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Seniors: Don’t sacrifice style or safety when downsizing

Downsizing is a common issue many older Americans are forced to deal with. Instead of asking, "How much house can I afford?" when it comes time to move, many seniors are asking, "How much downsizing do I have to do?"

While it's easier for seniors to look after a smaller space, downsizing requires getting rid of personal effects that many thought they'd never have to get rid of. It also requires some creativity in finding home furnishings that are stylish and accommodate the physical challenges of aging, all the while making the smaller space feel larger and more comfortable.

Holding onto memories

When Nanette and Michael Krueger, each 63, moved to a townhouse in a senior community in Ashford, Va., about eight months ago, getting rid of most of their kitchen items and large furniture wasn't a problem.

"We moved frequently in our lives, so it wasn't difficult for us to get rid of stuff," she says. The bigger issue was what to do with the items that held special memories for them, such as their china and crystal from World War II.

Jan Hilton, 75, moved with her husband, Tom, to Fleet Landing, a retirement community in Atlantic Beach, Fla., in January. The couple says it was hard to let go of personal items, especially when your children don't want them.

"Your children do not really want what you have to give them if their lifestyle is different," says Hilton. "They don't have the same tastes you have. My children, while they may have heard the stories, they don't have the emotional attachment to it that I have."

Expert tips on downsizing

Moving into a senior housing development doesn't leave much room for furniture and other possessions collected over a lifetime. To help seniors make their smaller homes more comfortable, stylish and safe, HGTV host Emily Henderson has partnered with Sunrise Senior Living as its interior design expert and spokeswoman to offer tips on how seniors can make their homes more inviting and personal, while remaining functional.

"A Sunrise principle of service is to celebrate the individuality of every resident and that is exactly what I try to do as a designer," Henderson said in a press release."When someone walks into your room, it should feel like you." Here are some of Henderson's tips:

  • Functional furniture: Major pieces of furniture such as sofas should be sturdy with well-proportioned, upholstered arms that can be leaned on. Don't choose sofas or chairs that are low and deep. They're comfortable but can be hard to get out of. Also, choosing furniture that's rounded helps keep your room open and void of any sharp corners
  • Contrasting wall color: Since vision yellows with age, choose a warmed-toned wall color that has a distinct contrast to that of the floor. "A bad wall color can make or break a room," said Henderson
  • Personalized wall art: A large framed photo of you and your family can make any space feel like home
  • Safety rails: "Disguise a handrail by making it into a chair rail," said Henderson. "Paint the top half of your wall a darker color than the bottom half and install the handrail in the middle."
  • Storage: Choose pieces of furniture that can double as storage spaces, like an ottoman or dining table with extra shelves
  • Lighting: Sconces near your bed help free up space and help you avoid searching for a nightstand switch late at night. Paper or fabric shades will avoid harsh, direct light. Keep the sconce below the eye-line when lying down

More expert advice

Leave room: Once items are pared down, it's a good idea for the seniors to leave room in their new homes for a walker or wheelchair to get around, even if they don't need it now, says John Buckles, president of Caring Transitions, a service which helps seniors move.

"Don't try to cover all of the floor space, otherwise you won't be able to enjoy your space," Buckles says.

Think like an interior designer: To help make rooms seem bigger, add mirrors and have the window treatments reach the ceiling so it looks like the ceiling is moving up, says Susan Mendoza, interior design coordinator at Ashby Ponds, a senior community in Northern Virginia.

If your bathroom is across the hall from your kitchen, for example, don't separate the two tiled floors with carpet in the hallway, tile across that area so it's easier to walk, Mendoza says.

Increase your mobility: Mobility problems may require buying new furniture, such as a new mattress that is higher and easier to get out of, and recliners that gently push you forward so you can get out of the chair more easily, says Gale Steves, author of "Right-Sizing Your Home."

Downsizing can certainly be difficult, but it doesn't mean you have to sacrifice your style or safety.

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