing has the potential to be a win-win situation for everyone despite some initial emotional and financial hesitancy.
The Benefits of Downsizing
Holding a conversation about downsizing may be uncomfortable, but it is a necessary first step toward helping your parents enjoy considerable benefits. Benefits of downsizing include:
You may ask, "How could downsizing help my parents' health?" The location they move to plays an important role in that. They could choose to move somewhere tropical and have a greater variety of fresh produce. A smaller home with a flat lot could allow them to garden. Gardening has been shown to improve the quality of life for elderly people by improving cognitive ability, physical flexibility and fitness, as well as emotional well-being. In general, a downsized lifestyle will reduce stress in multiple ways, leading to better health. Stress is linked to a host of increased health risks.
Recognizing the Need to Downsize
Researchers Dr. Adam Park and Dr. Friederike Ziegler with the University of Sheffield have found that there are three main categories of moves to downsize. There is the "Lifestyle Move" where couples prefer to move to be closer to family or to experience exotic locations that a previous lifestyle could not provide. Another is the "Planned Move" and it is typically attractive to parents whose home does not easily adapt to aging in place or when there are other concerns that make the decision to downsize easier. These concerns may include high maintenance costs, limited income after retirement, security concerns, too much isolation, or mobility challenges. The benefits of moving far outweigh the benefits of staying, and a logical decision is made to move. Then there is the "Crisis Move" made as a result of a loss of independence, loss of a spouse, failing health, or an injury that requires more intensive caregiving support.
Planning to move can in theory prevent a crisis move. Moving somewhere without stairs or an uneven driveway, for example, may prevent future falls. Crisis prevention may be a persuasive argument caregivers can make to older people who are reluctant to downsize.
Understanding Why Parents Don't Want to Move
Imagine living in a home for an entire generation or more, watching your children grow up there, seeing pets come and go, and knowing that the life you have created all took place in that home. There would be a strong emotional attachment to the house. There would be community relationships formed and familiarity with stores, restaurants, and places of worship. Despite the benefits of moving to a more "age appropriate" dwelling, the connection to home is often a very strong one, dissuading older people from moving.
There are also fears about the unknown. What if the new place doesn't meet expectations? What if those valued relationships don't survive the move? There is a human tendency to defer change until absolutely necessary. Helping your parents make such a big change will take patience and compassion. Your efforts may still be in vain. They may decide not to move and be forced by circumstances to make a crisis move later on.
Having a conversation about it is important. Even if you disagree, keeping the parent-child communication lines open is crucial. It won't hurt to talk about a potential crisis and what the family would do in that case. Allowing your parents to discuss with you what they would want should they become unable to make those decisions for themselves could be part of your plan to help them downsize. It may not be the best outcome, but the decision is up to them until that time.
Park, Adams and Ziegler, Friedericke (April 2016). A Home for Life? A Critical Perspective on Housing Choice for "Downsizers" in the UK. Architecture_media_politics_society, 9(2). Available at http://docserver.ingentaconnect.com/deliver/connect/uclpress/20509006/v9n2/s1.pdf?expires=1463759055&id=87007475&titleid=72010590&accname=Guest+User&checksum=A8EC799717943B05DE594F0B73A39647. Last Visited May 20, 2016.
Wang, Donna and MacMilan, T. (June 14, 2013). The Benefits of Gardening for Older Adults: A Systematic Review of the Literature. Activities, Adaptation, and Aging, 37(2): 153-181. Available at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01924788.2013.784942. Last Visited May 20, 2016.