Friends reached out to me recently to ask my opinion on how to approach the impending need for their elderly parents to leave their larger family home after having lived there for decades. This was not a desired transition on the part of the parents, but was prompted due to health considerations and advancing age. The house was becoming too much to handle for their parents and their safety in the home could become uncertain. They would need to find a new home where their needs could be met throughout the next phase of their lives, but to make that transition, they were faced with having to downsize their belongings and sell their beloved family home. 

This is a challenge facing more and more of us as we ourselves, or our family members, approach a time where we choose to or must, out of necessity, consider where, how and when to make the transition to the next phase of our lives. Some may be able to “age in place” and remain in their homes with additional support brought in and perhaps some modifications to the home. But others may not have that option. For them, it can be a really stressful and daunting process, especially if the home owners are not making the choice they want, but rather one that is forced by circumstances. 

My friends asked me for tips on how this can be made easier for their parents and the entire family. I have had some experience in this area and suggested the following:

1. First and foremost, approach this topic with sensitivity and understanding. It is going to be an emotionally, financially, and physically challenging process, especially where it is borne from necessity. To the greatest extent possible, the homeowners should be fully engaged and empowered in the decision making process so they feel ownership of it, and not like it is something is being imposed upon them. Understanding, validation of their feelings and concerns, and support is what the homeowners need. It can be frustrating and worrisome to the family members who may feel things are not moving as fast as they should, but it probably won’t help the situation to express that to the homeowners and may in fact trigger them to be more intransigent. 

2. If the homeowner has a new home to look forward to, it can make saying goodbye to their old home easier. If faced with having to sell and leave your home, without any idea of where you might go from there, it will create even more anxiety and difficulty. So, it is good to make a plan, first find the next home, and create that excitement of going to something new and wonderful, to diminish the dread of being forced out of their comfort zone. If the next phase of life is a senior community, or an assisted living community, the best facilities often have long waiting lists. Encourage your loved ones to visit these places and consider going on the waiting list. In a way, it can defer the decision point for a while longer, but also give them a timeline to get their house and themselves ready for the transition. 

3.  It took decades to build memories in a home and acquire its contents. It is probably too much to expect that the home can be vacated and prepared for sale in a short time frame. Here again is where sensitivity and planning is essential. Once the home owners have a place to go, they are going to make the difficult decisions of what can go with them. These decisions can be tackled a bit easier if you tackle it room by room, month by month (or as much time as you may have). There are firms which specialize in working with folks who are downsizing who can come and guide the process and help the homeowners decide what to keep, give away, donate, sell or dump. There are companies who will conduct estate sales from your home to help you sell unwanted belongings on site. Bringing in these experts may actually help the process and keep the family peace. Sometimes hearing what needs to be done by a paid professional will have greater impact than if frustrated family members are insisting on what to do with your belongings. 

4.  Some belongings have very sentimental connections, and so it is important to honor them. The homeowners may not be able to take them all with them, but they may feel much happier if they have a say in what happens to them. If their walls are lined with family photos, help preserve those photos and memories by moving the pictures into albums which takes up less space and are easier to move. If they have a large collection of art, figurines, hats, whatever, help them to choose their favorite ones to take with them so they can have some familiar reminders of home. Ask them to identify belongings that they would like to see go to particular friends or family members and suggest that they give them now. Chastising the homeowners attachment to belongings or insist they “just throw it all out now” is going to be counter-productive. 

5.  Bring in a professional Realtor, long before the house is ready to go on the market, to have a general/neutral conversation with the homeowners about what it takes to sell a home with the best results in the current market. Again, hearing this information from a professional may have more impact than hearing it from a family member and if it is discussed in general terms, it may help the homeowners identify what may need to be one with their home and motivate them in that direction. At some point, the conversation will have to address the specific needs of their home, but a general conversation at may help set the stage for that.

Every family is different and has unique dynamics and circumstances that can impact the process. But if approached with love, sensitivity and empowerment, the process can be more successful and less stressful. If this situation is one your family is or soon will be facing, please know I am always here to help and can suggest resources and service providers along the way to make the transition more manageable.

This content is not the product of the National Association of REALTORS®, and may not reflect NAR's viewpoint or position on these topics and NAR does not verify the accuracy of the content.