<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none;" alt="" src="https://analytics.twitter.com/i/adsct?txn_id=nuqgh&amp;p_id=Twitter&amp;tw_sale_amount=0&amp;tw_order_quantity=0"> <img height="1" width="1" style="display:none;" alt="" src="//t.co/i/adsct?txn_id=nuqgh&amp;p_id=Twitter&amp;tw_sale_amount=0&amp;tw_order_quantity=0">

Published: March 7, 2024

Family HeirloomsMy mother’s china now rests in my dining room hutch. A needlepoint door hanger made by her old friend is with my long-time friend. My son has possession of my father’s mahogany dresser, purchased in 1949 when my parents wed. The framed pencil drawing of a racing horse hangs in my brother’s house.

These are just some of the family keepsakes we still treasure. But many items, especially furniture, were sold or donated when my mother downsized a few years before her death.

Deciding what to keep, pass on to loved ones, or sell/donate to strangers can be an overwhelming task, both physically and emotionally. Often the process is part of a bigger challenge, such as saying goodbye to the family home or grieving a loved one’s death. The sorting can bring tears, but also laughs.

4 Downsizing Tips for Family Heirlooms and Mementos

Here are 4 tips to help make the experience heartfelt and manageable.

Downsizing Tip #1: Write It Down

Several years before my mother died, my brother and I got a phone call. “What do you want when I die?” she asked.

That may make some families uncomfortable, but we always talked openly about death, both the spiritual dimensions as well as the practical concerns. (My grandmother was the same way, and since all 10 grandchildren wanted the candy jar, we had to raffle it off when she died.)

My brother, mother and I revisited the “when I die” conversation several times before her death in 2015. Three years ago, I pulled out a notebook and walked with my mother through her condo, writing down a few words about items she treasured. Knowing that the LLADRO nun figurine in my office was purchased during her trip to Spain makes it more meaningful to me.

Share stories of your keepsakes with your loved ones. Better yet, write the stories down, or have family take notes as you talk.

That goes for jewelry too. My friend, who is a jeweler, says family members often come into his shop with diamonds and other gems but have no idea what the item meant to their loved one.

And don’t wait until you are an older adult in the midst of downsizing when energy might be running low and emotions high. A couple of years ago, I wrote a letter to my son on his 25th birthday about my locket, which holds a photograph of him and his father.

“You were only a couple hours old, asleep in the nursery at Christ Hospital in Cincinnati when Dad sat on my bed and handed me a little box. Inside was a round gold locket. I was full of so much emotion already, but this really put me over the top,” I wrote him.

Downsizing Tip #2: Onto Big Stuff

Those just starting to downsize are often surprised to learn that their upholstered furniture, formal dining room set, piano, china and other family heirlooms can be hard to give away or sell.

Today’s families are smaller and more mobile, plus they often prefer less expensive and more streamlined furniture and household items found at IKEA and other stores.  

But the good news about today is the virtual world that exists. No matter where you live, you can sell items on eBay, Craigslist and other online sites. People who live in or near major cities can contract with online estate sales companies such as Everything but the House.

You can also donate many of your items to Goodwill, Habitat for Humanity and other charities. Also, hospices, cancer organizations, homeless agencies and other special-interest charities often operate second-hand stores to support their mission.

Suggestions for donations include:

  • Contact local historical museums and libraries about old phone books and photographs with local buildings or special and unusual collections of valuable books or figurines;
  • Ask local schools, daycares and art centers about fabric donations;
  • List items on freecycle.org, a national, nonprofit site for people to give and get free stuff;
  • Find a nearby Habitat for Humanity ReStore, which takes building materials, tools and more;
  • Check with local recycling agencies that maintain donation drop-off lists. The Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District publishes a comprehensive guide entitled Pass It On: A Resource-Full Guide to Donating Usable Stuff.

Downsizing Tip #3: Why Not Upcycle?

Cover throw pillows with linen tablecloths, make a quilt out of old T-shirts, or turn a vintage suitcase into an end table.

“There’s something innately satisfying about upcycling: rethinking the way an item is used, renewing its functionality, and keeping it out of the landfill, all at the same time,” explains Etsy blogger Linzee McCray.

Of course, you may not have the time or talent for such a project, but maybe a crafty friend does. Or ask around. Fabric and knitting shops, woodwork stores, historical societies and libraries often can make a referral. Or check Craigslist.

Downsizing Tip #4: And Finally, Photos

You may want to save photo sorting for last. Not only will you approach with confidence since you’re well on your way to downsizing, but you can treat yourself to some TLC. You’ve earned it.

Start by removing all your photos from their albums and walls, then look at them one by one. Allow yourself to feel which ones are particularly meaningful and which ones aren't. Once you've picked out all your favorites, consider using those in an album that you keep out for easy viewing. You can organize the remaining photos in marked envelopes and place in a large plastic bin for safekeeping. 

You can also make a photo album for each child and grandchild, or scan and digitize photos so you can discard prints.

Just remember, key photographs of relatives and experiences are pretty meaningless unless your loved ones know who and what it is. So back to the beginning – write it down.

Calling in Senior Move Managers to Help with Downsizing

Do you need a professional to help with downsizing? Many savvy individuals can help you organize and downsize, figure out what works best for a floor plan, and how to get rid of the overflow. Sometimes the expertise of an outsider is the answer if you want to do so in a timely and sane manner.    

The National Association of Senior & Specialty Move Managers® (NASMM) maintains a list of men and women throughout the United States who assist older adults and their families in making such a move. Senior Move Managers® have been screened and completed courses in safety and ethics. Fees vary greatly, depending on services needed and geographic area.

Moving Forward with Joy: Welcoming the Future

Moving into a new home means some of your old stuff will have a new look, and maybe a new use. Often as we downsize, we find items we had forgotten we owned.  Now that colorful piece of pottery has a place of honor at the entrance. A painting in a back bedroom sparkles over the living room couch.  An embroidered placement looks perfect on the end table.

The move will probably change you, too.

Many people talk about the freedom that comes from downsizing. Not only does it free up space, but also time. A smaller home in a retirement community like Kendal at Oberlin means you will be spending less time cleaning and maintaining your living space.

How Will You Spend Your New Gift of Time?

So how will you spend this gift of time?

  • You have a box of beads but never had the time to take a jewelry class or make earrings for friends. Now you do.
  • You have always wanted to learn ballroom dancing or join a birding club, but you never had time. Now you do.
  • You would be a good mentor to troubled teens or a big help at the food pantry, but you never had time. Now you do.
  • You have dreamed of taking a train out west or a river cruise through France, but you never had time. Now you do.  And you also have time to take a French class before setting sail.
  • You’ll discover new interests at your retirement community, too.  Kendal at Oberlin, for instance, has dozens of interest groups and committees for residents. Interests range from woodworking to flower arranging and table tennis to volunteering in the resale shop.  New groups are always being added as residents continue to bring their skills and interests to the table.

“Old age is the time to be dangerous. Dangerously fun-loving, dangerously honest. Dangerously involved. Dangerously alive,” Joan Chittister writes. “This is the time to do every single thing we can possibly do with all the life we can bring to it.”

New Call-to-action


Molly Kavanaugh 2020 - 180x180

In the past, Molly Kavanaugh frequently wrote about Kendal at Oberlin for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, where she was a reporter for 16 years. Now we are happy to have her writing for the Kendal at Oberlin Community.

About Kendal at Oberlin: Kendal is a nonprofit life plan community serving older adults in northeast Ohio. Located about one mile from Oberlin College and Conservatory, and about a 40-minute drive from downtown Cleveland, Kendal offers a vibrant resident-led lifestyle with access to music, art and lifelong learning.


This blog was originally published in 2016 and was updated in March 2024.