| Rightsizing Your Life |
By Ciji Ware
Genre: Business & Money
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What Is Rightsizing?
Why rightsizing is becoming our new way of life
TIME FOR A CHANGE
There comes a moment when you pass the half-century mark that is hard to pinpoint or even predict, but you know intuitively when it has occurred. It’s a flash of recognition, an instant when you realize something important has changed and that it is time for a change. Your old life just doesn’t fit anymore.
Maybe it’s the day you put your youngest child on the plane for college. The day you sign a divorce decree or your beloved family dog dies. It could be the week you witness a parent pass away, your spouse is scheduled for open-heart surgery, or the company that’s employed you for decades is sold to a competitor and your job is handed to a twenty-five-year-old.
It’s that first Thanksgiving you don’t cook the turkey, but your daughter-in-law does. It’s the winter you swear off downhill skiing and decide cross-country might make more sense. And when that feels like too much work, you opt for a cup of hot chocolate and a good book in front of the fire.
The signal that change is in the wind might even be made of lighter stuff: a nanosecond of exasperation when you haul a pile of folded laundry up two flights of stairs. A moment when you realize you’re not much interested in working in your wood shop anymore, or the bridge club is starting to be a bore, or you’d rather take a class in memoir writing than teach another year of third grade or continue as CEO of your company.
Such a day is usually bittersweet, and yet strangely full of promise. It’s almost as if a generation that is forecast to live longer, in better health than anyone in the history of our planet is about to walk down a totally new path no one has ever trod before.
The road that presently stretches in front of our “baby boomer” generation — the estimated seventy-seven million Americans born between the end of World War II and the beginning of the Vietnam War — is uncharted territory. Indeed it’s fraught with uncertainty and, for some, no small amount of anxiety about what this “third act” will bring to a generation expected to live a very long time.
Some of the questions prompted by the coming new phase are seriously unsettling. Where will I live? What will my environment look like? What will it be like? Who will I be living with, spending time with, and ultimately depending upon?
I’ve come to think of this transition for baby boomers and the generations that bookend them as “rightsizing your life.” In contrast to downsizing it is a process, not an event, and its outcome has more to do with the “right” of the equation than “size.” It involves not just the square footage of a person’s living quarters but an approach to all aspects of living, holding out the opportunity “to get it right, once and for all.”
Rightsizing in this context is a conscious, practical, and psychological evolution in the way one lives one’s life, a process that enables people to create new surroundings that will profoundly impact the way they feel and behave. It leads to simplifying, decluttering, perhaps even redesigning one’s environment. It may even prompt a move — either to smaller, more practical quarters or to a home (or homes) that could be larger, but more suited to your needs. The transition will, if executed properly, liberate you from many real-life burdens and free you in ways you cannot now imagine.
For many, the rightsizing process will certainly involve physical and emotional upheaval and could even result in a total reinvention of your personal ecosystem. For the resilient, however, these major life changes provide an opportunity for discovering the truest sense of home you may ever have known.
That being said, I suppose this is as good a time as any to tell you my story.
A RIGHTSIZING TALE
For me the moment it became clear that a major change in my life was under way was quite vivid. On an early Saturday morning one raw March day, my husband and I stood shivering on the loading dock at Nor-Cal Moving and Storage Company in San Jose, California. We watched as a forklift operator lined up five ten-foot-square wooden containers, all overflowing with the accumulated possessions of twenty-five years of marriage.
We were sorting through our possessions after a move from a large and reasonably luxurious family home in Los Angeles, where my family had lived for twenty-two years. My husband had been recruited to join a Silicon Valley company — a great professional move for him. But what in God’s name had made us think it was a good idea to decamp to a smaller home (a mere 1,200 square feet, as compared to our roomy 4,000 square feet of living space in southern California)? Somehow we needed to make our life fit into a much smaller San Francisco apartment . . . and I was just starting to realize what a challenge this was going to be.
The first object to emerge from the packing crates was a child-size rocking chair with a petit point seat cover that I had crafted during my first and only pregnancy, decades earlier. My husband picked up the little chair and swiftly consigned it to a pile next to a sign we’d scrawled that read: “Throw Away.”
I reacted with tears and a sudden urge to kill. How dare my husband consign this sentimental trophy to the trash! How had it come to this? What had possessed us to abandon our beautiful home in Southern California for a tiny urban apartment, stashing most of our worldly goods into off-site storage?
This entire upheaval was suddenly too painful. Why did we have to dispose of the things we didn’t have room for anymore? And while we were on the subject, why did I have to go through this process of domestic downsizing anyway?
True, our only child was now grown and self-supporting; our beloved, fourteen-year-old English setter, Chelsea, had died before we had exited LA; and a number of our close friends had moved to the beach or far away. Okay, so my job of sixteen years as a radio commentator had melted away in the wake of the station’s budget cutting and desire for something “edgier” in the manner of a female Howard Stern.
My sense of bereavement over our domestic downsizing was visceral. “Is this the way I’ll feel when they cart us off to the nursing home?” I lamented to no one in particular on that frigid landing dock. And I have to be honest — it was hard to let go of all those things I’d spent a lifetime accumulating. I felt naked without my belongings, poorer somehow. And what would our friends think when they saw the return address on our Christmas card had an apartment number listed, not a house?
Appallingly superficial of me? Disgustingly bourgeois? All right, I admit it probably was, but I’m trying to be honest here. I felt absolutely wretched that day.
Then it hit me. My emotional reaction probably paralleled the feelings that everyone “of a certain age” must confront eventually. My husband and I were only in our mid-fifties, but the fact was our needs had changed, become simpler. As a practical matter we couldn’t carry all this baggage into the next chapter of our lives — nor, in truth, did we really want to.
So the question remained: how in the world were we going to sort through all this stuff? I became exhausted just looking at all the clutter and dreaded the notion of culling through it. Why wasn’t there some rescuing angel who would magically appear and just deal with it?
And what about our memories, the fabric of our lives pictured in the photo albums and the contents stashed in scores of file boxes filled with the detritus of our professional lives? Where would we put our outsize family “heirlooms,” our wicker porch furniture that seated ten, and a soup pot that could hold seafood gumbo for forty? There had to be a sensible, systematic way to deal with the practical and emotional aspects of this domestic winnowing process — a way to “rightsize” one’s life without the emotional trauma and the angst. My quest to figure out this process had begun.
WHO IS RIGHTSIZING?
As I started to look into what’s happening to other midlife people, I found that my husband and I were not alone. Huge numbers of people fifty-plus are moving, relocating far and wide, and continuing their consumerist ways (and debt accumulation), as witnessed by the remarkable expansion of the self-storage business and the popularity of unloading household goods at weekend flea markets. And one need only look around to observe the mass disposal of personal items on eBay — or at city dumps — every day. Looking ahead at the incipient wave of millions of boomers, I saw that my “war baby” husband and I were living witnesses to their future: we had too much stuff and not enough room for it.
Our experience began to serve as an early warning system for our younger friends. What we discovered — and what they all wanted to learn about — was how the experience of paring down to only the possessions we loved and actually used had ultimately brought us relief . . . and even elation.
Rightsizers truly come in a “variety pak”: they include empty nesters, the widowed, the newly divorced, the never married, the early retired, the unwillingly retired, the second-and-third marriage set, the elderly, the financially strapped, the physically impaired, and finally, a group I call “the highly adventurous.”
For all these groups, however, it’s definitely not the Age of Aquarius anymore. America’s approximately fourteen million war babies and some seventy-seven million boomers are getting older by the minute — and living longer. As a result an American woman reaching age sixty-five today can plan on living nearly twenty more years, while men can expect more than fifteen years of continued life, most of it in reasonably good health. The collection of centenarians is also growing by leaps and bounds. There are forty thousand currently alive in America, and the number of our citizens living to one hundred is expected to increase to eight hundred thousand by the midcentury mark.
Ask the silver foxes in skintight Nike warm-up suits striding briskly on the treadmill at the gym or the sinewy sixty-year-old specimens taking off on the seven-day, four-hundred-mile San Francisco to LA AIDS bicycle ride each year how long they expect to live. True, they may not say “forever,” but they will cheerfully tell you they’re assuming advances in medicine and genetic research will enable them to make it to one hundred or more.
This “graying of America” (though many in this group wouldn’t be caught dead without coloring their hair!) is spawning many trends, but one of the largest certainly involves mobility. A survey by the Del Webb Corporation, a developer of active-adult communities, indicates that nearly 60 percent of those age forty to sixty will move to at least one new home in their lives. That, dear reader, probably means you will soon — or will eventually — hit the road.
Some studies show that the number of households without children will increase dramatically as the boomers’ kids fly the coop. Meanwhile the National Directory of Lifestyle Communities database claims six times as many new active-adult community building projects — where children need not apply — went up for sale in 2004 compared with a decade earlier. And the CEO of Pulte Homes, America’s largest builder of active-adult housing for people fifty-five and over, says, “We don’t see any end to the active-adult boom in sight.”
For most of us the transition to new housing will mean scaling back to a simpler, more streamlined lifestyle, but for those fifty-plus the research predicts their future plans do not include checking into the “foyer-to-the-tomb” type retirement facilities populated by their parents and grandparents. Not if they can help it, that is.
Take Cris and Linda Hammond, a couple in their late fifties who made a well-deliberated decision to sell their hyperinflated “trophy house” on a hill overlooking San Francisco Bay, move into a 950-square-foot rental cottage they owned, and purchase a 55-foot canal barge, on which they spend several months a year cruising around France.
Linda continues to work as a real-estate agent and a national sales manager for an artisan Bay Area bakery, while Captain Cris, having abandoned the executive world, has gone back to painting landscapes full time, the fruits of which he sells to his American clients when he returns from his adventures abroad. We’ll hear more about the Hammonds later in this book. How do they feel after making such a radical change in housing and lifestyle? “Magnifique!”
Another example of the late-life moving trend are Amos and Sylvia Spady, now in their seventies. When Amos was fifty-five, he and his wife, Sylvia, sold their 3,000-square-foot family home in Yorktown, Virginia, banked most of the money, moved to an 1,800-square-foot condo in Newport News, and took up serious ballroom dancing three or four nights a week — a hobby they’ve pursued with enthusiasm ever since.
It should be noted that not everybody scales down when rightsizing. A couple I once visited outside of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, added on to their log cabin vacation home that had become their permanent residence in retirement, a common occurrence among the more affluent, second-home boomer brigade. Their idea of rightsized bliss was a “playroom/bunk room” 400-square-foot extension with six pull-down Murphy beds to lure their adult children and young grandchildren for frequent visits.
And then there is the single professional woman in her late fifties who bought a derelict “landed ark,” a one-hundred-year-old house built on stilts over Richardson Bay, near my home in Marin County, California, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. She bailed out of her corporate PR job and carved out a studio rental unit within the existing layout to help pay her mortgage. Then, within the remaining square footage, she created a charming two-bedroom home for herself that was elegant enough to merit a color spread in Coastal Living magazine. When she wants a change of scene, she rents out the “big house” and heads for San Miguel d’Allende, Mexico.
As I mentioned earlier, to rightsizers it’s more about “right” than “size” when it comes to fashioning surroundings that make sense for one’s age, stage, and situation in later life. And it’s probably clear by now that merely knowing the number of rings on someone’s tree doesn’t tell you very much about them these days. According to boomer marketing guru Matt Thornhill, people born around the middle of the twentieth century are tending to “reinvent themselves every three to five years” in ways that are both surprising and inspiring.
Exhibit A: In May 1998, when Rob Gomersall and Wendy Catlin were in their late fifties, they departed Airlie Beach, Queensland, Australia, to begin a four-year world sailing cruise on their forty-foot sloop, Sea Fever. “We love our new home,” says Wendy. “We decided to just take off’til we stopped . . . meaning if we ran out of money, our health wasn’t good, or it wasn’t fun anymore.” Seven years later they are still heading for new harbors. They love “the challenge and adventure of sea travel” while living aboard their boat.
The downside? Admits Wendy, “I don’t like being so distant from my family.” But thanks to e-mail and international cell phones, they stay in touch, and a grandchild recently sailed one leg of their journey with them.
And then there are the homebodies like my widowed sister Joy, who declares her traveling days are at an end, though she walks a good mile and a half each day in her town of five thousand. A retired schoolteacher in her late sixties, she returned to the coastal village of her youth, Carmel-by-the-Sea. She’d sold her family home before the California real-estate market went insane in the late 1990s and missed the home-equity bonanza that so many of her friends have enjoyed. She now lives “on a very fixed income” in a 420-square-foot rental cottage, writing for pleasure, knitting professionally in the evenings, and serving as a part-time, paid companion for a woman fifteen years her senior.
“I have never been happier! My cottage is so cozy, everyone I know wants to come by for tea at four. I can walk to the beach, walk to town, church, the grocery store, and the post office! What else would I need?”
What’s the secret of these contented people living such a variety of lifestyles after turning fifty?
Regardless of their income level or tastes for adventure, they “rightsized” their lives in the strong belief that they still had years of good living left. They had figured out their “core passion,” as author and cultural observer Gail Sheehy recently described it to me, and have found exciting interests to pursue and new reasons to get up every morning.
Happy rightsizers also have made a conscious commitment to the principle of simplicity, surrounding themselves with only the people, possessions, and activities they love. They didn’t just downsize, they made mindful choices about the who, what, where, when, and why of the places they considered — and ultimately selected — to live during their “third age.” They gave considerable thought to the kind of people they still aspired to be and weren’t shy about striking out in directions that excited them — even if it meant sailing the seas or simply knitting in front of a fire. For many the paradigm shift that is occurring is a move away from the notion of “aging in place” to aging in a community of kindred spirits with fewer material possessions, yet plenty of time for sharing activities and pursuits that have meaning in their lives as currently constituted.
Amazingly enough, my family’s own personal rightsizing miracle began as a painful (and pain-in-the-ass) process that slowly shifted into something astonishingly positive — at times even joyful. With each item sold or given away, with every trip to Goodwill or the dump, we began to feel . . . lighter . . . freer, unburdened — almost buoyant!
We even began to feel strangely youthful as we deep-sixed worn croquet mallets, outdated clothing, rusted weed whackers, magazine back issues, and untold objects that no longer had use in our current lives. Gone were the physical and psychological albatrosses we’d been carrying (and had paid good money to maintain) for far too long.
That’s not to say there weren’t potholes along the way, including the purchase of a low-ceilinged, 950-square-foot condo we hated and sold four months later and culling our possessions not once, but four different times. But in the process of discovering which of our worldly goods actually meant something to us and were useful in our lives now, we learned to reach out to a new community, be more flexible, be open to change, and admit to ourselves this would be a process of trial and error. We suddenly felt as if we’d liberated ourselves from an outmoded way of living that had been weighing us down in more ways than mere bulk.
It was a year or so after that miserable rainy morning when I’d wept at the sight of my grown son’s little rocking chair that I realized my husband and I had taken a course of action I ultimately dubbed rightsizing our lives. Not merely “downsizing” to fit into a smaller living space, with fewer physical possessions, but taking positive steps to create a living environment filled only with the household goods — as well as people and activities — that we love, along with surroundings that suit our stage in life to a T. We had discovered that we didn’t merely want “smaller,” we wanted “better,” and we achieved our goal the rightsizing way.
This book is intended to make a potentially bumpy transition to smaller — or larger — scale living a lot smoother by fully preparing you for it emotionally as well as practically. The goal is to help people begin to liberate themselves from their “stuff” so that they can enjoy a precious time of life surrounded by the people and possessions that give them joy in a place where they feel fulfilled.
We did it, and so can you.
WHAT’S SO “RIGHT” ABOUT RIGHTSIZING?
Dominique Browning, editor of House & Garden magazine, is a woman I admire tremendously for her stylish writing, her talent for articulating the beauty to be found in our surroundings, and her searing honesty. Contemplating the sale of her exquisite home, she writes, “It is a house I love. It has sheltered me through the end of love and the beginning of love. It has been home to two boys . . . [yet] there is liberation in recognizing what you don’t need, as well as understanding what you want.”
Perfectly put! The rightsizing of Browning’s world already appears under way. It consists of understanding what you want your environment to look like as your needs change with age. It is also about being spunky enough to embark on a journey to discover just exactly what those needs might be.
Some rightsizers will, indeed, choose to “age in place,” adapting their own homes to be safer, more secure places in which to grow older. Others will opt for a series of homes that meet the criteria of their evolving stages and situations as they continue to age. And still others will seek out the “perfect place” they hope to live in until they die, a home that fulfills longings they’ve sublimated for too long.
In this journey we move away from the idea that “we are what we have” and that if we have fewer things, we amount to less. Rightsizing your life examines these superficial judgments and celebrates our lives through thoughtful selection of the environment, possessions, and people that resonate for us.
Rightsizing is also a way to rescue you from being a prisoner of your possessions. It examines some of the emotional and psychological ties we have to material things and suggests ways to free ourselves from here on out so we can travel more lightly and revel in surroundings that speak to us in ways we never imagined.
Rightsizing lays out lifestyle preferences and encourages out-of-the-box fantasies. It starts by imagining what you’ve always dreamed about — the cottage by the sea . . . the cabin on the lake . . . the condo on the links . . . the sophisticated city apartment . . . the vagabond life on the road or the high seas. The truly adventurous sign up for activities like Habitat for Humanity’s Care-A-Vanners, hundreds of older adults in recreational vehicles who build houses for the poor all over the country. Everything and anything is acceptable when you’re conjuring visions of the ideal rightsizing scenario, for it just might lead you to a totally new world.
Diane Barr and Ken Young were both challenged by several health problems and concerns that they might outlive their nest egg. For years they’d been drawn to the romantic rolling hills and magical lure of California’s wine country, but there was no way they could buy into the area’s million-dollar lifestyle, given their financial constraints.
After several fits and starts, they ultimately sold their family home in California’s Central Valley and scaled down to a two-bedroom, two-bath modular home in the small town of St. Helena in Napa Valley, with a spectacular slice of the vineyards out their back window. They’re both continuing to work as long they can, they say, “loving each and every day of our new lives in such a beautiful place.”
But wasn’t it hard for them to move into a much more modest home? Some might call their neighborhood a “trailer park,” but “the word ‘trailer park’ never passes our lips,” she says. “We call where we live now a ‘cottage community.’ After all, there are no wheels on our new home! It looks darling inside and out. We searched and searched until we found the perfect spot featuring this unique kind of housing.” The price? Less than $200,000.
Was the transition for the Barr-Youngs easy? Diane offers a rueful laugh.
“Frankly, while it was happening, it was one of the most traumatic things I’ve ever gone through; paring down and repurposing many of our things, while getting rid of tons in order to fit into this smaller home. What I discovered, though, is how we live now is a lot less work to keep up, and I just love everything about St. Helena — the beauty of our surroundings, the wonderful restaurants, the culture of wine making. For us the move was well worth it.”
On the other hand, the Mathers-Rotella clan four hundred miles to the south in Thousand Oaks, outside Los Angeles, had to scale up in order to rightsize their lives. Laurie Rotella Mathers, in her mid-fifties, wasn’t necessarily ready to make a move, but when her mother, Gloria Rotella, eighty-four, fell several times in her own home, Laurie and her brother, Tom, decided to take action.
“I was in a panic when Mom called to tell me she’d slipped in her bedroom and lay there on the floor from two until seven at night,” remembers Laurie. “That’s when Tom said, ‘We’ve got to take this out of Mom’s hands.’”
None of the Mathers-Rotellas wanted their mother to be confined to a nursing home or even an assisted-living facility. After all, they joke, “We’re Italian!” Instead the family pooled its financial resources and built an 800-square-foot addition to Laurie and Larry Mathers’s house. “Upsizing” was their rightsizing solution.
“We didn’t dare call it a ‘Granny Unit,’ though. It’s called ‘Mother’s Suite.’ She’s picked out the furniture and the things from her other home she wants to bring with her, and she can shut the door to her own section of the house whenever she likes.”
The money from the sale of Gloria Rotella’s house went into building the addition at the Matherses’, as well as a pool of funds that pays Laurie — who retired as a bookkeeper when her mother moved into her home — to be her mother’s companion. Brother Tom agreed this was the wisest use of his mother’s money. When Laurie and her husband eventually sell the house years down the road, Tom will then receive his share of the family inheritance.
The point is that rightsizing isn’t necessarily about shrinking your living space, although for the generations now in their seventies and eighties that may come to pass. It’s more about stepping back at around age fifty and beyond, taking serious account of your future finances, analyzing the particulars of your family situation, your likes, dislikes, and best choices among several nice-to-haves. It’s a process by which you learn to evaluate people, places, and possessions according to how they make you feel, choosing to live with the material things that truly have meaning because of their sentiment or utility — and preferably both.
Rightsizing is also a method for drilling below the surface to examine what your life is like now — not a year ago or ten years ago. It also suggests you “play it forward” and think about likely scenarios in the future. The exercise involves both the emotional and the practical aspects of making a change in your living quarters and your way of life.
Take Susan Peck in Cincinnati, Ohio, who was divorced in her forties. She continued to rattle around in her 5,200-square-foot family home while her son and his wife and a growing family were squeezed into their cute but tiny “starter home” nearby. Their rightsizing solution? Trade houses. Mom moved into the starter home, and her son took over the larger house.
As you can probably surmise by now, the process of rightsizing your life will be stimulating, sometimes aggravating, sometimes upsetting and exhausting (especially if you’re helping someone else go through the exercise), but with the proper approach, solutions exist to every problem. The best news is that coming to grips with the issues and solving them can be downright exhilarating.
As Diane Barr in Vineyard Valley and hundreds of fellow rightsizers have told me, “Despite the exertion involved, it’s ultimately well worth the effort.”
So here’s my motto for people like us: don’t just move to somewhere new . . . rightsize your life! This book will show you how.
Excerpted from Rightsizing Your Life , by Ciji Ware . Copyright (c) 2007 by Ciji Ware Foreword copyright (c) 2007 by Gail Sheehy. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top