Because I volunteer with older adults, I have watched many people downsize during their 70s, 80s, and 90s. As a gerontologist, I see many people move from the home where they raised their kids, to a smaller home, and then some to an assisted living center and some to a shared room in a skilled nursing home.
With each move, these women have to make difficult decisions about what they can keep, and what they give away.
People spend decades accumulating a lot of possessions, and then they must shed them. Sometimes this happens gradually, sometimes quickly. Sometimes people make their own decisions. Sometimes family members doing the sorting and packing make the decisions for these older women.
Photographs are the most treasured possessions. Handmade quilts are prized. Heirlooms from their own parents are usually passed down to their adult children by this point because of lack of space and lack of security.
Now that it’s Christmas time, I observe how there isn’t storage for many holiday decorations—especially for those in skilled nursing centers. For perspective, let me just note that at any one time 6% of people 65 plus are in skilled nursing, but over the course of their late adulthood, about 30% will spend some time in a skilled nursing center, even if it’s just a short stay following a knee replacement or a hip replacement.
So Christmas gets reduced to its most essential elements.
As far as external signs of Christmas, a woman in a skilled nursing facility might have a holiday sweater, a special pin, or maybe a wreath on her door. If she’s in assisted living center, she might have a table-top tree and a few items on the self. If she has a small apartment or small house, she can have several decorations on display.
So what is treasured most in each living situation are relationships. I see mature women treasure holiday cards with pictures and letters enclosed. Better yet are phone calls and visits. Especially visits.
And then there is the relationship they have maintained with the reason for the season, Jesus Christ himself. Some people I’ve met get very few visits. Either their family lives out of state, or their family members are very busy with work, children and other responsibilities. The women who have spent decades developing their faith seem to have the easiest time finding a way to cope. They also work to develop relationships with other residents and with the staff–people they see every day where they live.
Observing the reality of downsizing as we age makes me really scrutinize what I own. After leaving my career as a college writing teacher and working now as a gerontologist, I can more vividly see what lies ahead for me–and all of my stuff.
“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven” (Matthew 6:19-20).
If I could only keep one Christmas decoration with me as I downsize to smaller and smaller living quarters, what would I keep? I would probably cheat and keep two items: one hand-made ornament made by each of my two children. The rest I would give to them.
If you had to downsize your Christmas celebration due to age-related challenges, what one item would you choose to keep or what one tradition would you maintain?