Tag Archives: downsizing

Getting rid of our parents’ stuff is painful work

March 22, 2015
parents stuff1

It was hard to believe no-one wanted the antique dining table, the setting for 50 years of family celebrations. The children couldn’t sell it or give it away. Nor the matching chairs. Far from fighting over their mother’s possessions, the siblings, in their 60s, were united in guilt and distress about finding a home for it all.

“It’s been bloody hard work and it’s taken six months,” the daughter – I’ll call her Barbara – told me.

How many of us are in this situation or will be soon? At the stage when we’re likely to be de-cluttering our homes, our parents are moving into aged care facilities or dying, leaving us with their possessions to inherit or disperse.

Some of it is lovely and cost a fortune back in 1950 or 1980. Antique dining tables we weren’t allowed to put a glass on; or if not antique, solid furniture, saved for and paid off in instalments when furniture was an investment. Crystal vases that were wedding presents, and Royal Doulton vegetable dishes, and silver cutlery we recall our mother polishing…. Much of it is laden with memory and emotion for us.

Yet many of us don’t need more stuff and don’t really want it. Our kids are living at home, or if they’ve moved out, have furnished tiny apartments in IKEA and Kmart. Do 20-somethings roam antique stores like I used to do? In the era of cheap and spindly, is recycling on their mind? I don’t think so. They don’t want big, dark Victorian wardrobes. And it comes as a shock to many of us that when we try to sell the good stuff not even antique shops want our parents’ antiques.

“If you’re sitting on quality, fret not. But if it’s plain, old brown furniture from 1850s on, forget it, and if it’s a reproduction, we can’t even burn it,” Shauna Farren-Price, business manager at the auction house, Lawsons, told me. People are dismayed at how little they get from selling. But with eBay and its ilk, potential buyers can compare hundreds of antique oak tables just like the one your family thought so special.

In Barbara’s case, her mother was moving from a big house full of lovely stuff into one room in an aged care facility. That her mother was mentally alert, and in possession of a spread sheet itemising all her belongings so she could track where they ended up, made the task more challenging. It was important to Barbara to make her mother happy.

“I’ve taken her lounge-room furniture even though it meant I had to get rid of my own lounge-room furniture which I quite liked,” Barbara told me. “My brother took the dining room furniture – it’s the second lot he’s inherited because my parents are divorced. Fortunately he’s got a big garage.”

We’re often reluctant to send a message to our parents that no-one in the family values their precious things. So sometimes people pay to put their parents’ stuff in storage in the hope someone might need it one day. That’s what Kerry did when her mother went into aged care because of dementia. Eventually Kerry sold some furniture to a colleague for “not very much”. She tried living with other pieces in her own home but got rid of them over the years because they didn’t suit her taste. In the process she learnt a lesson.

“You don’t need very much to remember someone you love. If I had nothing of my mother’s I’d never forget her,” Kerry told me. “She was a wonderful mother.” She kept some jewellery, some silver-plated teaspoons, and a collection of vases. But the vases made her sad, so she kept the one piece associated with happy memories of her mother.

Now she faces the task with her father, who’d been divorced from her mother, and lives in a three-bedroom apartment furnished to the hilt. He’s moving into a care facility and wants Kerry to find good homes for his possessions. But again the extended family doesn’t want anything, and certainly not Kerry, now retired, who’s had the time to de-clutter her own home. “I don’t want to put my children through what I’ve had to go through,” she said. “With my mother, it was physically hard work and emotionally upsetting.”

The answer for many may be a charity like Vinnies. Its policies can vary from state to state, or even within a state. I’d be interested to hear of readers’ experiences with charities. Here’s a handy website for furniture donations. In Victoria, for example, Vinnies treats deceased estates with “priority and sensitivity”, its retail operations manager, Michael Rawlinson, told me. It will organise skip bins and take away pretty much what the family wants to donate. “Brown might be ugly for antique dealers but it comes in handy for us,” Michael said. What isn’t sold in their shops is given directly to people in need such as refugees.

And here’s some advice for those still to face the job. It’s from David Ekerdt, of the University of Kansas, an expert in household downsizing. “Older people want our love and affection, but they probably don’t need more stuff. So why pile on more?” Instead of giving things for Mother’s Day or birthdays, offer to help parents start the de-cluttering process now (but don’t start World War 111 with your siblings). He swears they’ll feel relief at having lightened the load.

Any advice or experiences to share? Please leave a comment.

Coming of Age is updated every Monday. Click ‘Subscribe for free’ to get it emailed to you.

Over-50s reluctant to leave their big houses, downsizing study shows

December 2, 2013
Painting: Peter O'Doherty
Painting: Peter O'Doherty

Downsizing into a smaller place seems both the sensible and ethical thing to do if you’re an empty-nester rattling around in a big house. So why are so few older Australians making the rational decision?

A new study – the first into the downsizing phenomenon – has come up with the unexpected finding that older Australians are generally staying put. If they do move it’s often to a place just as big as, or even bigger than, the one they’ve sold. “We were a little surprised that the percentage downsizing was so small since there’s a popular view that downsizing is very common amongst older people,” said Professor Bruce Judd, of the City Futures Research Centre, at the University of New South Wales.

The study looked at Australians aged 50 and over across a five-year period from 2006 to 2011. It found only nine percent moved into a smaller place with fewer bedrooms. Another nine percent moved but didn’t downsize. Recently there’s been talk – especially in Sydney with its skyrocketing housing prices – about baby boomers crowding out first-home buyers. Cashed up baby boomers may be buying up neat little houses close to the city and cool, new apartments as investment properties to rent out. But most of them continue to live in three and four bedroom family homes with gardens and garages.

The low incidence of downsizing is not the study’s only surprising revelation. The findings also undermine the assumption that the removal of financial disincentives to downsizing (such as stamp duty) would make a significant difference. Apart from using Census and other data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Professor Judd and his team conducted a national survey of 2,767 older Australians who had made the big move. “Downsizing” was not a term they favoured. They thought of it as “right-sizing.” The study’s aim was to find out what prompted the move and what impediments stood in their way. If it’s considered desirable to free up big houses for young families by making it easier for older people to scale down, then we need this sort of research to help design better social policies.

A lot of the downsizers moved into retirement villages, the survey found, and they moved into something smaller, but not too small. Before moving almost two-thirds had lived in a house with four or more bedrooms. After moving, two and three-bedroom places were favoured. Older people wanted more than one bedroom: “Some of our children live interstate so we need accommodations when they come to visit,” was a typical response. “We wouldn’t exist in too small a place I don’t think. Not happily anyway.”

A desire for a different lifestyle was the single most important reason for the move, the study found. Almost 38 per cent of the downsizers cited “lifestyle preference.” The next main reason was an inability to maintain house/garden, followed by children leaving home, retirement, relationship breakdown, and death of a partner. Very small numbers cited other prompts such as financial difficulties or locational dissatisfaction.

Though it could be an emotional wrench to move, 90 per cent of the downsizers were either “very satisfied” or “mostly satisfied” with their new home. Reduced maintenance was key. But in group discussions with the researchers, the downsizers pointed to problems that needed to be addressed to make it easier for more people to follow their lead. The main barrier was the lack of suitable and affordable alternatives – of housing that is small but not too small in areas close to shops and transport. Older Australians favoured detached, single-level houses over retirement villages or apartments, a point that has escaped governments hell-bent on increasing density. There’s a need for the housing industry to be more innovative, and for more flexible planning regulations.

Many cited the need to remove financial disincentives such as stamp duty, and the possible negative impact on Aged Pension eligibility; some suggested subsidising removalists’ costs. But preferential treatment of relatively well- off older home-owners might need to proceed with caution. “Given financial reasons are fairly low in the order of why older people downsize it would suggest that financial disincentives are not all that important,” Professor Judd said. “Most people downsize for lifestyle change or to reduce maintenance of a large house. However, we only surveyed people who had moved since having turned 50. We don’t know how important financial reasons were for people who wanted to move but couldn’t.”

The downsizers I’ve known have had diverse experiences. One couple couldn’t be happier having sold up the big family home in the suburbs to move to an inner city townhouse. “The trigger was retirement,” my 62-year-old friend said. “I didn’t want to be retired in the suburbs. I wanted street life around me. I wanted to be able to walk to things.” She’s back with her tribe where she always felt she belonged. Another woman who’s 69 has downsized twice since her husband died. Culling their life’s precious possessions to fit into a two-bedroom unit in a retirement village was distressing. But worse was to come with major fights with the retirement village management over money (which she won). Now living in a one-bedroom strata apartment in a big complex, she told me, “What I want doesn’t exist: a granny flat in someone’s backyard; my own little bolt hole.”

The study, Downsizing Amongst Older Australians, funded by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI), will be released soon.

Have you thought about downsizing? Have you done it? Please leave a Comment.

Coming of Age is updated every Monday. Click ‘Subscribe for free’ to get it emailed to you.