Introducing “Ask Linda & Janet”

Linda Hetzer responding to questions about downsizing at a “Keep the Memories, Get Rid of the Stuff” talk.

In the 10-plus years since our book Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home first came out, we’ve had the opportunity to talk about the pros and cons, the ins and outs, the ups and downs of downsizing the family home with so many wonderful people—from radio call-in show hosts, to newspaper and magazine reporters, to the people who’ve attended the events in libraries, community centers, retirement communities, and a host of other venues we’ve been invited to speak at across the country.

It’s been a pleasure to meet folks who have been through, or who are contemplating going through, this experience. It’s been great to be able to share what we’ve learned with our audiences, and equally rewarding to continue to hear new stories and learn new tips, strategies, resources, and ideas from them as well.

We have been writing our blog for five years now. And while it hasn’t been exactly surprising to discover how much there is to know about this process (that is, after all, why we realized there was a need for our book in the first place), it has been very interesting to see how many ways there are to make it go better—logistically, organizationally, ecologically, emotionally. And of course, as we’ve written our posts and talked to people—both experts and regular folks—it has been a continual learning process for us.

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Janet Hulstrand discusses a follow-up question with a member of the audience following a “Decluttering for Spring” talk.

We thought at this point it made some sense to create a post (this one) where people could pose their questions about downsizing and we could share the knowledge we’ve gained in our responses. We think this will help people find their way to some of the helpful posts on our blog more easily.

Also, by having one place for readers to pose questions—in the comment box below—it will also give others an idea of what kinds of things there are to consider when downsizing.

So, we are hereby inviting you to send your questions our way!

There is of course, no guarantee that we will have answers for all of them, but we will do our best to direct you to a post we’ve written on the subject, or guide you toward experts who may be able to help you better than we can.

We think this is a fine way to enter the back-to-school season. So…what questions do you have about downsizing? We’re all ears!

Linda Hetzer and Janet Hulstrand are coauthors of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Homenow available as an e-book.

Caregivers Extraordinaire

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Along with the dilemma of what to do with all the stuff that we accumulate in life comes the dilemma of what to do with a life itself, with a person who has aged and lost the ability to take care of him or her self. Although this is not a topic we usually write about, I would like to share the stories of three of the best writers writing today who have tackled the subject, each in a personal and poignant way.

Susan Allen Toth describes what it’s like to be in the trenches every hour of every day caring for her husband. With grace and humor, Scott Simon shows us how to just be there for a dear loved one, for him his beloved mother, in the last days of her life. Roz Chast uses her laugh-out-loud funny and, at the same time, devastatingly real cartoons to depict the old-age roller coaster ride of her parents.

No Saints Around Here: A Caregiver’s Days by Susan Allen Toth

As her husband’s Parkinson’s disease and eventual dementia take control over his body and mind, Susan Allen Toth is determined to care for him at home. This book, based on the journal she kept during the last 18 months of his life, is often painful in its details, frightening in her feelings of loneliness and isolation (although she did hire many aides), and compelling and poignant and sometimes funny in its story. It is written with unstinting love and brutal honesty. Toth made me laugh with her wit, disturbed me her details, and frightened me with her forthrightness – sometimes all on the same page.

Toth captures the uncertainty of the job of a caregiver: “I feel as though I am about to fall off my balance beam. I picture every caregiver on one, usually performing with an outward calm, like a confident acrobat, but concealing an inner terror: “What in the world will I do now?” For many of us, this must require both courage and faith, because I am often dizzy and close to gasping as I edge my way forward. The balance beam hangs in an enveloping haze.”

The author may have meant to be ironic with her title, but many readers feel that, to the contrary, Toth is as close to a saint as there is today.

“We all need someone to hear us,” Toth says of the millions who devote their days to the care of a loved one. With her calm, gentle voice, Susan Allen Toth has become a loud and forceful advocate for caregivers everywhere.

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Unforgettable: A Son, a Mother, and the Lessons of a Lifetime by Scott Simon

Using the tweets that he sent out to his Twitter followers during the last days of his mother’s illness as a framework, Scott Simon, the NPR correspondent, has written a memoir of Patricia Lyons Simon Newman Gelbin, a gorgeous, glamorous, funny, mischievous, three-times married woman who raised Simon as a single mother for much of his life.

She knew a lot of people, some very famous ones, and mother and son reminisce about their life as they wait, his mother with great patience, to hear back from various doctors. As Simon tweets, “I’m getting a life’s lesson in grace from my mother in the ICU.”

There are many memorable passages. Simon’s realization about death: “Death makes life worthwhile. It gives each moment meaning…Death drives life. It frightens and inspires us. Do away with death, and we have no reason to get out of bed (or into it), grow, work, or love…” His mother’s lament about aging: “You know what is so hard? There’s a tone in their voice when you get old and people call you ‘lovely.’ Like you’ve become some kind of beautiful, crumbling statue. They never see you as the person you were before you got trapped in this old body.” Simon’s description of his mother’s later years: “After [her second husband] died, my mother became part of a merry and remarkable group of women, all widowed, who lived in her building and kept moving. They explored the city each day, went to plays, movies, museums, galleries, and new restaurants…My mother loved the women; so did I. They had fun…” How lovely for her.

To the very end, Simon’s mother had her wits about her and, always, her grace. Here he captures the small details of life in the hospital and, at the same time, the big picture of a life well lived.

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Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir by Roz Chast

With equal parts laughter and tears, New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast tells the story of taking on the parenting duties for her elderly and somewhat recalcitrant parents.

As Alex Witchel says in her review in the New York Times: “This is a beautiful book, deeply felt, both scorchingly honest about what it feels like to love and care for a mother who has never loved you back, at least never the way you had wanted, and achingly wistful about a gentle father who could never break free of his domineering wife and ride to his daughter’s rescue.

With her quirky cartoons, sometimes in step-by-step panels and sometimes in full-page illustrations, Chast tells the story of her parents’ decline, their falls, their many visits to doctors. They refuse to let aides (strangers!) help care for them; they abhor the idea of assisted living; they refuse to part with any of stuff they have accumulated, even the junk (as Chast says, “I was aggravated that they hadn’t dealt with their accumulations back when they had the ability to do so.”) They are in denial about everything: their limitations, their aging, their dependence. They can’t abide the mention of death and won’t talk about what may happen.

Chast’s book is at times hilarious, at times difficult to read, at times so surprisingly familiar. Her parents aged together, into their late 90s, which gave them comfort but also perpetuated the quirky dependence on each other that often excluded help from others, including their only daughter.

Chast tells a very personal story but one that is universal. The cartoons, which are charming, honest, and humorous, serve to lighten the mood, yet highlight the seriousness of a story of aging and death.

How do we deal with an aging parent or relative? How will we deal with our aging and eventual death? We could do well to take lessons from these three talented and perceptive authors, from books that should be on all of our to-read lists.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

My Downsizing-the-Home (in a Hurry) Report Card: How Did I Do?

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Downsizing Day 1: Pulling the Books Off the Shelves

When Ed Koch was Mayor of New York, he was known for his habit of asking New Yorkers, “How’m I doin’?” I found that habit endearing, even though a big part of me knew that a big part of him probably wasn’t really listening to the answers. (Because, let’s face it, most politicians are not really great listeners.)

Last month, as someone who has become known as a “downsizing expert” in connection with my extensive writing and sometimes speaking on the topic, as I was going through my own downsizing-the-home-(in-a-hurry) experience last month, a part of me was also observing the process, and thinking, “So, how’m I doin’?”

For of course, writing about downsizing and actually doing it are two very different things.

Now, with a few weeks after my big downsizing move to think about “how I did,” I thought I would give myself a Downsizing Report Card. Since as far as I know, no such report card has ever been done before, I had to first think up the categories. It is my hope that having defined some of the elements involved in successful downsizing may prove helpful for others going through, or planning for, a downsizing move.

Success In Significantly Reducing Number (and Volume) of Possessions: A

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Downsizing Day 5: Dad’s Dresser. I would rather have kept this dresser but a rational decision-making process led me to the unavoidable conclusion that it didn’t make sense to do so anymore. (See “Fitting My Lifestyle to My Life.”)

I really did get rid of a lot of my stuff! I sold and donated LOTS of clothing, furniture, books, equipment of various kinds, and shredded pounds and pounds and pounds of paper. I feel I was particularly successful in this category, since some of the things I sold were things I never thought I would sell, and things I really would rather not have gotten rid of. (For example, beautiful old furniture that had been in my family for some time; and some of my work files, which contained interesting, though not essential, material of various kinds.) In my case, having made the decision to NOT move from one house to another (or even from my house to an apartment), but to put all my stuff in storage for an unforeseen length of time helped me realize that it was probably a good time to let go of these things, that I just couldn’t keep them anymore, or at least that it didn’t really make sense to do so. (There will be more on this decision-making process in another post.)

General Organization: C

In the first three weeks of my 27-day downsizing marathon, my organizational skills were pretty good. I had a lot to do in a very short time, and it all went pretty well. I held three days of moving sales: early in the process I scheduled pick-ups of furniture, and dropped about 30 boxes of books at our county library’s used book store; I filled our recycling barrels every week with tons of shredded paper; what I couldn’t sell I put out as “curb alerts” for my neighbors to come and pick up; I identified, and rented, the best self-storage unit I could find near my home; and scheduled a cleaning service to come in a couple of days before my move. So I would say that overall, I deserve at least a B+, maybe even an A for those weeks. But the last week? Honestly, I would have to give the last week an “F,” or at least a D-. The last week, predictably, slid into pure chaos. This is because my decision to try to do such a big downsizing job in such a short period of time flew in the face of probably the most valuable piece of advice in our book. Take Your Time! So I knew from the start it was inevitable that the job was not going to be done perfectly.

On the other hand, with those “take your time” and “the time to start is now” lessons firmly in my mind ever since we first published our book, I really had been working on the task for months and even years before those last 27 days. If I had not been proactively downsizing all along, it definitely could have been worse!

Yard sales can be a good way to start the process of downsizing gradually. You'll probably find that it gets easier to get rid of things the more you do it. Practice makes perfect! :-)

Downsizing Day 8: The first of three moving sales in less than a month.

Safeguarding of Important Things: A

I think! Although I did get rid of a lot of things that had sentimental and other kinds of value, I didn’t have time to go through pictures, letters, etc, etc., etc. in detail. So what I couldn’t go through, I just kept, for now. As far as I know, I didn’t lose anything of importance, though the verdict will be out on that for a while, since I am currently in another country and won’t have the chance to go through everything and really know what I still have for some time.

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Downsizing Day 22: Keeping the Things That Bring You the Most Joy, Even When Impractical

Sharing With Others: A  

For me, as for many “keepers,” being able to give things to people who can use them rather than just throw them in a dumpster or the garbage is very important. In this regard, I think I did quite well. As soon as I knew I was going to move out of my home I scheduled a pick-up from a local charity that gives furniture and clothing to families in need. (Scheduling such pick-ups well ahead of time is crucial, I found.)  And the yard sales and curb-alerts I did proved over and over again the truth of the adage that “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Many people took delight in acquiring items that other people (I won’t point any fingers here :-) ) had declared “junk,” and walked away happy with their treasures.

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Downsizing Day 19: The Cowboy Hat. My son didn’t want it anymore. This man was delighted to find it on our curb :-)

Environmental Awareness and Respect for the Earth: B

Here again, not just throwing everything I didn’t need into the trash was important to me. I think I did pretty well in this regard, but again the speed of the move plus the inconvenient nature of recycling or properly disposing of certain kinds of items (for example, CDs and videotapes) made it impossible for me to have an entirely earth-friendly move. I think my county is exceptionally earth-friendly in its approach to recycling, and I did manage to get most of the toxic materials to the county’s toxic waste disposal center. But I do wish it were easier to properly dispose of these items, and am hoping my county will become even more “green” in this regard in the future, and that these practices will become more widely established across the country. (There will be more this later, too.)

Maintaining an Upbeat Attitude: A+

 I believe that maintaining an upbeat attitude is an essential skill in downsizing. It’s hard to get anything done when you’re depressed! And I did manage to maintain an upbeat attitude throughout the process. On the last frantic day, when it was extremely hard to be upbeat, as thunderstorms and my imminent transatlantic flight made an extremely difficult and stressful process even worse, a neighbor who I have come to think of as an angel helped me stay upbeat despite it all. (Which reminds me of another important piece of advice in our book: Get Help!)

Maintenance of Health, Safety, and Sanity: A

This may not seem like it has anything to do with successful downsizing, but in fact it is probably the most important thing of all. (And actually, maintaining an upbeat attitude is related to this one too.) Downsizing is mentally, physically, and emotionally very stressful, and rife with abundant opportunities to become injured or dangerously exhausted. A couple of times I had to willfully slow myself down and take a short break to lie down and meditate, because I knew if I didn’t do so I would be endangering my health, and that ending up in the hospital would definitely be counterproductive to the process, not to mention my life! So: in those last few days when I was giving myself an “F” for organization, I was also giving myself an “A” for maintaining my health. (“You didn’t have a stroke!” I told myself. “You didn’t break any bones. You didn’t end up in the hospital. You’re doin’ great!!!” :-) )

I was exhausted after 27 days of intense downsizing, but I was alive, more or less well, and able to get myself to a beautiful place for a few days of R&R. I call that some sort of success! :-)

Fitting My Lifestyle to My Life: A

Coming up with this category has been kind of a revelation to me. But I believe it is of essential importance in downsizing, and that failure to do it can be one of the main impediments to proceeding with the task. A good friend has reminded me that the life I have been living is not very similar at all to the life my parents lived. My parents moved all their household goods exactly twice in 40 years of their adult lives, and both times the move was paid for by my dad’s employer. My husband and I moved five times in the space of 15 years, and only one of those moves was funded by someone else. Our parents lived in sprawling suburban homes near the places they had grown up, with attics, basements, and plenty of storage space, while I have lived much of my life halfway across the country from where I grew up, in small apartments in urban areas, and have spent a lot time abroad. With the decision to put all my stuff into storage while I figure out where my gypsy nature will take me next, I have finally realized that my life is not a life that allows for hanging onto things in the same way my parents did. I do appreciate the “keeper” instincts that kept so many special things in my family for several generations, and even as I have reluctantly let some of those special things go, I have held onto others (mostly the ones that don’t take up too much space!

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I kept these pictures where I could see them until the last minute. It was helpful in always remembering what’s most important….

So, all in all I didn’t do so badly, really. What is that? A B-? C+? I’ve never been too good at grading. But I do give myself an A for honest self-analysis, and I look forward to doing better next time. Hopefully on a longer timeline. :-)

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

The Dress I Never Wore

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A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about a flood we had in our apartment and the aftermath of going through so much of our stuff. We still have more to sort through, lots more. Here are some things I’ve wrestled with lately.

On one of our first few days in Bangkok we were walking in the shopping district looking at the stores when a young man asked if I was looking for a silk dress. Of course, I was wanted to buy a Thai silk dress! He guided us to a place he said had the best prices. I choose a lovely turquoise silk dress. I loved the color and bought it, even though I knew at the time it was too big for me. Although I guessed the man was probably – okay, definitely – a shill for the store, I liked the dress and even now have fond memories of it and, naturally, of our trip. Flash forward 30-some years and the dress is still hanging in my closet. I have never worn the dress.

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When my father moved from the house he had lived in for 50 years to an apartment, he gave away a lot of his business attire: suits, ties, and dress shoes. I decided to take a dozen or more ties, I chose the red-themed ones, to make a skirt for my daughter. That was over 10 years ago. The ties are still hanging in my closet.

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A number of years ago, I inherited my aunt’s blue and white china. Blue and white is a classic color combination, one beloved my many people. I like blue and white for clothing and, in some cases, for home furnishings but I’ve never liked blue and white china. (Maybe that sounds quirky but…whatever.) The plates are in the china cabinet in my dining room, where I can see them every day.

There is still much work to do in my apartment, many decisions to be made. Have I made any progress? Yes, I have donated many things, knowing I can “Keep the memories, get rid of the stuff…” as we say in our book. So what have I done with these particular items?

The plates are going on eBay. The ties have been donated to charity.

And the dress. Well, my daughter happened to stop by when we were photographing these items ( I know, what serendipity) and I asked her to model the dress for the photo. She put it on and decided she liked it. Of course, it is twice as big on her as it was on me (she’s holding the excess fabric with her right hand in the photo). So will it take fewer than 30 years to take in the dress so it fits her? Stay tuned…

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Downsizing: What Happens When You Can’t Do It Right?

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Downsizing Day 1: The Decision Is Made, Starting to Pull Books Off the Shelves. Photo by Janet Hulstrand.

Several weeks ago, I made a bold, fateful, and possibly slightly insane decision.

I decided to move out of my home; sell, donate, throw out, and otherwise get rid of much of my stuff; and put whatever was left into storage.

All in 27 days.

The home I had been living in for the past eight years was the place where I had raised my sons through their teen years, and was also the home in which several treasured pieces of furniture, many boxes of letters, photographs and other memorabilia, as well as many other things that came both from my family and my husband’s, which we had inherited in the 30 years we were together, not to mention our own accumulated letters, photos, files, mementos and various other things. Also, of course, all of our clothes and books, musical instruments and sports equipment, games, puzzles and, and, and…The kitchen stuff. The bathroom stuff. (You get it, you know, or you can imagine.) It was also the location of my home office, and as such there were files, office supplies and equipment, and books of the trade to deal with. So this was neither an easy, nor a small task.

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Downsizing Day 8: Moving Sale Photo by Janet Hulstrand

Much of it was important. Much of it was not. Much of it was in that in-between gray area. All of it required decision-making. To keep or not to keep? To store or not to store? How to prepare for storage? To recycle, or haul to the dump? And so on.

Given all the time I have devoted to thinking, writing and talking about the process of downsizing a family home for more than a decade now, I knew from the beginning that dealing with such large task on such a short timetable was an essentially impossible task.

So why did I try to do it?

Let’s just say that a rental situation which had never been a very good one became bad enough that I decided I had had enough, and the time to cut my losses and make a change was now.

How did it go? Well, it was an incredible experience, probably most accurately described as “a wild ride.” There were many sweet and poignant moments, more than I would have imagined there could be, in mostly small ways, on an almost daily basis. I made new friends, got to know my neighbors better, benefited from the help of friends and “the kindness of strangers” in numerous ways. I was able to savor the experience of passing on a lot of things that were just cluttering up my home, and now also my life’s forward path, to people who would really appreciate having them, some of whom I knew, others I would never meet. And of course there were many moments of appreciation, smiles, chuckles, a few tears, as I discovered sweet notes written in childish scrawls, and old school projects–my children’s and even some of mine (yes! because my mom was “a keeper” par excellence!)

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Downsizing Day 12: Souvenirs From My Childhood. Photo by Janet Hulstrand

It was also worse than I had allowed myself to envision, especially during the dreadful last few days when my need to board a transatlantic flight and report for a teaching assignment abroad exerted a pressure and anxiety on me that was almost unbearable. If it had not been for the intervention of kind friends and friendly strangers, it might have been an unmitigated disaster rather than just a highly chaotic and upsetting scramble at the end.

Once I had made the decision to do it, I decided I would try to be as conscious of this process as I possibly could be every step of the way, so that I could share any new insights/perspectives/stories/observations I might be able to capture, for the benefit of our blog readers.

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Downsizing Day 17: A Wider Circle helps Washington-DC area families by supplying them with donated furniture and household goods. Here they are loading up a couch, a mattress, an ironing board, some tables and chairs from our house. Photo by Janet Hulstrand

And so even in the mad scramble to beat the clock I kept notes and took pictures, as best I could. And I began sharing some of those moments on Twitter and Facebook, live, during the process. Some of you may have followed along with that day-to-day reporting of the experience. You can find the trail here, and here.

In the weeks and months to come I will be looking back on this experience and sharing with you what I learned in this latest round of downsizing, some of the thoughts I had in going through a major downsizing project—this time my own—without being able to follow our number-one piece of advice when it comes to projects such as these: namely,

Take Your Time!!

Did the advice in our book help me anyway? You bet it did!

Did I get ideas for new things to write about on this blog? I certainly did!

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Downsizing Day 22: Keep the things that bring you the most joy, even if it’s impractical to do so. Photo by Janet Hulstrand

So, stay tuned for more fresh-from-the-downsizing-front posts to come, going forward.

In the meantime, have a Happy Fourth of July, and a great summer ahead.

And don’t forget to use up those sparklers sitting, forgotten, on a high shelf in the pantry, now! You won’t want to have to deal with them at the last minute in your next move :-)

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

Learning to Live with Less

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A couple of weeks ago we had a flood in our apartment—a pipe broke several floors above us and flooded our bedroom closets and the linen closet. Of course, we threw out things that were soaked and, fortunately, we didn’t lose anything of great value, monetary or sentimental value. But everything that came out of the closets is now in piles in our living room, not a pretty sight.

We have too much stuff and we have to deal with that. We have decisions to make. We need to find places for the stuff we no longer need to keep. I remind myself that I co-wrote a book about downsizing and I try to apply the suggestions in the book.

My mother kept a scrapbook of the high school years and her early twenties, a document of a life lived many decades ago. The book is filled with dance programs, theater ticket stubs, memorabilia from sports events, newspaper clippings—ephemera of another era. I have contacted the historical society where she grew up and they are interested in the scrapbook. Reminder from our book: Some of the things I have may be of interest to museums and historical societies.

Yarn and fabric and other needlework supplies, materials from the many crafts books I have worked on and from hobbies I no longer pursue, have been donated to a reuse center that provides materials to nonprofit organizations with arts programming and to public schools. Reminder from our book: Artists and art teachers can use all sorts of materials as well as odds and ends—and the items don’t end up in a landfill.

We donated books (yes, again!) to an organization that collects books for hospitals. Reminder from our book: For those of us who live with too many books, it’s a good idea to purge at least once a year (but, one hopes, in a calmer manner than when forced to so by a flood).

None of this is easy. It’s hard, really hard, and I needed some moral support.

Where did I find help?

In a New York Times article about wealthy people who are “Frugal When They Don’t Have to Be” a financial adviser says “It’s about paying attention to what makes you happy and not just doing what our society tells us to do.” It’s about not accumulating stuff but about spending money on something that matters.

I’ve always spent money on experiences, not material things, but, still, stuff accumulates and I have to deal with that.

Ryan Nicodemus, one half of The Minimalists, who write about living a meaningful life with less stuff, wrote a poem called “The Cycle of Letting Go.” In it, he traces the cycle of owing stuff from I want it to It owns me to I am happier with little and ends the poem with I was transformed with little.

The poem is guidepost for me.

Joshua Becker, in his blog Becoming Minimalist, asks “What if there is actually more joy in owning less?” and then walks the reader through a tour of the house focusing on seven areas, from clothes to toys to cooking utensils, with suggestions for ways to live with less.

Becker presents a challenge, one I accept, to live life with less stuff.

As always, the mantra of our book provides a helpful guide: “Keeping the memories, getting rid of the stuff…”

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

What Is an “Age-Friendly” Community ?

I’ve recently been asked to write a guest post on the subject of “age-friendly” communities.

It’s a phrase that has a lovely sound: but what does it mean?

I imagine it means different things to different people: and it occurred to me, as I begin mulling on and researching this topic that I could do worse than to turn to our readers–to ask you what “age-friendly” community means to you.

What kinds of services, resources, entertainment would make a community friendly to older people?

What things could make life better/safer/more enjoyable for people as they age?

What kind of community do you want to live in as you grow older?

If you have a definition of “age-friendly community,” I’d love to hear it. Or any of your (even random) thoughts in answer to any of the questions above.

You can respond by commenting on this post–hope to hear from some of you soon!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

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