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Downsizing? How to Avoid a Family Feud

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Sorry, Tolstoy. Your famous observation at the start of Anna Karenina needs an update for the today's "aging Boomers." Let's try it my way:

"All happy downsizing families are alike; each unhappy downsizing family is unhappy in its own way."

Seriously, it isn't easy for families to shrink their footprint or split the goods, attached as they are to memories... and price tags. Perhaps this 3-part series about downsizing, from dealing with emotions to practical realities, will help you and yours get through it with a clean heart and a clean home. This post, featuring the insightful authors of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, covers the complications that may arise when members of different generations tackle downsizing.

The obvious question is, how can grown children help their parents and find that delicate balance between "Hey Ma, can I help?" and "You are going to die." Talking about emptying the family home can be hard because it forces people to think about their mortality.

"Still, planning ahead, when your parents are able to participate, will help make the transition easier for everyone," says co-author Linda Hetzer.

To begin the conversation and keep it going, Hetzer and her co-author Janet Hulstrand suggest following these tips:

1. Remember who is in charge. Be considerate of your parents' feelings.

2. Start now. Encourage your parents, no matter how young they are, to start talking about the eventual disposition of their belongings.

3. Listen more than talk. Ask how you can help, and be prepared with suggestions.

Let your parents know what you need to know. "Remind them it will be easier for you to take care of whatever must be dealt with if they have discussed their estate plan with you," says Hetzer. Ask about their wishes and their fears. Are they worried about family disharmony? Do they want to be involved in dividing the contents of the house? Do they have certain bequests? What would they most like to see happen?

I wondered how older adults can ask their grown kids for help without feeling as if they are either burdening them or inviting them to take over.

Hulstrand says the answer lies in drawing and explaining clear boundaries, perhaps as follows: "We would like your help but we don't want to be bossed around. We want to continue making our own decisions." That way, you've laid the groundwork that allows you to calmly but firmly object if your offspring get too bossy or overstep their boundaries.

Among the middle-aged people I know, there seem to be unspoken fears about what might happen if their parents don't move/downsize. Although some has to do with natural reluctance to tackle that job later without guidance, Hulstrand unearths a more serious worry:

"One of the main, and most legitimate concerns that adult children have about their aging parents is that they will not be safe staying in their own homes... that they will fall, or have some kind of medical crisis that will precipitate a chain of events that is unpleasant or even dangerous for the older person, at a time when it is difficult or impossible for their children to help them through the crisis."

She notes that there are many ways to make the home safer, via everything from safety bars in showers and tubs to improved lighting and medical alert systems. These measures and more are covered in my book. Still, safety experts know these steps are all too often taken only after a sudden injury or illness. "Sometimes people avoid them because to do so is to admit that they or their parents are vulnerable, which is hard for both generations," Hulstrand says. "But it's silly to give in to denial and avoid doing the things that would make the parents safer, which makes everyone feel better."

Many older adults have more than one grown child and modern families are often blended. Isn't that where things get... interesting? How can families avoid squabbling or getting into open warfare in the downsizing process?

"Because going through this transition is stressful and also loaded with a certain kind of grief, tempers can be short," Hulstrand says. "It's not uncommon, even in families that are normally loving and serene, for sparks to fly and feelings to be hurt.

"That old adage of counting to 10 before speaking words in anger or resentment is very good advice," she continues. Sometimes it's best to back off an issue -- for example, who gets the rocking chair -- until "later," whether "later" is tomorrow, next week, or next year.

"In most cases, generosity and a feeling of goodwill are likely to return, at least if they were there to begin with," says Hulstrand. "The brother who made a snide remark yesterday about how, as usual, you're getting all the good stuff, may turn to you tomorrow and say 'I think you should have this.'"

Hetzer has more to add. "Often the tension that develops between siblings who are downsizing their parents' house together turns out to be a power struggle that harks back to sibling rivalry in childhood," she says.

She confirms that it's best to back off for a while. "Allow the adult in you to emerge again," she says. "It also helps to ask yourself what is fair.

"One of the best pieces of advice given to us about fairness among siblings," Hetzer says, "is to choose one key item in the family home that best symbolizes how you feel about your family. Focusing on that will help you to have perspective on the situation. The rest of the stuff is just stuff. Share your memories with your siblings and move on."

Of course, some of that stuff may have monetary value. Having certain items such as antique furniture or jewelry formally appraised in advance may help some families distribute the items in a way that feels more equitable to everyone involved.

But isn't all that easier said than done, when different family members have different approaches?

Hetzer offers a useful perspective. She says that some people are throwers, who relish the experience of clearing out and will empty a house quickly and efficiently, and some people are keepers, "who feel compelled to preserve special things as well as memories, and who will linger over the process."

"Throwers" may more easily separate the memories that go with the items. "Feeling more virtuous (or even smug) about it may be a barrier they erect to protect themselves from their own feelings, whereas the more sentimental 'keepers' often get emotionally mired in the memories," she says.

These basic personality traits may additionally explain why friction can arise when emptying a home. "It helps to remember that not everyone feels the same way about the items or about family history," says Hetzer.

She urges people to be tolerant and strive for a balance between those who want to throw out everything and those who need to deliberate over the many decisions involved, relishing family stories and preserving family history.

Hulstrand adds that people may be too quick to judge 'keepers,' missing important qualities that they bring to a downsizing situation. There might be very good reasons for not just pitching everything into a dumpster. She explains:

"Take the case of a house in which someone has kept pretty much everything for the past 50 years. Is it really best for the people who come upon this stash of now-historical material to just throw it all out? Many librarians, museum curators and archivists would say absolutely not, and would appreciate the chance to go through some of the stash and decide what is worth keeping and what is not. The United States alone has more than 17,000 museums, with collections of everything from aprons to war letters (to name just two mentioned in our book). Local county and historical societies are a good place to turn to for advice about what to do with really old 'ephemera' (which includes things such as Christmas cards, old maps and matchbox covers)."

Huh. Would that include my husband's several-score snow globes from around the world?

There is also the question of the environment. Is it really so virtuous to have a clutter-free home if you're contributing to a cluttered landscape? As Hetzer and Hulstrand urge, it's best to "throw (or recycle, or give away) as you go." The resource section in the back of their book and additional tips in their blog both have links to resources that help people find out how and where to get rid of waste responsibly.

Finally, the practical reasons for downsizing, like the practical reasons for regular exercise, don't always move people to action. To help families filled with both do-ers and dreamers, can these experts offer a persuasive impractical reason to downsize?

Sure they can. "For some, the process of downsizing aids the sharing of family stories," says Hetzer. "One of the most precious things children can inherit is a strong sense of family history. Ask questions and talk about feelings and special memories.

"The details of your family history are as much a gift, if not more so, than the physical items," she adds.

I've seen this first-hand. These blog posts on downsizing started with donating my piano, which is big and meaningful. It moved last week to my daughter's high school. We honored it by stowing a short history of the piano's role in our family life in the bench.

And just the other day, we drove to a donation depot with a car full of books, clothes and more. My daughter, wedged in the back seat next to old tennis racquets and plastic baseball bats, recalled fun times in the backyard when she was young. It was a great reminder that downsizing across the generations fulfills the cycle of life. To me, not being nearly so eloquent as Tolstoy, it simply means it's time to let someone else take a turn at bat.

Has reading more about the pros and cons of downsizing helped you move along in your own domestic journey? What are the biggest barriers? What are the greatest benefits? What would you like to tell others who are reluctant to start?

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

5 Tips For Empty Nesters With Newly Empty Nests
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