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Many older adults downsize and move to a smaller, low-maintenance home. But what to keep and what to toss when paring down belongings?

You were a young couple with two babies and your whole life ahead of you when you moved in. Now, you're both retired, the kids are gone, and upkeep of this huge house is getting the best of you.

Time to simplify your life? For many seniors, this means downsizing - moving out of a large house and into a place where there are no lawns to mow or stairs to climb.

But the price of moving to smaller quarters is that you can't take it all with you. The thought of having to pare down a lifetime of possessions for a smaller space can be daunting.

Keep or discard?
You may be surprised at how attached you've become to certain belongings now that you're faced with downsizing. You'll need to remember that things are only worth keeping if they have value to you or you expect to use them often. What they cost is secondary.

Start with the floor plan of your new home. What will fit and what won't? Think about your new lifestyle, too. Will you still be hosting large dinners? If not, maybe your daughter could use the 12-place china setting more than you. Toss the garden hose and power tools if your new living arrangement includes maintenance services.

Be realistic. Ask yourself these questions about each item:

When was the last time you used it?
Can you get by without it?
Is it in good shape? Is it easy to care for? Will it last awhile?
Could someone else benefit more from its use?
Is there great sentimental value?

Be prepared that sorting through decades of stuff can be draining - physically and emotionally. Memories can be difficult if you've lost a partner or child. Arguments may break out about what should be kept or thrown away. To ease the stress, take a break every hour or two.

Live with less
Create a sorting system before you begin. Break the job down into items to:

Give to family or friends
Sell at a garage sale, auction, or consignment shop
Donate to charity

Some people use lists to keep things organized. Others put color-coded stickers on each item. Have packing supplies, boxes, and bags on hand, too. Other tips to make the task less painful:

Start in rooms you use the least. This will minimize the disruption.
Tell your kids it's time to retrieve things you've been storing for them. Give them a deadline and then toss!
Focus on one room at a time. Start with the largest items in each room and work your way down to the smallest pieces.
Give an early inheritance. It's not as hard to part with a treasured keepsake if another family member will appreciate it.
Parting with furniture or clothes may be easier if you find a favorite charity that can use them. You'll get a tax deduction, too.
Enlist family members or hire help if you get stuck. There are professional organizers that specialize in downsizing for older adults.

You may feel a great sense of loss as you whittle down your belongings. Most people ultimately feel great when downsizing is finished, though. De-cluttering rooms may make your house sell faster and cut down on your moving bill. Getting back to basics - and simplifying your life - can free up your time and energy so you can pursue what really gives you pleasure.

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