An apron hangs in Michael’s kitchen. Stitched into it is a patch that says, “Michael is not only a great chef, he is a culinary artist!” Though he admits he’ll never wear it, Michael hangs the apron with pride. It was a gift from one of his neighbours at Strathcona Place. Sharing his culinary skills is something Michael takes a lot of delight in.
“Right from a young age, my siblings and I were taught to cook, clean, all for ourselves,” says Michael. “We were taught to be self-reliant with the things we had and that sense of self-reliance has certainly helped me be able to call this place home.”
Michael knows that a space like his in a Manhattan rental market would easily cost around $2,000 a month. Thankfully, Michael lives in Edmonton and in a GEF Seniors Housing apartment where the rent is geared to his income. For most people, 325 square-feet is not a lot of space. For Michael, it’s a perfect fit.
Before moving to Strathcona Place, Michael owned a house in Edmonton’s west-end. He admits it took him around six months to settle into his new apartment but now can’t imagine living anywhere else. The smaller square-footage wasn’t a deterrent at all. In fact, it was almost a selling point for him.
“I was able to see the space empty before I moved in,” Michael explains. “I took only the things I wanted from my house. I then measured out the space I had to work with and found furniture pieces that worked within the space.”
Growing up in southern Alberta coal towns, Michael remembers his family home only being around 600 square-feet. He looks at average house sizes now and can’t believe that people need so much space. The Globe and Mail reported that the average house size in Canada has ballooned to close to 2,000 square-feet (though still smaller than the average house size in the US at 2,600 square-feet).
“I have a friend who lives in a 3,000 square-feet house,” Michael says. “Every room is just full of stuff. There’s a craft room, a man cave, and it’s still not enough room for him and his wife. In Japan, an apartment the size of mine would be big enough for a whole family. What I’ve learned is the more space you have, the more money it costs.”
Michael acknowledges that many people he knows have difficulties parting with material goods and keepsakes. He notes that this could be partly because of either living through the Great Depression or having parents who did, so the need to hold onto things increases with that frame of reference. He also notes, though, that growing up he didn’t have many of the modern conveniences that so many take for granted today.
“The house I grew up in didn’t have TV or even electricity,” Michael says. “If we wanted entertainment, we had to go outside.”
The idea of leaving your space to connect with the community is something Michael still lives by. He notes that many of the people he knows in Strathcona Place get together regularly for games and for potlucks (where he shares some of his well-executed home-cooked delights) and he spends plenty of time walking in the neighbourhood. He explains that the conveniences in the community such as banks, grocery stores, and clinics are so easy to walk to, he doesn’t even own a car anymore.
“Everything you could need is right here, even the bus routes along here are some of the best in the city,” says Michael. “A monthly pass for the bus is $15. You can’t drive anywhere for that cheap.”
Not the only tenant of Strathcona Place to embrace the paired down lifestyle, many of Michael’s neighbours live in the same square footage as he does without sacrificing any passions. He points out one neighbour utilizes modular fold out tables to create a crafting space. Even the University of Alberta students who also call Strathcona Place home live in the smaller bachelor units and continue to be a welcome addition to the community inside the building.
After the six months it took him to adjust to his new living environment, he feels fully connected and comfortable where he is. He understands that the transition is stressful for many to embark on but also points out that it’s completely worth it by the end of the process.
“The staff here are amazing and do such great work to keep the building safe and so no one ever has to look over their shoulders,” says Michael. “It really is like a small town. I’m never left wanting. This is the perfect space for me and I have no plans to ever leave.”
One of the most challenging clients Lynn Fraser ever had was her own mother-in-law. Fraser is a professional organizer and member of the Professional Organizers in Canada, all of whom have different specialties and areas of expertise. It was working with her mother-in-law that made her realize how important her work is for seniors.
“My mother-in-law was 94 years old and still living in her own apartment,” says Fraser. “When we finally convinced her to move into something more appropriate for her, we had a small window of time to get her ready to transition from a two-bedroom apartment to a 300 square foot lodge room.”
Fraser’s mother-in-law moved to Queen Alexandra Place three months after she was placed on the waiting list. Like many of the other seniors she has worked with in her practice, Fraser noticed that her mother-in-law kept a lot of things from over the years. She attributes this partially to the generation her mother-in-law was a part of, one who lived through the Great Depression, and also as a sign that the next, and often scary, part of life is coming up quick.
“For my mother-in-law, moving into a lodge was putting one foot in the grave,” says Fraser. “I remember that first day she was living in Queen Alexandra Place, I walked with her around the neighbourhood and it took a lot of convincing to really demonstrate that this wasn’t the end for her. In fact, it was opening a lot of possibilities.”
Decluttering as a general practice for anyone is reported to have a multitude of benefits ranging from clearer thinking, more time and improved energy to alleviating anxiety. For seniors in particular, Fraser points out that the benefits revolve around living more in the moment. She explains that older adults who hold on to objects tend to either attribute memories to them or plan to give them to family members eventually.
“They’re either living in the past or in the future and they’re missing being fully present now,” says Fraser. “Once the decluttering process begins, there’s a huge shift in people’s happiness. They can see more possibilities, it allows for more dreaming, and for seniors especially it’s the understanding that family and friends can come to visit and have a place to sit and eat. Especially as they’re looking to move into a smaller space, alleviating the pressure of where they will put all of their stuff suddenly opens up possibilities of all the things they can do when their grandchildren visit.”
Beginning the process of decluttering can be the most daunting part of the whole process. Fraser suggests that as soon as someone is on the list for a seniors lodge or apartment, the downsizing needs to begin right away. By beginning the process sooner, it becomes a set of smaller decluttering goals, as opposed to one large one that needs immediate and drastic action. Keeping up the conversation about all the benefits to their new space to keep it top of mind is important throughout the process. Fraser was able to practice some of the more practical tactics in downsizing with her mother-in-law.
“My mother-in-law was an artist, so she had this incredible collection of paintings,” Fraser recollects. “As a family, we worked with her to pick out her favourites and determined where each painting would go once she moved.”
Paring down collections is an important step in the downsizing process and Fraser stresses that it’s of the utmost importance that the person downsizing be the one making the decisions on what stays and what goes, if she is cognitively able to. Even with her mother-in-law’s clothes, Fraser was able to lean on her mother-in-law’s favourite colours (pink and purple) as a means of reducing the amount of clothing she had. Fraser explains that it’s being able to give options within reason that makes for a successful downsizing.
“The person downsizing has to be the one who chooses,” says Fraser. “You need to be respectful and work as a team. Keep reminding them of all they have to look forward to and talk about the things they love to do and how decluttering will help them be able to do those things. For my mother-in-law, I was able to talk about how many interesting people she would have to draw again. That really resonated with her and helped her along.”
Fraser recommends at times even using games to help with the decluttering process. One game she utilizes is identifying your clutter hot spot in the space and challenging the person to beat the clock in sorting and purging the pile. Another effective game can be found on the Minimalists website called the 30-Day Minimalism Game where a person gets rid of one thing on day one, two things on day two, three things on day three, and so on. Fraser also cites the Marie Kondo book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up as an effective text with practical and motivating advice. The most practical piece of advice in the text comes from a single question: “Does this bring me joy?”
For Fraser, there are actually eleven effective questions when deciding on what to do with an item:
- Does this bring me joy?
- Do I really need this?
- Do I need this many?
- Does it work?
- Am I using it?
- Will I ever use it or go back to it?
- Do I really care about it?
- Where am I keeping it?
- Can I quickly find it when I need it? (change to ‘find it quickly’)
- Is it worth storing or filing?
- Who am I keeping it for?
The last piece of advice that Fraser would give anyone looking to downsize or declutter is to envision the space that they want. How do they want it to look? How do they want it to feel? By creating that clear idea of what they want this space to be, it will continue helping that drive to continue the decluttering process.
“Staying focused is the hardest part of an already difficult process,” says Fraser. “Having another person there can both offer a lot of support and add some accountability. If they can stick with that vision, all the amazing benefits, the self-esteem, the happiness, the possibilities, all will fall into place no matter the size of space you’re living in.”