Downsizing usually means moving to a smaller, more efficient space that costs less to maintain and provides a safer environment. It also often means moving to where you can receive services such as meals, maintenance, and housekeeping.
For older residents, downsizing has negative connotations. It is something someone else suggests. It is typically associated with older people in transition, people who have reached a turning point later in their lives. Often, it is considered practical after the loss of a spouse, at the sign of deteriorating health, or at some other point where continuing to live independently is brought into question.
But there are positives. It can coincide with a point in your life when less effort and money are needed to sustain the same quality of life. Or, you are at a point where demands on your life (kids, college tuition, maintaining a large home, a dependent spouse) have ended and you can start thinking of your own needs and wants. Downsizing often equates to transitioning to a new way of living. While those recommending it might emphasize that it doesn’t mean giving up independence they probably don’t also point out that it doesn’t have to mean moving, either!
If you could reap the benefits of downsizing without having to move, wouldn’t that be a good thing? Well you can. This column is the first of two that will highlight some ideas on how to downsize in place. The steps are to assess your situation and your home, develop a plan, and then implement that plan. The key benefits of downsizing are: 1) reduced expenses; 2) improved convenience and comfort that fits your current lifestyle and physical condition; and 3) safer living space that can more easily be adapted to your needs if they change down the road.
Can you downsize? To decide, start by taking stock of your home AND your life. Start with some key DON’Ts: don’t get stuck on maintaining long-standing routines just because they’re your routines; don’t magnify the difficulty of change or exaggerate the convenience/comfort of the status quo; and don’t assume changes can’t be made.
Now for some key DOs: do think about what you would do if you were starting over; do focus on the space you need to live in day-to-day or week to week; do think of what you enjoy about your home now; do look for opportunities to make your space work better; and do be open-minded about change.
What rooms would you need if you were starting over? Kitchen. Bedroom. Bathroom. Laundry. Storage. Office/Desk. Then make a list of your routines through a normal week. If it seems difficult, carry a notepad for a week and take notes or pay attention to what you do for a week or so and then make the list. Remember this is about what you do, not where you do it. If you rely on your dining room table as your desk then list it as an office. If you use the basement for laundry and little else, then you need a laundry space not a basement. If you use the basement for storage, then list the need as storage. And so on. Remember, if you use the dining room as a dining room only a handful of times per year, then it isn’t part of your normal routine. Leave it off. The same with an extra bedroom the grandchildren sleep in just three times a year. These are not activities or uses you need to make sure are incorporated in your downsized home. The goal here is to address routine activities, not sporadic ones. These other needs can be addressed on an as needed basis afterwards.
Then, think of the aspects of your home that you enjoy most? The views out the back windows from a favorite chair? The coziness of the living room or den? The convenient layout of the rooms? There may be ways to enjoy these features even more once you downsize to make these favorite features even better.
Next, consider how spaces can be adjusted or revamped to enhance your routines and enjoyment of those special features of your home. Keep an open mind about consolidating uses into a single room or relocating other purposes completely. Is there a way to put a desk in the room with the nice view of the yard? Can the coziness of the living room be duplicated in another room with a bit more space?
Finally, embrace the change. Downsizing in place is an investment in your future. The changes you will make will allow you a better chance of remaining in your home for the long-term. Seek to reduce your footprint by bringing together multiple uses into a single room or space. Be bold and think outside the box: Can a wall be removed to combine the kitchen and dining room into a family-room-style space with a single table instead of having kitchen and dining room tables? It may seem too expensive or too complicated but construction, wiring, and plumbing methods have changed over the last few decades and something impossible years ago might be simple now. At least look into it.
And through it all, you need to be honest with yourself. Whether you are able-bodied or not, it is safer to have a washer/dryer on the main floor than to have to navigate the steep, narrow, dark basement stairs relying on a shaky banister while carrying a laundry basket. A primary reason for downsizing is safety. Downsizing in place includes adding or allowing for safety features to be to proactively make your home safer to live in.
Next week we will consider some examples of specific changes that can be made to downsize in place. Again, the goal is to redesign your current home and lifestyle to reap the benefits of downsizing while at the same time staying put.
Here are some examples of steps that can be part of downsizing in place:
Laundry: Install a new, compact or stacked washer-dryer on the main floor so you can avoid the steep, narrow, dark stairs to the basement that are an accident waiting to happen. You can save on water and hot water costs as well as improve safety.
Kitchen: You probably have rarely used pots, pans, or utensils in easy to reach cabinets with other items are in less convenient places. So rearrange. Remove some of your dishes and glasses from the most convenient cabinet and some of your flatware from the most convenient drawer so more commonly used items can be stored there. Move the extra or less used items to less convenient places. And do you even need to keep the popcorn popper or juicer? Consider removing them to storage or giving them away.
Consider clearing out the pantry by moving the food stuffs into the freshly emptied cabinets. The pantry can then be redesigned to place a desk and computer station where you can pay your bills or open mail. Or maybe this is where the washer/dryer can go! If excess cabinet and counter space can be removed completely it might make it easier to move through the kitchen with a walker in the future.
Yard/Driveway/Garage: With a bit of advice from a landscape designer your lawn and driveway can be redesigned in subtle ways to make mowing and plowing more efficient and therefore cheaper to maintain. Although only incremental, saving $15 per week on the lawn or $30 per storm on plowing adds up. And if you do your own shoveling of the walk maybe that can be redesigned to be easier. Also, if you no longer have two cars, consider organizing the second bay of the garage into a storage space by adding second-hand shelves, cabinets and even a few simple partitions.
Extra Bedrooms: if you maintain a bedroom year round so it can house guests a few times a year consider closing it down. Shut the blinds, turn off the heat, unplug clocks and other electronics. You can always open it up when someone comes for a visit but in the meantime you are saving energy and electricity. Likewise, consider rearranging some furniture or adding a set of shelves or a small chest of drawers so the space can double as storage space. Even if the room isn’t laid out as it was while the kids were growing up it can still be used as a bedroom for a few days in this condition.
Electrical System: Add three-pronged outlets and upgrade existing ones. Install overhead lights and more light switches. Your house wasn’t designed to current building standards or for the electronics age. It also wasn’t designed to accommodate someone your age nearly as well as it could have been. Back when your kids were young the TV only needed one two-pronged outlet! Now you have a converter box, a VCR or DVD player, and a cable outlet. Now you also need another half-dozen grounded outlets for the computer, monitor, keyboard, printer, modem, router, etc. If you are like many in an older home, these electronics are currently squeezed into the only corner of the house where there was a grounded outlet and where the cable guy provided an internet connection! Have you considered where you would place these electronics if electric service wasn’t constrained?
Heating and Cooling: Are multiple zones possible? Depending on the type of system it might be easy or it might be impossible, so call a couple of professionals for estimates and ideas on how you can reduce heating and cooling costs. Get them to give some ideas on how to redesign the system so you heat only the part of the house you are using. Although many homes don’t have central A/C you should also consider how to efficiently cool with window units. Finally, consider whether installing doors to compartmentalize the house might improve and reduce the cost of heating and cooling.
Finally, since falls are the biggest obstacle to remaining in your own home, consider ways to make your house safer. Install brighter and more accessible lighting, create wider spaces between furniture and fixtures, add hand rails and banisters, and consider more practical furniture and rug layouts. Just because you haven’t fallen before doesn’t mean you never will. It is better to take steps so you never fall than to boast how long you went before your first fall. And if you are human you will have a first fall at some point and the odds are it will be in your own home!
Avoiding falls isn’t simple about avoiding bumps and bruises or some aches and pains. Broken bones, concussions, lacerations, internal bleeding can all result from a fall. This is what your family is worried about and why they encourage you to move to a safer home. By taking steps to downsize in place your family will see that you are taking their concerns to heart; perhaps they will help in the effort rather than continue to encourage you to move!
So, let’s recap. The benefits to downsizing in place are that you get to stay in your own home AND benefit from the positives of downsizing. You maintain far more of your preferred routines and habits than if you move. At the same time you benefit from a safer, more efficient, and more comfortable place to live. The best of both worlds!