Stash in the attic

Sorting through a lifetime of possessions and memories can be traumatic, but the right help can take the distress out of downsizing

 Downsizing from a large three bedroom house to a retirement flat half the size threatened to be a highly distressing experience for George and Elizabeth Whittle.

The 75-year-old former City banker and his wife, 68, had lived in the same house in Ealing, west London, for 42 years. Four decades’ worth of crockery, books, clothes and family mementoes were never going to be easy to give up, but the Whittles had help from Seamless Relocation, specialists in helping people to make what can be painful decisions ahead of a house move.

“We could not have done it without help,” George Whittle says. “We had been very worried about how we were going to declutter and move, and we didn’t want to have any regrets.

“We have not missed any of the items we got rid of because we received a great deal of help in deciding what we wanted to keep. Without support it would have been a very stressful experience.

Decluttering is a very difficult hurdle for older people yet having a good throw-out can be very liberating and energising, according to Charmian Boyd, joint owner of Seamless Relocation.

Older people need a particular care and respect as their homes are repositories of precious memories, she says. “Often they are the guardians of family heirlooms, so a great deal of sensitivity is required. We would never go in and ask someone ‘Why on earth are you hanging on to this?’ but sometimes you have to ask subtle and probing questions to help people make a decision.”

Besides downsizing, some people seek to move because they think they need more space. Lynn Pick, from Home Stylers, once saved an elderly couple from spending thousands of pounds on an extension by showing them how to use the existing space more efficiently.

“A good decluttering gives you freedom to move without feeling constricted,” she says. “I often notice the dark cloud lifting off people as we sort out their things and they suddenly become more relaxed and happy.”

Jon Ramsay, owner of Clutterbee and spokesman for the Association of Professional Declutterers and Organisers, has seen some startling examples of clutter that has exploded into mayhem. At one house every inch of floor space was covered with papers, clothes and empty drinks cans. Other instances include rooms full of clothes and goods which still have shop labels attached to them.

It is men who tend to fall at the extremes of clutter and tidiness, he says. “Men are territorial and will often surround themselves with things they think will come in useful. Gizmos and gadgets are often kept for their parts.

“At the other extreme they can be incredibly tidy. I went into one home where the husband’s suits were all labelled in order of colour and designer, while the wife and kids lived in a complete mess.”

Getting professionals in to help is more acceptable now, he thinks. “It’s a little like the culture of DIY where everyone used to have a go, but now people prefer to pay someone to do it for them.”

Move out, move on

With an all-day eatery and jeweller, has one retirement community in America got the right idea?

House-swaps with people abroad are usually a route to a cheap holiday, but an exchange between two couples in the US and UK was undertaken with more than a change of scenery in mind.

In an experiment by Audley Retirement in the UK and retirement specialists SRG in the US, Tony and Carol Gregory swapped their two-bedroomed cottage on Audley’s St Elphin’s Park Village development in Derbyshire for SRG’s Maravilla complex in Santa Barbara. Meanwhile, Lou and Muriel Schloss, who rent a two bedroom, two bathroom apartment at Maravilla, travelled in the opposite direction.

St Elphin’s has 130 homes with facilities including a bistro and swimming pool, where people live independently but with care available. Maravilla has 350 residencies with a clubhouse, all-day restaurant, and services including cleaners, gardeners and even a jeweller.

Both couples were impressed by the facilities they saw at the different sites and the Gregorys were particularly struck by Maravilla’s “memory care” facility, for people with dementia.

They spotted some other practical ideas, Carol Gregory, 68, says: “The toilets were slightly higher which was a good idea for people when they are a bit older, and there are also little lights at the bottom of the skirting board in a couple of areas so you could see your way to the bathroom in the night.” One of the differences Lou Schloss, 86, and 84-year-old Muriel noted was the size of the kitchen.

“The ones in the UK are bigger but they are set up to cook and we’re not,” says Lou. “We’ve lived in our community two and a half years, and we’ve never had a meal in our apartment.” And like the Gregorys, they stressed how living in a retirement community has enabled them to retain their independence and still feel secure.

Lou says: “The retirement community lifestyle is much more relaxed and easy for us. Everything is taken care of and if something needs fixing it gets fixed by someone.”

Audley undertook the experiment to see what could be learned from the US and its well-established retirement home market. In fact, says chief executive and chairman of the Association of Retirement Village Operators Nick Sanderson, the level of facilities is much the same, though the scale is larger there. But in the US, the attitude towards moving house and retirement living is markedly different.

“The US are much more open to the idea of downsizing and changing one’s way of life later on,” he says. “They think it is much more logical than staying in a family home that’s now too big and could be full of potential health risks – worn carpets, things needing rewiring, stairs to negotiate. It’s a very British thing to stay put to maintain your independence and let the house fall down around you. Whereas if people take the decision early and move into the right accommodation for them, they can avoid a lot of the risks that they believe they are avoiding by staying in their own home.”

Experiences of both couples can be viewed on the Audley blog and images are on the Facebook page.