Downsizing Your Life

By Vicky Katz Whitaker

November 20, 2008 5 min read


Should you stay in your home now that the kids are gone?

Vicky Katz Whitaker

Creators News Service

It's easy to get teary-eyed as you take one last look at the beautiful flower garden you planted so many years ago, the swing set your now-grown children once played on and the tree-lined neighborhood you called home.

Yet for many senior citizens squeezed by combinations of tight finances, higher taxes, soaring home maintenance costs and illness, moving somewhere cheaper and smaller seems the only option.

However, it doesn't have to be that way.

"Older Americans have not been encouraged to tap into their substantial housing assets," said Dorothy Breininger, author, television personality, professional organizer and president of the California-based Delphi Center for Organization.

Breininger, who co-wrote and hosted the award-winning PBS documentary, "Saving Our Parents," points out that reverse mortgages --specialized loans to allow seniors to tap into their home equity while continuing to live in their home -- can help impaired elders, "pay for several years of daily home care visits, over a decade of out-of-pocket expenses and respite for family caregivers, or substantial home modifications." Breininger says that on average, more than $72,000 is available to older homeowners.

Washington state Realtor Pili Meyer, past regional vice-president of the National Association of Realtors and the organization's seniors real estate specialist, made a similar observation. "Reverse mortgages are a great alternative for some seniors,? she said. ?They aren't as scary as the used to be and can be terrific for some."

The U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development expects more than 100,000 reverse mortgages will be issued this year, noting that 2008 "is the year in which the first members of the large and financially savvy ?baby boom? generation [born between 1946 and 1964] turn 62" -- the minimum qualifying age for the loan.

Making a decision to downsize is best done earlier than later. "Because adult children do not seem to have the time and are often geographically unable to help their aging parents, our senior population is waiting longer to downsize or they are simply forced to do it based on ill-health,? Breininger said. ?In doing so, they lose the option for being a voice in their choice to relocate and downsize."

It also makes them easy prey to construction scams, dirty real estate deals, shady antique dealers, estate planners and conservators. "Often their poor health prevents proper packing or distribution of family heirlooms and pictures,? she said. ?Worst of all, individuals around them begin making decisions for them, and sometimes they are not the people they want making those decisions for them."

By the time you approach your 80s, moving can be extremely stressful -- both physically and emotionally. "If we can see the benefits of downsizing sooner in life, we are more likely to select a space and environment that we know will make sense for us as we age. It also gives us time to establish ourselves in a new environment while the motivation and the mobility is still there," Breininger added.

In addition, if you're converting all those empty bedrooms into a craft room, guest room or extra office, you may be creating what she calls "king size clutter closets" that encourage you to accumulate more "stuff," setting you up for a more difficult transition in your later years.

There are plenty of options if you do want to downsize, from living full-time on a cruise ship or in an RV or modular home to buying a smaller home, sharing a home, moving to an assisted living facility, skilled nursing home, senior apartments or a condo. If you want to sell your home and get something more affordable, today's market can be a real challenge, Meyer admitted.

"Sellers may not get as much for their home as they would have several years ago," she said. On the other hand, with lower housing prices, "it's also possible to buy the replacement home for a very good price." Savvy boomers are looking at replacement homes now, Meyer said, "while prices are low, even though they aren't yet ready to move."

If you plan to downsize, give yourself enough time to sift, sort, donate and dispose of personal items you don't use or need. It can make the process easier, said Ohio State University in its Senior Series, an online newsletter on aging issues (

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