Downsizing Memories: How to Handle Sentimental Items

Apr 16, 2024

Group of items to downsizeWhen you begin the process of downsizing your belongings, you start to decide what will stay and what will go. At first glance, a stranger could easily walk into your home and advise you to get rid of the lumpy vase being used as a centerpiece, donate your antique armoire and send your grown children into the attic to claim the things that hold sentimental value for them.

However, you’re no stranger to your home. It’s more difficult to make those decisions because you know the meaning behind each item. You know that the vase was made by your grandmother and the armoire was the first major purchase your parents made for their first home together. Your children would be willing to collect their things if they asked, but you know they’re busy and are unable to drop everything to sort through your attic.

It’s no easy task to downsize your keepsakes and sentimental belongings, but we have some tips to hopefully help make it a little easier.

Tips for Getting Rid of Keepsakes and Sentimental Belongings

1. Create new things from significant pieces.

One unique tip for downsizing sentimental items is to recycle and repurpose them. For example, if you have a chest of drawers that you don’t want in your new space but has deep sentimental value, you could turn one of the drawers into a floating shelf. Or, if you have a quilt that’s falling to pieces, you could take some scraps and put them in a shadowbox to artfully display a piece of the pattern.

2. Give away family heirlooms to family members and friends.

There are certain things that you simply can’t donate, sell or toss. One tip for downsizing family heirlooms is to decide which items will not work in your new space and then determine who you would most like to have them.

A nice touch is to write a short note about the significance of the item so the family member or friend knows its background if they aren’t already familiar.


Related: Downsizing: What do I do if nobody wants my stuff?


3. Recognize the importance of your belongings.

If you’ve done research on downsizing, you’ve likely come across Marie Kondo, whose book and method on tidying up have risen to massive popularity across the globe. There’s one piece of advice that seems to resonate with people who are downsizing: to thank the items for their service.

“Giving sincere thanks to an item will significantly reduce or even eliminate any guilt you may feel when you decide that you will no longer have it in your home,” she says. “I understand that for some people it may seem strange to thank items, but if you try it you’ll be surprised by its effectiveness. Keeping an item beyond the time it sparks joy for you will only diminish the care and appreciation you have for the other items in your life.”

When you’re getting rid of a sentimental item, take a moment to soak in the feeling that made you hang onto it in the first place. Then, thank it for its service and move on.

4. Take pictures of sentimental items.

There may be items that you decide you don’t want to keep and know that no one else in the family would want them either. In that case, an easy solution to ease any pangs you have over getting rid of them is to take pictures of items that don’t quite make the cut but still have sentimental value.

That way, you’ll have a memory to look back on fondly in a format that takes up much less space.

5. Set a deadline for memorabilia for your adult children.

One of the things that can make downsizing in retirement difficult is that not only do you have your own stuff to sort through, but you also have your adult children’s things lingering in your home.

Although they have busy lives and may not be as invested in downsizing as you are, it’s perfectly within your rights to set a deadline for them to collect any keepsakes or memorabilia they would like to keep from your house. Make it clear that anything left unclaimed may be sold, donated or thrown away.


Related: Downsizing with a Senior Move Manager


6. Recognize that it’s okay to mourn.

Downsizing the family home can be sad, simple as that. There are many positives, of course, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that this can be an emotional time. Remind yourself that it’s okay to mourn during the bittersweet process.

To cope with negative emotions when downsizing, Dr. David Mischoulon of Massachusetts General Hospital advises that you let yourself feel sad.

“It’s not a sign of weakness or mental illness. Know that it will pass, and not much is needed to be done except to stay connected to friends and family and talk about your feelings,” he said.

7. Remind yourself what you’re working towards.

A smaller space means less maintenance and more freedom to live the lifestyle you’ve always wanted to. If you’re downsizing to a Lifecare community, it also means enriching amenities and services, financial security and priority access to long-term care.

While leaving some possessions behind can be difficult, remind yourself of what lies ahead. You’re making space for new memories and new experiences.

8. Depersonalize your space bit by bit.

It may seem counterintuitive, but getting rid of many sentimental belongings can be easier than getting rid of just a few.

In an AARP article on the emotional side of downsizing, one woman said that it became easier to leave the house the less personal it became.

“I found depersonalizing the house very difficult,” she said. “I get why you do it, but putting away Grandma’s quilt, taking down photos and putting up mirrors, and painting everything beige made it seem like a hotel, not our house anymore. In the end that made it easier to leave.”

When Is the Right Time to Downsize Your Home?

Although it can be emotionally challenging, downsizing is a task that’s better undertaken sooner rather than later. It’s much easier to complete the task when you’re in good health and can make all the decisions yourself.

Remember, good times await. Downsizing to a smaller space can be just as exciting as when you bought your first home. Just like then, you’re entering into a new phase in your life that’s full of exciting opportunities and promising new beginnings. It’s time to make room for it all.

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