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Downsizing Christmas during Late Life

By Karen Austin

Photo by Marit & Toomas Hillosaar

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?

About Karen Austin

After living in UT, HI, CA, VA, DC, WI, WV & KS, Karen now lives in Newburgh, IN with her husband and two children. She's been a BYU writing tutor, an English teacher, technical writer, director of academic support services, and aging studies adjunct. She's reinventing herself--again. New role still pending, but mature athlete, thrift store fashionista, and court jester are strong candidates. She maintains the blog The Generation Above Me.

14 thoughts on “Downsizing Christmas during Late Life”

  1. Such a great post, and I, for one, have had this on my mind a long time, not so much to do with Christmas, but just the idea of accumulating so much only to have to give it up. Both my parents died separately last year. I am their only child and had to take care of their affairs which has turned out to be very expensive, because my mother was in Hawaii. She had collected art and antiques which I have had to have shipped here. I do not even really want these things, but I have to do something with them. One thing I want to pass on to your readers is that selling things and getting the money they are worth is difficult and frustrating. It can turn into a full time job. I don't mean to sound ungrateful but that is how this has turned out. Now it looks like this same thing may happen to my mother in law who is trying to sell a lifetime of accumulated items (at age 82!) and getting garage sale prices, if that. I am sure my kids do not really want my stuff either, and I am approaching sixty. It really makes me look twice at what success really is and what I could have easily done without.

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  2. This was a hard thing to watch and participate in when grandma had to downsize. Moving her out of her home she had lived in for 60 years was overwhelming to sort through for my in-laws. Then when she had to move to a smaller facility, the things were downsized again. Then again when she was moved to a more specialized home. We didn't bother to try and sell anything, she had enough grandchildren to give most of it to. But it was not fun, especially because she didn't have a lot to do with the sorting and we were trying so hard to make sure she was keeping enough to make things homey. In the end, she had pictures, comfortable bedding, a dresser, and the clothes she needed and looked her best in. It was a three year decline, and now estate business of splitting up farm land and what sibling pays what for which – nightmare. I've decided I'm splitting up my assets while I'm still coherent and save my children the disagreements and silent/loud fighting. It's a lot.

    And the thing she valued the most in the end was anytime somebody came to visit, even when she didn't remember who you were.

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  3. For me, the question at the end was easy to answer: I'd keep a small nativity scene. It's really all you need. My mom collects them, and gets at least one new one each year, so they're all over my parents' house every Christmas. To me, it just wouldn't be Christmas without at least one of them. So, if I had to downsize, I'd get a little one of my own and set it out. Not only would it remind me of the true meaning of Christmas, but it would also remind me of my mother.

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  4. I think this is where making overseas moves, and paying for them myself, makes a difference. I have gotten rid of all my Christmas things more than once. I have sold or gotten rid of almost everything I own on more than one occasion. The only thing that I would keep is Christmas sheet music. Pretty much everything else could go without sadness. For me, Christmas is more about being with those I love than place or even traditions.

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  5. I found this particularly apt, Karen, as in the past two weeks my grandmother has moved from interstate to be closer to my Mum, and has had to deal with the "what comes with me?" dilemma – and considering my aunt had taken possessions without my Nan's permission just days earlier made the emotional impact even more traumatic.

    Which also explains why my Nan, who uses a cane, carried a two foot tall paper mache statue of Mary, Joseph and Jesus through three sets of airport security so she could have HER favourite Christmas decoration available for display, and not buried in a box somewhere. It may be generously draped in tinsel at the moment, but it's part of her celebration. Thank you for the added reminder of Christmas coming in all shapes, sizes and living situations.

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  6. I am sorry for the loss of your parents, and then your grief gets compounded by having to deal with all the possessions and paper work. That's a heavy weight. Bless you for managing all that, and all my best to your MIL.

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  7. I am sorry about all the work required for sorting and distributing. I'm glad to read that she still got visitors, and they were kind to go even when she failed to recognize them. Hugs to you all, and may you have cherished memories of her for years to come.

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  8. A nativity scene is a good idea. Our stake just had a nativity display with over 200 sets. So many beautiful scenes of our Savior's birth. Have a lovely Christmas this year and for years to come.

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  9. I move about every 8 years, but somehow I still have too much stuff. I haven't done an overseas move since I was a baby. You are traveling light, for sure. Merry Christmas.

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  10. Conversely, this post made me wonder what more I can do for those who I know in nursing homes: calls, cards, and visits. I fear that if I make an effort now at the Christmas season it will seem disingenuous because I didn't do the same in July or any other month. I ought to get over that fear and do good now and try to do better later as well.

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  11. Insightful post, Karen. I want my life to end with more than just what stuff I leave behind. Thanks for the reminder of where to focus my energy. Merry Christmas!

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  12. I love this post mostly because I have always been a purger and a de-clutterer (new words!). I have moved several times and when my mother died and my sibling and I had to go through her belongings (and she was an accumulator, pack-rat, pick your terminology), it was overwhelming. I truly believe that less stuff equals more space for family, friends, The Spirit, more peace and serenity. I purge on a monthly basis and we are very thoughtful about what comes into our space to begin with. Thank you for this reminder that while material possessions serve A purpose in our lives, they are not THE purpose of our lives.

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