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Moving to, and enjoying, a smaller home means downsizing the stuff, too.

You can’t take it with you.  Not all of it, anyway. You spend most of your life collecting stuff—some precious, some practical and some totally useless. Then one day you realize you’re ready to downsize, or are forced to downsize, and you wonder what to do with all that stuff.

You are not alone. People downsize or move to smaller houses, condos or apartments every day. According to Statistics Canada, more than 12 million people in Canada moved in the past five years. Last year alone, approximately 15,000 moved to Nova Scotia, 10,000 to New Brunswick, 10,000 to Newfoundland and Labrador, and 2,750 to PEI. Most of the movers came from Ontario, Quebec and Alberta. Anyone who has ever moved understands that not everything will fit into the moving van, necessitating at least some purging.

As well, the structure of households in Canada is changing. Between 2001 and 2006, the number of one-person households increased by 11.8 per cent, to 26.8 per cent of the population. Now, one out of every four people in Canada lives alone, most likely in an apartment or small home, where there just isn’t a lot of space. And the trend is for older people to become renters, rather than continue as homeowners. StatsCan says that elderly people are playing a larger role in the rental market now than they did 20 years ago.

Situations change, children grow up and move out, marriages dissolve, death steals a spouse, finances and careers change, all requiring a downsize. While such a change may be difficult for some, if it is approached as an opportunity to lighten your life, it can be a very positive experience.

Where to start? Those clutter-clearing television programs that bring order to chaos in two days offer some ideas. While the timeline they use isn’t realistic without a heavy support cast, their approach is basic: sort everything into keep, sell, give away and throw out. Living in Atlantic Canada, I would also add recycle.

Julie Watson, a writer and publisher in Prince Edward Island, and her retired husband Jack took on the challenge of downsizing. “We’re in our 60s and we decided we were going to change our lives,” says Julie. “We have some health concerns and we wanted to travel more.” Julie and Jack decided to accomplish what they wanted; they would sell their three-bedroom house and move into a two-bedroom apartment. Julie says she felt she would be more comfortable travelling, leaving an apartment empty rather than a house.

Julie discovered she had more stuff than she could take with her to the new apartment. “I’m a packrat: books, magazines, it’s all paperwork,” she says. “I used to say I don’t throw anything out but I’m better now than I used to be.” Julie used her family room as her office. “It got so full of paper and stuff that it was literally piles all over the floor, with a path through the middle.”

“It is very hard,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Diane Birch, “if you spent your lifetime setting up your little nest the way you want it, to think, ‘I’ve got to leave my home and all these things I have an attachment to.’ Not to mention the sheer magnitude of the job. It can take a long time.”

Although their house was for sale for two years, when the offer came, Julie and Jack had one month to leave. Yard sales over the two years had disposed of some things but the bulk of their belongings remained. What they accomplished in that month would have made Houdini smile.

Where to sell or donate items

  • - Salvation Army Thrift Stores
  • - Clothesline
  • 1-800-505-5525, Value Village
  • Local newspapers, cable tv and radio bulletin boards

First, they organized. Julie developed a system she calls subject boxes. As a writer and publisher, she was forever working on projects, gathering research and storing the finished documents. In place of her pile of cardboard boxes, she chose plastic storage tubs; each would hold one project or subject. Never a fan of filing cabinets, where she couldn’t see what they held, Julie could now put related documents in individual tubs. That removed the paper from the floor.

Jack put his carpentry skills to use and made her individual wooden cubes to hold these plastic tubs. The cubes can be stacked as Julie wishes. Now when she works on a project, she removes one tub, knowing everything she needs is in it, and then returns it to its cube. Neat and tidy. Jack also made her a sturdy wooden storage unit for office supplies, stationery and the like. Having much of Julie’s office already containerized made moving the office to the new apartment much easier.

Next, they took a huge step by getting rid of 80 per cent of their furniture. “We’d been married 43 years,” Julie says. “Most of what we had was either given to us or was bought when we didn’t have a lot of money.” They decided to sketch the layout of their new apartment and buy furniture that both suited them and would fit comfortably in the smaller area. For instance, they bought two good captain’s beds with storage underneath, which eliminated the need for bedroom dressers. The beds also have storage accessible through a door at the foot of the bed, where Julie keeps her inventory of books. They took their round dining room table with them, but got rid of the fancy serving dishes and downsized the kitchen furniture to what they really use.

Their cast-offs included more than 100 blue bags of recyclable paper from the office, 10 boxes of books to yard sales, nine boxes of books to a used bookseller, three boxes of books sold from the house. Friends filled two pickup trucks and two horse trailers with furniture and unused lumber, and loaded another pickup truck, with an even larger trailer, twice. Julie says she was happy to give away so many of their belongings to friends. It made parting with things easier.

Selling the house and disposing of all that stuff made it possible to buy a 22-foot motor home, in which she and Jack look forward to travelling. “I was driven by both the need to downsize and to practice what I preach. As an author of two books for small business owners, How Women Make Money and Great Tips for Your Small Business, I was always preaching organization. It sure felt good to reflect what I had written,” she says.

This past winter, Julie and Jack were away for four months, and Julie says they didn’t have a worry. “It was a matter of empty the fridge, close the door and go,” she says. Someone checked the apartment once a week and the superintendent knew they were away. Leaving the house was a different story. “We always worried about power outages, spring thaw, getting oil,” she says. Their new apartment and their clutter-free lifestyle welcomed them with open spaces: no snowdrifts in the driveway, no overgrown lawn, no pile of books and paper on the floors, but lots of room to relax. “We worked hard to make it a home,” says Julie, “and it has paid off.”

Hidden assets

When your stuff outgrows your space, you may consider self-storage units. These can range from heated, non-heated, climate-controlled, gated entry, drive-up access, and round-the-clock security. Whichever you choose, pack wisely and store only what you must. You will pay for the size and benefits. Many websites have space calculators to determine your storage needs. Provide insurance coverage: homeowner or apartment insurance may include items stored off-site, but check to be sure. Other tips:

  • Label boxes and have a master sheet for the whole unit so you know what is where.
  • Leave a walkway through the centre so you can get to items in the back.
  • Store items you may need more often close to the front.
  • Leave a space around the perimeter for air circulation.
  • Store items on shelves to make them more accessible.

When it comes to home or apartment storage, look to your floor and wall space. Choose double-purpose furniture when possible: coffee tables or ottomans that offer storage, tables that can be expanded, sofa beds and sofas with hidden storage. More tips:

  • Murphy-type wall beds and beds with storage under the mattress are great for small spaces.
  • Risers placed under the legs of a bed can provide more room for flat storage there.
  • Containers for underbed storage include flat plastic bins for blankets or out-of-season clothing as well as multi-compartment storage for shoes.
  • Closet organizers allow for a variety of clothing storage, often eliminating the need for dressers in smaller bedrooms.
  • Organizing inserts and drawers that pull out or rotate make things easy to reach. Adjustable drawer dividers keep items neat and tidy.
  • Vertical space can be used effectively with ready-made wall units, bookcases, display cabinets or custom-made storage to suit your style and your budget.

When the problem is hoarding

If your clutter has reached epic proportions, and parting with even the smallest scrap of paper hurts, then getting rid of things is easier said than done. Compulsive hoarding affects one to two per cent of the population—64 to 129 million people worldwide—according to leading researchers Drs. David Tolin, Gail Steketee and Randy Frost, authors of Buried in Treasures: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving and Hoarding.

Dr. Diane Birch, a clinical psychologist in Nova Scotia, says the difference between someone with a lot of clutter and someone whose hoarding is compulsive is a matter of degree. “Some people have clutter and yet they know where such and such is, they like it that way, and it is not a problem,” she says. “The dividing line is: is it making their life better, more comfortable, or has it gotten to be a burden that diminishes their life in a significant way?”

A self-confessed hoarder understands the distinction. “My space is truly frightening,” she says. “I have piles of stuff on every horizontal surface and spilling onto the floor around furniture. Once stuff has been placed somewhere, I become instantly accustomed to having it there. Then more stuff gets piled on top.”

Many compulsive hoarders, however, do not acknowledge that they have a problem. They see their family’s reaction to the clutter as the problem. In those cases it takes a family member or friend to raise the alarm that things have gone too far. Sometimes the alarm is never raised, and the children of hoarders are faced with clearing their parents’ clutter gathered over a lifetime of hoarding.

Ceci Flanagan-Snow, in Smith’s Creek, NB, had that experience. Flanagan-Snow says when she was growing up in a two-bedroom flat, she would never invite friends to the house; she would meet them outside. She says the house was laid out like a runway with rooms off one long corridor. Because of all the stuff piled on either side, the path through the hallway was just wide enough to walk through.

“My mother was a musician and a music teacher so we had sheet music piled to the sky on every conceivable surface. My dad was a piano tuner and he was blind so we had 30 years’ worth of braille magazines. Aside from the mountain of music, my mother had every magazine, receipt, bill, invoice, that ever came in the door. Nothing ever left. My dad would wash the Styrofoam meat trays, neatly stack them and tie them with twine. There were clothes from the 1930s.” She found shirts she had given her dad as gifts when she was a child, still in their original packaging.

Growing up in the pre-war era made her parents afraid to waste anything that could be reused. She says the clutter didn’t bother her parents but it does bother her. “Clutter drives me crazy because of growing up in it,” she says. She isn’t a packrat but did hire a professional organizer when she felt her home office was getting too cluttered.

“Many people who hoard are not aware of the problem, which prevents them from getting help,” says Dr. Birch. “Some people feel more safe or secure with lots of things around them. When people have to let go of these things, they feel exposed.” When someone decides to try psychotherapy, the therapist may need to go to their home to help them begin the sorting process, she says. She refers to Dr. Frost’s research, saying that people with compulsive hoarding will sort belongings, then re-sort, expressing doubts about which category the item fits into. In Buried in Treasures, Dr. Frost also says hoarders create many categories, making the sorting process much more difficult. One woman couldn’t have a category for paper or junk mail, she insisted on having categories for each type of junk mail and sub-categories for each type. She sorted credit card applications into the interest percentage offered for each. Sorting belongings into too many piles is a strain on thought processes; part of the treatment is learning to create fewer categories.

People who hoard want to see what they have, so storing things out of sight doesn’t work for them. They fear if a bill is out of sight it might not get paid, they could lose their electricity, have to pay overdue penalties and so on. So they set the latest bill on the nearest pile, but then the newspaper goes on top, for the same reason. Then a magazine or shopping receipt, then a pile of junk mail. Now they can’t toss that pile into the garbage or recycling because there are valuable documents buried inside. And their fear of not paying the original bill on time is more likely to come true, because they don’t know where it is.

If you hoard or someone in your family hoards, and you would like help, Buried in Treasures is a good place to start. It’s a workbook for hoarders or friends who would coach a hoarder. Consulting a professional psychologist may be a good idea. Dr. Birch says the treatment is both cognitive and behavioural. People have to understand why they hoard, get help clearing the clutter, and learn new behaviours.

While it’s tempting to remove stuff without consulting the hoarder, it’s important that the hoarder direct the sorting. Getting rid of things is linked with getting rid of or changing how the person feels about the stuff. So a surprise cleanup without the hoarder’s involvement is not a good idea.

Although it can take several years to work through compulsive hoarding, lightening the load on a home can do the same for the spirit.

Help for compulsive hoarders

  • Buried in Treasures by David F. Tolin, Randy O. Frost, and Gail Steketee
  • - Association of Psychologists of NS
  • This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
  • Self Help Connection for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder - (902) 466-2011

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