Honey, I shrunk the house

She’s a mother, grandmother, hostess, world traveller and an avid book collector. And in the last 20 years, 86 year-old Alice Griffiths has also become an expert on downsizing — of the personal, not corporate, variety.Since moving from her family home in Ottawa in the mid 1970s, Griffiths has uprooted herself three times — from a two-bedroom condo in the heart of Toronto, to a one-bedroom in the same building and, finally, to a smaller one-bedroom apartment in a nearby retirement building. Perhaps not surprisingly, she’s now looking forward to staying put. “One of the reasons I came here was so that I wouldn’t have to move again,” she says.

The key to successful downsizing, says Griffiths, is learning how to let go of a lifetime of possessions.

“When I made my first move, I took too much with me,” she says. “But at least I had a good-size storage room to put things in until I could figure out what to do with them,” she says.

With each move, Griffiths got better at scaling back — giving things away to relatives when they came for dinner and dropping off little-used cups and saucers to neighbourhood garage sales. But Griffiths is tnkful she didn’t need to get rid of all her possessions at once, like so many of her friends who’ve sold their goods at auction.

“That route is so drastic,” she says. “And you don’t know which of your possessions will be important to your family. It may not be what you expect,” says Griffiths, who adds that her adult granddaughters are now wearing some of her cast-off clothes.

But not everyone is as well-equipped emotionally as Griffiths to handle the unique challenges presented by domestic downsizing — learning to live in fewer square feet; adjusting possessions to the space and dealing with the accumulated memories that attach themselves both to locations and belongings.

“I’ve seen people in real emotional skydives after a move,” says Sorele Urman, associate director of social work for Toronto’s Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care. Urman spends a portion of every day counselling downsizing seniors.

To avoid a letdown, Urman advises people to admit that a move will be difficult, and to approach this major life-change with a well-thought-out plan. “Moving should not be an impulse decision. You need time to plan and to adjust psychologically,” she says.

That’s something Ottawa residents John Edwards, 59, and his wife Sherrill Owen, 56, made sure to do when they decided to move from their five-bedroom family home.

“It was the right time,” says Edwards. “I had retired and the kids had left home. We wanted something smaller.”

The couple decided to split the week between their country property in the Gatineau hills and an urban location. They found a two-bedroom condo in Ottawa’s By Ward Market — a bustling centre of restaurants, bars and cafes. But they didn’t move right away. Edwards and Owen chose to rent out their condo for two years, while they readied themselves for the transition.

One of the major preparation tasks was organizing their possessions.

“We created a hierarchy of needs,” says Edwards. “For instance, we wanted to keep the better pieces of furniture, then we offered the children what they wanted. Some of it they took immediately and some of it went into storage,” Edwards says.

“We also gave some items to a refugee family from Afghanistan and donated some to the Salvation Army. Finally we hired a man with a truck to take the remainder away,” he says.

Sorele Urman agrees that family members are the best new owners for well-used possessions.

“It’s nice if people can give something away, but still see it. If a grandmother can go to her grandchild’s home and see the family dishes being used it creates a real bond between them,” says Urman.

Rosemary Beckett, an antiques enthusiast and a frequent guest on CBC Halifax’s noon hour call-in show, also suggests people look to their family first when downsizing. But if you need to sell your pieces, Beckett recommends spending the money on a professional appraisal. “An independent appraiser has no vested interest in selling your things. If an appraiser is also in the market for pieces, things may be assessed at less than what they’re worth,” Beckett says.

But how do you decide what’s important in your new home and what you’re simply holding onto for sentimental reasons?

Urman says that deciding what you’ll use in your day-to-day life and how you’ll use it will help you separate the things to be packed from the things to be thrown away. “Ask yourself, ‘What will be important in my daily or monthly life, and what have I used in the last year or two,’” she says. Urman also suggests that people make a schedule for all the tasks involved in moving: sorting, giving away or selling belongings and the move itself.

If you’re moving out of the family home, you may want to enlist the help of your children to go through all the stuff that’s accumulated over the years. Not only will you transfer the responsibility for such items as high school yearbooks to your kids, but they may also need their own transition time to come to terms with your move.

When Edwards and Owen moved from their house, they found that one of their grown children had mixed feelings about losing the room he’d grown up in.

“The situation called for an exercise in logic and long, sensitive discussions,” he recalls.

Now the children are very pleased with their parents’ smaller place, particularly because its lively downtown location offers a variety of things to do on visits home.

Even though Edwards and Owen have only two bedrooms, they’re equipped for overnight guests. But the couple also made sure that their condo offers little havens of seclusion and privacy. “If you’re accustomed to a large house, you have to find ways to escape from one another from time to time,” Edwards says.

Another fallout from downsizing is that both Edwards and Owen must be careful not to begin accumulating all over again.

“In a large house you can leave a lot of things around without being messy. But in a small space you have to constantly clean up after yourself,” says Edwards.

Despite the necessary adjustments, however, Edwards and Owen are both pleased with their decision to downsize. Edwards says their only real regret is that they don’t have a larger balcony for the summer months. However, the wide variety of restaurants and cafes in the Ottawa Market area, combined with the ability to escape to their country property, make the balcony size a minor complaint.

Alice Griffiths, too, is more than satisfied with this, the smallest ever of her homes. The building has all the amenities she requires and her suite feels familiar — comfortable.

“A lot of my furniture is in the same place it was in my old family home. The picture over the sideboard is the same one that has hung there since my boys were young,” says Griffiths.

“I’m very content here. When I come in, I feel like I’m coming home,” she says.