Planning where to age in the time of COVID-19

October 6, 2020

Seven months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Delaware continues to be under conservative economic, social and safety guidelines to protect the health of citizens young and old.

These guidelines have had unintended effects on many people’s mental health and their plans for the future. For older Delawareans, these impacts may have changed the way they think about their retirement years, specifically where and how they will make their home.

Recent statistics collected by AARP suggest that two-thirds of retired people plan to remain in their current homes. However, it’s pretty clear that many homes are not conducive to aging in place without critical, but often simple changes.

The COVID-19 restrictions allow homeowners some time to think about what improvements to their quality of life are needed now and into the future.

Whether they choose to age in place or downsize to a smaller home, many older people look at how to clear out clutter, which can cause physical and emotional issues. First off, clutter can present mobility hazards in many rooms. Simply removing rarely used items can start making spaces safer and more livable.

A lifetime of accumulated items can also cause emotional stress when trying to decide what to keep and what should go.

Here are some basic decluttering tips:

Set the timer and start with just one hour. Pick a space that is not used every day, such as a spare room, closet, or garage. Start sorting into five categories: keep, sell, give  to family or friends, donate or discard. It’s also OK to have a “not sure yet” pile.

Item to keep should be functional, have a place in the home and/or be loved for their aesthetic beauty or ability to bring back warm memories.

Items to  give to family members or friends may have to be kept until social distancing restrictions are eased or lifted. First, make sure the items are truly wanted; if not, they should be put in a different category. Defining a safe area to store them temporarily will help with the decluttering and planning process.

What to do with the donate and discard pile? COVID-19 has generally not disrupted curbside trash and recycling, and many junk removers have continued to provide no-contact pickups. Most charities, such as the Salvation Army, Goodwill, Habitat for Humanity and many others, have drop boxes or other ways to donate gently used items with minimal COVID-19 risk. Some charities even pick up unwanted household items.

The only sorting category that has presented a new paradigm during COVID-19 is the “sell” pile. Value is in the eye of the prospective buyer. Although there may be jewelry or artwork worth a lot of money, there may also be small appliances, furniture pieces, knick-knacks, sporting equipment, garden tools, and the like that don’t necessarily have great value, but will be useful to another family. But just because it may be useful doesn’t mean it’s worth a lot. Professionals can help downsizers understand which items will be most attractive to others.

In the past, homeowners decluttering or downsizing would hold a yard sale or estate sale at their home, either privately or with the help of an estate sales professional. This is clearly a no-no during the pandemic. For now, at least, on-site, in-person estate sales must include special cleaning requirements and crowd limitations, which potentially reduce the desired financial results.

Online auctions allow homeowners to sell their items, often defraying the cost of a potential move, without direct buyer transactions. For best results, these auctions require a trusted company that will – with strict COVID-19 precautions – catalog and photograph items, with a descriptions. The sale is held through a secure online auction site for several days. Once the auction closes, the estate sale partner will designate a safe, no-contact, no-cash pickup location.

Back to that donate and discard pile: Too often, families make decisions on their own before they consult an expert. In some cases, families will donate items and hold a garage sale before calling for an estate sale. Unfortunately, there are usually too few items left to support a viable sale. In addition, families often save the largest pieces of furniture for an estate sale while getting rid of smaller items. However, large items such as bookshelves, entertainment centers and dining sets often do not sell as well as smaller collectibles and jewelry.

The economy that has evolved from COVID-19 has also redirected many consumers from purchasing new to purchasing pre-owned. Resellers often bridge the gap for families in need of furniture and home items who can’t afford retail prices. These resellers further increase the positive impact of an online auction.

Many older Delawareans who are planning to age in place or downsize to a more manageable space need help with the process. Hiring professionals to help sort and organize, hold an online auction, and even coordinate with others such as realtors and moving companies can ease physical and emotional stresses.

But safety must be the priority in hiring these professionals. All seniors should make sure any partner they choose for downsizing and relocation activities has an excellent business reputation, a strong track record, and employees who have passed background checks and show great respect for both people and property. And, of course, any professional partner should take strict COVID-19 precautions, maintain social distancing, and encourage as much no-contact coordination as possible.

Stacey Himler is owner of Caring Transitions of Southern Delaware, providing professional full relocation services including downsizing, decluttering and estate sales. To reach her, email

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