The best time for an older person to downsize and move from a longtime home is "when you want to — not when you have to; not after you've fallen down the stairs and broken something, or your health is such that you have fewer options," said Nancy Goldcamp, a longtime real estate agent with Coldwell Banker in Palo Alto.
Goldcamp, one of a number of certified senior real estate specialists in Palo Alto, has helped hundreds of older adults through the downsizing process.
Even for people who intend to "age in place" — remaining in their homes until the end of life — Goldcamp's top tip is: Start decluttering now.
"Many of us look around and say, 'Oh my gosh, I don't know where to begin,' but you do need a plan," she said.
Palo Alto residents Meg and John Monroe had a five-year plan in mind when they began looking to downsize from their four-bedroom, 2,800-square-foot Southgate house, where they'd spent more than four decades and raised two sons.
Less than two years later — in June 2021— they had made the move into a two-bedroom, 1,600-square-foot villa with a garage at The Forum at Rancho San Antonio in Cupertino.
The couple acted quickly because new units came on the market that met their specific criteria: an appealing ownership model and community rules that allowed John to play his trombone and host his brass quintet practice right in their unit. The couple also needed garage space for John's extensive sheet music collection and Meg's quilting materials.
Monroe hired Palo Alto designer Carol Lippert to help plan the new space, determining which items from the old house would best suit the new.
But a daunting task loomed: cleaning out all that remained in the Palo Alto house. When one of their sons who now lives in Iowa was visiting, the family moved the contents of their three attics to the living room and held a FaceTime session with their other son, who lives in England.
Childhood books and a table went to England; other furniture went to Iowa. An enormous amount still remained.
"We discovered there's stuff no one wants," Monroe said, including antiques and china — and she had five sets.
Having moved frequently as a child, Monroe said she tends not to get sentimentally attached to possessions. She was thus delighted to find an estate liquidation service, Los Altos-based Kuzak's Closet, that swooped in to find a proper home for each item, right down to the canned goods in the pantry.
"It was very freeing," she said. "I didn't have to negotiate to sell things, or call Goodwill and ask, 'Are you taking upholstered furniture this week?' The value for me was the facility with which they got rid of things and feeling good about the way it was disposed of."
Los Altos resident Joyce Johnsen took a more sentimental approach in 2021 when she downsized from her three-bedroom, 2,500-square-foot house to a two-bedroom, 1,000-square-foot apartment at The Terraces at Los Altos.
"I made it so complicated because I had to give every table and every toy to the right person," Johnsen said. "It was my mission.
"I had to bring my knitting up to a knitters' group; I gave my dining room set to some newlyweds; another friend teaches children's literature, and I had a Teddy Bear's Picnic teapot, so I gave that to her. I made (downsizing) very hard on myself, but I also enjoyed it."
Downsizing was "pretty much my full-time job" for at least six months, Johnsen said. "I'd empty a closet at a time, and either have a trip to the Discovery Shop or Goodwill, or someone would come over to take something," she said. "It just had to move along. I have a big car, and I'd fill up the back of it every day."
Both Johnsen and Monroe also contracted with Managing Moves and More, a Mountain View-based business that specializes in helping older adults with downsizing, to help with many of the moving tasks.
Woodside resident Rae Schmidt has downsized twice — both times within the same hillside house she and her husband originally built in 1970.
Shortly after she was widowed about a decade ago, Schmidt was cleaning what had been their lower-level children's game room when she realized it would make the perfect, scaled-down living space for her.
She moved into the space, renting out the upper part of the house. "Emotionally, I loved the smaller space," she said. "Even though it was still my house, I didn't feel like I had the responsibility so much. And also, with so few square feet, hardly anything got lost."
But recently, the 12 steps up to her front door began to bother Schmidt's knee. Last month, the 88-year-old was in the midst of a second move to an even smaller space within the house that's easily accessible on a level path from the driveway. It's also wheelchair-accessible, should the need arise.
"It never occurred to me that stairs would become a problem in my life," said Schmidt, who just a few years ago served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Caribbean. "There are a lot of things you sort of know about other old people, but it didn't enter my mind it could happen to me."
With both moves, Schmidt didn't bother to sell or donate her excess possessions. She simply left them for the next occupant of the space. "What I did was just walked out the door. The tenant either used it, or got rid of it," she said.
But there were still many sentimental moments as she went through her closets. "The whole downsizing thing has to do with connections with the past, and so many things you have to let go of that had a real impact on your life at that time," she said.
"It's painful to let them go — like the menu from a restaurant (husband) Charlie and I went to, or the senior class ring. But you think, 'I can't keep this.' The physical part of downsizing is nothing compared to the emotional part."
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