Downsizing, or helping a parent prepare for a move can be complicated. Where you see a houseful of stuff to sort and toss, the owner is apt to see treasures, essentials, and a lifetime of memories.

Letting go of possessions is difficult for anyone, let alone a parent who is moving. It is one of the most stressful experiences of a lifetime. Good communication, empathy and a solid plan are key components of a successful downsizing experience.

Here are some tips to make downsizing easier, for all of you.

1. Avoid tackling the whole house in one go.

Though it’s more efficient for you to plow full steam ahead, your parent is apt to be stressed emotionally, if not also physically. When organizing a parent’s move, it’s better to think in terms of months, not days. Tackle one room or area at a time. About two hours at a stretch is ideal for many older adults, this duration of time allows for progress but keeps stress to a minimum.

2. Frame your decisions with yes and no questions.

Open ended choices put a reluctant mover on the spot, raising stress. Avoid asking “which items do you want to keep”. Winnow them down first, then present a more manageable yes-no option: “I’ve got your best linen, your favourite blue pair and yellow pair. Does that sound good?”

3. Use the new space as a guide.

Measure exactly how much closet or cabinet space the new place has (Retirement Communities will provide this information if you ask), and fill an equivalent amount of space as you sort. Mark off the comparable space so your parent has a visual guide.

Beware of excessive multiples. In retirement living, your parent may only need minimal plates and cups as meals are served in the dining room, two sets of sheets is normally sufficient, one coffeemaker, one or two coats, and so on.

4. Banish the “maybe” pile.

A good rule is to only handle it once. The less decisive you are about what to do with an item, the more attached you (or your parent) risk becoming to it. Moving things in and out of “maybe” piles also takes time.

Tempting as it is to set aside tough sorts for later, unless there’s room to “hold” them at a relative’s house, it’s not generally worth paying storage-rental fees (unless it’s a very large estate and time is tight). That’s because once they’re boxed, your parent isn’t likely to look at the items ever again. Out of sight, out of mind.

Exception: Save time by boxing piles of paperwork, which doesn’t take much room. Papers are time-consuming to go through and present an unpleasant task, casting a stall on your packing.

5. Encourage your parent to focus on most-used items (and let the rest go).

Be patient and follow your parent’s lead — what seems old and useless to you may be a source of great comfort and joy and therefore worth moving. Don’t go by the newest and best; go by what they use.

When facing especially hard choices, ask for the story behind a dubious object — where it came from, when it was last used, whether a young family might put it to good use. This takes time, but the payoff is that once your parent starts talking, he or she may have a clearer perspective and feel more able to let go.

Downsizing tips: How to cope with treasures.

6. Pack representative bits of favored items (not the whole kit and kaboodle).

Photos, memorabilia, and collections typically take up far more space than the average assisted-living quarters can accommodate. Many services digitize images and papers for you for reasonable prices — sell the idea to your parent that every family member will get a copy, too.

Pick key prints to display on the walls; large tabletop displays take up too much precious space.

7. Cull a collection by asking, “Which is your favorite piece?”

Assure that one or two “best” items can have a highlighted location in the new home. People sometimes feel OK about giving up the rest if they have a sense of control over the process and choose their favourite item.

8. Take photos of the rest of a collection and present them in a special book.

No, it’s not exactly the same as owning, but it’s a space-saving way for a collector to continue enjoying.

9. If it’s meant to be a gift or legacy, encourage giving it now.

Urge your parent not to wait to bestow; remind them that there’s no space for storage. Ask, “Why not enjoy the feeling of giving right now?”

Downsizing tips: How to sell.

10. Think twice before selling items on your own.

Craigslist, eBay, Kijiji and other self-selling options are time-consuming when you’re trying to process a houseful of goods. Be realistic: The value of an item isn’t what you paid for it or how well made or special it is — it’s what someone is willing to pay for it. If this way of selling is an option, avoid parents having people come into their home to view items – this could pose a threat to them.

11. If there are several items of high value, consider an appraisal.

Go through the entire house; the appraiser will only come out once and is more interested in relatively large lots. Auction houses, whose goal is to sell items at the best price, are better options than antique dealers, whose goal is to get items for the lowest price.

Downsizing tips: How to donate

12. Understand how charities work.

The main donation outlets include, the Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, Clothesline, Diabetes Association and Vicky’s Values, popular alternatives may include other charities or a local hospital or thrift shop. Senior living communities and moving companies often furnish lists of area charities that accept donations.

These charities work by selling castoffs; Some take only furniture; some won’t take clothing. Larger charities tend to accept a wider variety of items. Get a receipt for a tax deduction.

Mattresses pose the biggest challenge to get rid of as most charities will not take a used mattress. If you are downsizing from a two bedroom to a one bedroom, offer the bed to a family member.

Clarify whether they offer free pickup (a huge time-saver). Some charities will remove items from the ground floor only.

13. Target recipients for specialty items.

It’s time-consuming to find willing recipients for everything, but it may be worth the effort for items that your parent would be relieved to see in a good home. Examples: Schools may welcome musical instruments, old costumes, or tools. Auto repair shops and community maintenance departments may take tools and yard tools.

14. Try the “free stuff” tactic.

In some communities, setting items on the curb with a sign that says “Free! Help yourself!” will make items miraculously disappear.

Downsizing tips: What to discard

15. If it’s chipped, broken, or stained, toss it.

Charities don’t want nonworking Christmas lights, snagged clothes, lidless plastic Tupperware, or any items that they can’t sell. Period.

16. Don’t be shy about tossing replaceable items.

Not worth moving, donating, or even conferring about: old spices, junk mail, old magazines (yes, even
all those National Geographic issues), outdated medications, unused toiletries, plastic food containers, candles, stuffed toys (most charities won’t accept them), and the contents of the junk drawer (just hang onto change and spare keys).

17. For a price, you don’t have to haul it away yourself.

The local garbage company may have limits on how many large trash bags it will take, and not all local
dumps take unsorted trash, either.

There are services available to remove appliances and furniture as well as smaller items.
Smaller local junk dealers may haul things away for free if they see, on appraisal, items that they’ll be
able to sell.

Downsizing tips: Get help.

18. Consider bringing in the pros.

A fast-growing specialty, senior move managers specialize in helping older adults and are skilled at
both the emotional and practical dimensions of late-life transitions. These experts can defuse a parentchild emotional clash while handling everything from sorting and packing through hiring movers and unpacking in the new place. They usually charge an hourly fee that varies by locale.

19. Call in the Troops

Lean on children, grandchildren and family friends. Even the most stressful task can be made easier
if it happens in a celebratory manner and engages multiple generations.