How soon to redecorate? Once your teen has left for college, every empty nester faces the question of when and how to deal with the possessions left behind.

Your last child has left for college, and you’re an empty nester facing a quandary: Preserve your child’s room like a shrine, or convert it into an office, study, guest bedroom or workout room? Or you might even consider selling the house and moving into a smaller space. How do you begin to organize and sort through years of “stuff” you’ve accumulated? It’s a scenario that  all empty nesters face. What you need is a guide to help you figure out what’s relevant, how to organize everything and how to manage all the emotions that come with it. We interviewed two organizational experts to share their advice and personal experiences.

Empty Nesters Option One: Downsizing without moving

Wendy Lang is the owner of Southlake Concierge, a professional organizational service based in Southlake, Texas. She has a general five-point plan for organizing:

•Create a plan (prioritize each room.)
•Schedule time – don’t do it all in one day.
•Tackle one space at a time.
•Get storage solutions, donation bag(s) and trash bags.
•Ask a friend to help or use a professional if it’s too overwhelming.

Attack your closet with three sorting piles.

Organizing children’s keepsakes can be a feat. One of the biggest issues is sorting through all the memorabilia you’ve amassed over the years and selecting the ones to keep that will be important to your child in the future. Her tips:

  • Sort by child into clear, heat-safe storage bins (available at Container Store.) Create labels with child’s name, and contents. For example, you might write: “Steve” – “School Awards.”
  • Scale the paperwork. For example, grade school artwork. Sort the cutest, photograph, and create a photo book and throw away the clutter. Use technology to help declutter.
    “I always suggest starting with your own things but also items that you’ve kept of your kids that they may not care about just yet.” Lang says, such as artwork, paperwork, school projects etc.Empty nesters also might need to adjust their lifestyles. For instance, you might need to re-evaluate how you grocery shop and fill the refrigerator and pantry. “You no longer have several people to feed so might need to reduce how and what you shop for with food,” she says. Don’t put off the declutter process, she adds.  This is a great time to sort through  bedrooms and bathrooms that were once for your children. Yes, they will visit but it helps to go through, sort and declutter.

Empty Nesters Option Two: Moving into a smaller house

“About 99 percent of the time, the first step involves getting rid of ‘things,’ says Dana Hammele a realtor at RE/MAX by the Bay in Fairhope, Alabama. She says people often hire her when they’re at a loss to do with their property after kids have grown up and moved away. They’re looking for someone to come in to make their house ready to sell and to command the best price possible, she says. “Things weigh you down and though they don’t see it at the time, the quality of your life is so much better with fewer things and complications in it. You can spend your time, not in maintaining things you have but in actually enjoying your life, and there is a huge mental health component to that.”

Downsizing to a smaller space

After doing a house walk through, Hammele says she will work with a client to form a game plan which might include an estate sale. She says her own advice hit her “pretty smack between the eyes,” when she and her husband sold their 4,500 square-foot home in Fairhope, where they raised their three kids, to move into a 2 bedroom/1 bath house in town. The plan was to eventually expand the 1,400 square foot home on Mobile Bay, by adding a small space above our garage and then renovate the house in a few years.

“But then, my mom was sick and dying during the move, and things took on less importance to me,” Hammele says. “They could always be replaced, but people could not.” She marked what went to a storage center and then moved. Her mother died six days later and the very next day, they went on with a  three-day house sale at their original suburban home. She details how difficult that experience was in Sorting family keepsakes: It’s OK to part with the porcelain.  “I went from a huge walk-in closet to one with about 36 inches of hanging space.  If that.  Clothes can be replaced.  I still need to pare down what I have.”

They went ahead and built the 442 square-foot apartment above the garage for her children to visit. “The apartment was completed during the Covid shut down in March, April and May of 2020,” she says. “I wanted people to see that life goes on, and people walked by to check on our progress each day.

Hammele downsized into a smaller house and then added a small apartment for when her adult kids visited. 

How to decorate your new empty nester space:

She says she didn’t have any formal plans except what she liked and what the floor layout was to be. Instead of hiring an interior decorator, she went with whatever she was drawn to at the time. Like the smell of cypress?  Pick cypress paneling for your ceiling. She describes the apartment as simple and efficient–built to be a self-contained structure. Future plans entail making it work off the power grid is possible.

“I spent a lot of time in those days (moving into the new place) on my front porch,” she recalls. “Praying. Reading.  And I was incredibly happy having such few things. We owned our things outright.  Our minimalism seemed to insulate us from the stresses that others felt from the pandemic. Today, when people stress about selling their home or paring down their things, I tell them my story. I then help them envision and orchestrate their own minimalism. This way of living brings a deeper peace in my life.  When people sweat small things, like a delayed closing or something to do with a loan or an item for sale in their house, I am quick to remind them that these are very small things in life, really.  We will get through them. Having a solid mental footing (through having less and living life more abundantly) is something I live and preach and orchestrate in the lives of others each day.”

Less is more: Hammele’s new home by Mobile Bay in Alabama. She says she can even walk to work. 

Minimalism tips:

  • If you haven’t worn a piece of clothing or accessory for 2 seasons, donate or resell it.
  • Only need to clean out the closet 2x a year (when it’s small!)
  • Create a space solely dedicated to work: So, when you turn it off, you turn it off.
  • Establish routines: For instance, pick a weekend day for chores like laundry and yard work. Be flexible but if you set a routine, it’s more likely to get done and not be procrastinated over.
  • When the kids move out for good, have them them box up belongings they want to keep.
  • Try not to rush into changes. Take time to consider a change your child’s room. Live with small changes.

–Patty Yeager

Patty is managing editor of Smart Lifebites. Her other stories include An organization expert shows how to conquer the clutter , 5 cool things you probably didn’t about pecans and a No Excuses Guide for Starting a Vegetable Garden.




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