We often hear the term “downsizing” when people move later in life to a smaller space. But for ageing adults, we like to rephrase it as “rightsizing.” It is an alien concept in India.
Let it be any reason, leaving a home you’ve grown can be formidable. It may be where you’ve spent a whole life time making memories and hosted unforgettable family and friends get-togethers. Every nook and corner of your home has a story to tell: memories linger and you cherish each moment.
Is it time for you to downsize? Are you feeling emotional about it? It’s normal to feel stressed and emotional when downsizing, especially if you have lived in the same place for a long time. In this article, we discuss the inevitability of downsizing and how to cope with it. If you’ve not thought about downsizing or already considering it, you can use the following tips to simplify the process and find clarity in your decision.

  • Roshan J Mundapallil, Sowmya Lakshmi

At the age of 76, Arthur Bower’s journey from his spacious 3,400-square-feet residence in the lively Bangalore Banaswadi to a distant location was not only surprising but also involved transitioning to a modest one-bedroom dwelling. This downsizing process was not abrupt; it unfolded gradually over a span of at least two years, culminating in his relocation to Dalanakatte—a tranquil village bordering the Muthathi forest, in proximity to the Cauvery river, where modern amenities are scarce.

We asked, How will you survive here?

Arthur shared, “I began my career as a fisherman in Goa, dedicating nearly 8 years to the trade before meeting my sweetheart, Diane. She was a nurse, and our journey led us to Bahrain, where we spent the next two decades. Upon retirement, we envisioned a joyous chapter, but fate dealt a harsh blow. Within four years, I lost my beloved wife and daughter, both succumbing to cancer. Coping with these back-to-back tragedies was no easy feat.”

Pausing briefly, he resumed, and we offered him a moment to catch his breath. “In the course of treatment, I depleted a significant portion of my savings, but that’s okay. I still have enough to sustain myself. My son works for a multinational software company and is married to a Bengali girl. Initially, they lived separately, and when I made the decision to move to this new place, I asked him to occupy my house in Banaswadi.”

“What’s the issue with this place?” responded Arthur. “I value serenity, and that’s precisely what I find here.”

“I’m quite organised,” shared Mr. Arthur, delving into the downsizing process and emphasising the mental preparation involved. Sorting through closets and drawers, he discarded “quite a bit,” only to realise, “Where did all this come from? It was way more than I thought.”

Having resided in the same house for 15 years following his Bahrain days—a dream home he meticulously built—Arthur expressed that “downsizing” was undeniably a substantial source of stress. After the passing of his wife and daughter, he sought to simplify his life.

According to Mr. Arthur, downsizing entails distancing oneself from “your earlier life, your neighbourhood.” Letting go of a lifetime’s possessions raises numerous questions and evokes a spectrum of emotions. “The sooner you embark on it, the better—physically, socially, and financially,” advised Mr. Arthur. “It’s about relinquishing something today for something you want or need.”

The upshot is often a fresh start, lower living expenses, less house-related work, a different lifestyle with more peace. For people like Arthur, it’s an opportunity to forget his trauma and create a new life in a new space. “Getting rid of stuff, physically and emotionally was so liberating,” Mr. Arthur summed up.
Most seniors plan to ‘age in place’, living their later years in familiar surroundings, often in the same house big enough to continue to host their kids and grandkids for holidays and special occasions. Others like Arthur, plan to downsize, trading those features for a house that may be easier to manage and less expensive to maintain.

The global norm is to age in place for as long as feasible. Citing a recent AARP survey, it revealed that approximately 75 percent of individuals aged 60 and older express a desire to remain in their existing homes or communities for as long as possible. In contrast, a Merrill Lynch and Age Wave report, “Home in Retirement: More Freedom, New Choices,” indicates that an estimated 4.2 million retirees relocated to a new home in the US in 2014.

More important, what’s the right decision for you? It depends on many factors.

Are you considering acquiring another compact house, or is renting your preference? Consider the community resources you require and what your intended community offers. Evaluate the aesthetics of the surroundings and assess whether the move aligns with healthcare needs, especially if they are significant.

The trend of downsizing, essentially minimising one’s living space, is gaining popularity among seniors in the Western world. This can be attributed to various factors, including physical challenges associated with aging.

A year ago, Judy Jones embraced downsizing, parting ways with her six-bedroom home in Marlton, New Jersey. Living solo after her husband’s passing, the large house felt cumbersome, and her son in Texas suggested a change. Consequently, Jones invested in a newly constructed two-bedroom beachfront flat in Monmouth, a move that cost considerably less than the sale price of their previous home.

Contemplating her husband’s passing and a health scare, Jones took a deliberate approach to shape the remaining chapters of her life. Weary of the demanding commute to Manhattan, she embarked on the journey to a more relaxed retirement, a path that involved listing her longtime residence for sale.

"The house, with its attached swimming pool, just became too expansive for me,” shared Judy Jones. She explained that the need for extensive space, once vital when their children were young, no longer applied, and they desired to avoid the challenges of maintaining a large home. “I always dreamed of living by the beach.”

“My arthritic legs became painful and less agile. Furthermore, my children had dispersed to different places. After my husband’s death, I felt isolated in that vast building, with several rooms closed permanently. So, I decided to purchase a new two-bedroom flat in a seaside apartment in Monmouth County.” It appears that Judy’s arthritis became the impetus for her move.

“It has simplified my life and made it more convenient. No more worries about raking or lawn maintenance. No more swimming pool upkeep. I’m content in my new flat and have forged friendships with all my neighbours. Just last week, we hosted a kitty party in my flat with the ladies. I feel completely at ease with my neighbours. Previously, the next-door neighbour was half a furlong away; here, it’s right next door,” she added, transitioning to the next reason.

The next consideration was the cost of living. “By selling my property and house, I earned a substantial sum, more than sufficient for my retirement after factoring in capital gains. It turned out to be a wise move. While the cost of living in this sea-facing flat on Monmouth Beach is 14% higher than the national average, the proceeds from the sale have adequately covered it. I acknowledge that not everyone may afford this location due to its higher cost, but it was my personal choice. Typically, when downsizing, people tend to opt for more affordable locations.”

Only a small percentage of older adults choose downsizing. Among those who do, a minority make the choice willingly, while the majority are compelled by financial challenges, health issues, or other circumstances, according to Carolyn Gallogly, a social gerontologist based in Long Island. She pointed out that most Americans aged 60 and older prefer to “age in place.”

Shifting houses or moving to a new location is hard at any age, and it only becomes more difficult as we grow older. So seniors wanted to maintain status-quo and fearful of change. Late sixties or early seventies are considered as the best time to downsize. Seniors who are able to foresee what they might need if their health fails, their spouse dies or some other major event occurs put themselves in a much better position to actually get what they need, Carolyn explained.

On the other hand, if you’re in that majority that insists on ageing in place for as long as possible, you must be aware of the future needs. Burning question is how suited is your home to your physical needs as you age. How much ever you deny or dodge the later life disabilities are a reality. Be prepared for making physical changes and be prepared to spend to make necessary changes like ramps, remodel bathrooms with walk-in tubs and grab-bars, and replace or retrofit kitchen cabinets to make them more accessible.

Is downsizing the only option ? Seethabhai’s example tells you another option called, “home sharing”. Seethabhai Ajji wants to age in place and that too in Jeevan Bhima Nagar, Bangalore. Son works for Amazon and lives in Tampa and daughter lives in San Francisco and works in a senior position at AT&T. Both the children tried to convince her for a move to a retirement home in Coimbatore as her extended family lives there.

As usual she put forth her arguments like her familiar neighbourhood; hospital and doctors close by, Sukumaran - the auto driver who takes her around is at her beck and call, HOPCOMS at a stones throwaway etc,. When pressure is too much she takes out her emotional trump card, ‘this is where I have my husband’s memories’. Inspite of arthritis, 87 year old Seethabhai is independent.

Moving and downsizing aren’t the only options. To pursue “Aging in place”, Seethabhai Ajji has adopted another alternative, ‘home sharing’. This will keep you in your home, provide you with revenue to cover expenses, and offer a degree of companionship and a helping hand. One of her room is shared with two working girls. A good arrangement. She allowed these girls to use her common areas and kitchen. So home sharing is another alternative for “ageing in place alone and downsizing”. Niranjana and Charvi, from Mangalore and Lucknow consider Seethabhai’ a house as their own home and give all the necessary support to Ajji, which include sharing of some special food.

‘Home sharing’ is not just renting out a room in your house. In majority cases, that’s just landlord-tenant relationship with minimal interaction. Here ‘home sharing’ has other significant attributes. Here both parties mutually benefit and help each other. By interacting with these youngsters, Seethabhai Ajji is getting company and the girls instead of a just a paying guest accommodation- a home away from home. Mutually beneficial arrangement.

Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) is another option. Prof. Lena Kurian, 76 year old retired English professor, decided to convert her garage to a dwelling unit by adding another room and pantry. When given the necessary facelift, garage becomes a beautiful 380 sq.feet one bed room. She, then rented her spacious 80 year old colonial ancestral house along with the antique furniture to a family as she knows her only son who is settled in Sweden will never return. ‘Sometimes it is hard to part with your belongings, but once you are old and left alone, options are limited’ professor justifies her decision.

‘I wanted to live in my house as far as possible. 57 years back I stepped into this house after marriage. At that time it was a joint family and as the time passed, myself and my husband were left. Last year my husband passed away. I don’t want to leave this place, neither I can maintain this huge house. Then I found this business family to whom I rented out. My only request to them was, keep my furniture and place in good condition. Since I live few feet away, I have a watch over them.’ An ADU is a second, generally small dwelling unit on your primary property.

Possessions especially with antique value can be difficult to throw away, donate or sell. This is especially true for antique furniture, silver and accessories, and collectibles. Many prized items of an earlier era are almost practically ‘worthless’ these days. “It’s the memories and the life that we lived there,” Ms. Lena said.

“I didn’t want to move to a new location. There’s a familiarity. It is difficult to part with some antiques inherited from my mother-in-law. My father-in law used to collect clocks and that tradition was followed by my husband. How to pare down these possessions?”Professor is in a dilemma.

87 year old Doctor, Sam Jacob who lives in our elder care facility admits the inevitability of parting with possessions and the pain behind it. “But don’t discount the pain involved. The difficulty in discarding things can be rooted in mortality and have the realisation that no one lives forever. At a certain point in life, there is more past than future, and that, in itself, can be daunting. We’re all mortal. Slowly you have to develop the ‘sense of detachment’ and that will make the process of downsizing easier. One of the upsides to downsizing is it allows us to live more in the present.” Sam Uncle has a valid point.

“It brings up all kinds of emotional issues,” said Nazir Ahamed, who has downsized more than once, and suggests relocation and downsizing for older adults. “It’s not just moving things but the emotional letting go.” He just moved from Indiranagar, Bangalore to Mysore, where his daughter lives. Many people hang on to more possessions than they ultimately desire and need. “People think they want the stuff initially but later on they don’t care.”

“It’s a new adventure, new phase” Nazir Ahamed said. “For me and my wife, this is far more positive than negative.”

The term “downsizing” is when people move later in life to a smaller space for many reasons. But for older adults, we like to phrase it “rightsizing.”

In our social gerontology practice, we often counsel families about how best to help their older adult relatives and friends make a move later in life. A move that incorporates the better use of space and addresses the individual’s needs at that particular time and later is how we define ‘rightsizing’. It’s nothing but finding the optimum living situation that offers the right combination of services and amenities to support an older adult’s changing needs and desired lifestyle. While we consider “house shifting” as a cumbersome process, downsizing has much more to it and can be overwhelming for anyone, and it is particularly challenging for seniors. A huge lot of work is involved, and one has to go through emotional upheavals. That is the difficult part. A 3-step assessment and planning process is what we suggest to determine the “rightsize” senior living option.

Find your loved one’s needs & desires

When contemplating downsizing, as mentioned earlier, it’s crucial to assess your loved one’s current lifestyle and needs while also considering potential future requirements. Several key questions demand answers.
Begin by identifying the primary reasons for the move—whether it’s driven by medical considerations, financial factors, or a desire for a maintenance-free lifestyle. Depending on these factors, choose an appropriate location. Consider whether staying close to family is a priority. If downsizing within the current location is preferred, evaluate the availability of local connections for support. Explore options like independent living, retirement communities, or assisted living. Determine the ideal amount of living space for your loved one’s comfort. What budget has been allocated for this transition? Assess the resources your loved one already possesses and whether any family members need to supplement these resources.

Chart out a plan

Upon unanimous agreement among all stakeholders to proceed with downsizing, formulate a well-defined plan. Avoid leaving your loved one’s life to chance. Advanced planning provides ample time for a cooling-off period. Whether the transition is set for this year, the next, or in the near future, conduct thorough research and explore various options. Determine items for discard and those to be preserved. Additionally, consider any structural changes required at the new location.

Before and After moving

Once the plan is ready, the actual implementation is the next. You definitely need some of your relative or friend to assist you in this. You need to sort and pack things. Whatever you plan to ‘discard’ from your life should be appropriately distributed to someone who can use. Either sell or donate. In America and other European countries, there will be a ‘garage sale’ ‘yard sale’ or ‘moving sale’ prior to moving or downsizing. Basically getting rid of things.

The relocation to the “new” location involves different approaches; some individuals undertake necessary structural changes before moving, while others address them after settling in. Following the move, the subsequent step involves integrating into the local community, a process that may span from a few days to a few weeks. This integration is crucial, considering your newness to the location, and establishes a foundation for future connections and support.

Downsizing is a laborious and emotionally draining process. Moving from your current home to a new one often entails discovering unfamiliar places and making new connections, which can lead to feelings of melancholy and isolation. The emotional strain of parting with possessions adds another layer of difficulty. As mentioned earlier, there are numerous options available. It’s beneficial to understand these options and align them with your specific needs, preferences, and resources to identify the most suitable one for you.

Regardless of the choice made, overcoming numerous challenges is likely, yet this process can serve as an excellent opportunity for personal growth and increased happiness if the difficulties can be surmounted.