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The moving question – downsizing in old age

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Written by Rosie Staal

Journalist and author Rosie Staal considers the pros and cons of downsizing in later life.

One of the preoccupations for many people as they get older concerns downsizing in old age.  ‘Should I move house?’ The thoughts could be prompted by gentle pestering from the family – ‘We wish you lived closer to us’ – or as a result of health and mobility issues, or, merely to achieve a simpler way of life.

Clearing out the clutter in the loft can have a literal as well as an emotional effect. For some it can even be cathartic. It certainly was for my own mother, who moved 20 years ago in her early 70s. Her decision, three years after being widowed and while still in excellent health, meant she was fit and active enough to learn and grow to love her new surroundings, make friends and get involved in a multitude of activities. She positively blossomed, and any misgivings she may have had about moving 150 miles from the family home of 40-plus years to a flat in a sheltered living complex close to my sister and me were instantly allayed.

Moving somewhere smaller, to a place that’s easier to cope with – a more manageable garden, for instance, and possibly no stairs – makes a lot of sense. So why doesn’t everyone do it? Why isn’t there a mass downsizing by the age of, say, 75, so that upheavals are avoided later in life?

Why indeed. Jane has one answer to that. She’s 80, was widowed three years ago and has been dealing with cancer treatment on and off for two years. Her five-bedroomed house, with its three-quarters of an acre garden, is where she brought up her family. She needs her car to reach the shops, the GP surgery and all her hospital appointments.

When she’s unwell and grounded, she relies on neighbours to run errands and to get her to her appointments. Her biggest fear is that their patience may one day wear thin and she’ll be stranded. “I try not to take them for granted,” she says.

“I suspect that by staying here I inconvenience a lot of people, especially my children and grandchildren who have to travel to see me,” Jane adds. “I couldn’t move. It would mean leaving my memories behind. My husband is still here, in the walls, in the whole fabric of the house. I can speak with him in the quiet of the night. If I moved away, I would be bereft. It would be the end of me, I know.”

Contrast dogmatic Jane with pragmatic Isobel and George, who are in their late 70s and have recently moved from the house they built in a Dorset village 45 years ago to a flat in a gated complex in the centre of Sherborne.

“We really wanted to stay in the village and briefly thought about buying a bungalow just down the road,” Isobel says. “But it made no sense. We would still have had to rely on transport to get anywhere as the village had lost all its amenities, and we didn’t want to be facing another move in a few years’ time.

“We didn’t consult the family because we wanted it to be a decision George and I made together. It’s taking us some time to get used to living with relatively few of our belongings in such a confined space, but we are really happy here and have no regrets at all.”

Isobel and George have been making a determined effort to get involved in the life of the town so they can establish a new circle of acquaintances. Making their move together while still in good health has meant that entering a new phase of life has not been too daunting.

or another couple, though, that move was made too late. Philip and Joan, both approaching their 90th birthdays, are the first to admit that they put it off for too long. “We couldn’t face the upheaval,” Philip says. “The wisdom of moving from the suburbs of town into the centre was not in dispute, and we even knew exactly where we wanted to live, but we just couldn’t raise the oomph we needed to dig ourselves out.”

They’ve no children, no near-relatives, so mustering the oomph was down to them. “It took years,” Philip says, “and all the time the problems were mounting. Joan’s memory loss was getting worse, and I had a heart attack and was laid up in hospital for a while. The future was looking rocky. What would help, we knew, was being comfortably settled in somewhere more practical than a house where every inch of space was cluttered with stuff we didn’t need.

“We had plenty of offers of help from friends, but the business of what to keep and what to throw out was down to us. In the end, we got there, but it exhausted us both. I wish we’d done it 10 years ago.”

To the emotional and physical toll that moving takes, add the sometimes eye-watering financial cost and the negatives threaten to outweigh the positives. However, it depends on when, where and how the move is made, whether professional advice is sought – there are firms who will handle the whole procedure for you, at a price – and the size and type of property being bought compared with the one being sold.

Senior Move Partnership is one of the specialist companies that help older people move by finding the right property, arranging the disposal of furniture and effects to charities and auction houses, and being a comforting presence while the owner rationalises their belongings

Co-owner of the business, Amanda Fyfe, told the respected financial website This Is Money: “People leave downsizing too late. They wake up one morning and all of a sudden they are old. They get tired more easily, have lost confidence and the idea of packing up their life seems overwhelming.

“I think people underestimate the emotional toll downsizing takes.”

Stamp duty, estate agents’ fees, removal charges, legal fees – all the many elements can add up to become a big deterrent. This is one of the reasons Saga, the retirement specialists, called on the Government in 2016 to introduce stamp duty breaks for retirees downsizing to a smaller property. It claims this would put more than 100,000 family-sized houses on the market and help retirees release equity in their property to go towards retirement income.

We’ve got a useful checklist for downsizing here.

About the author

Rosie Staal

Rosie is a writer and former magazine editor and senior newspaper journalist. She has written three books. She is in the classic inter-generational ‘sandwich’, dividing her time between her mother, children and grandchildren.