By Charlene Sadler

Over the course of their marriage, Bill Cheng and Kathy Andrachuk accumulated an extensive collection of antiques, furniture, crystal, silver. So extensive, in fact, that every corner of their downtown Toronto home was stacked with stuff. When they ran out of space, they rented a storage unit. Then another. And another. Eventually, they were spending $2,000 per month on storage.

The antiques were beautiful. Most of them had come from Kathy’s large extended family. But when Andrachuk died unexpectedly in October 2017, Cheng, 61, was devastated. Alone in his crowded home, he knew he had to begin downsizing. He also knew it was going to be heartbreakingly, agonizingly difficult.

“Objects are easy to get rid of. But when objects are attached with memories, it’s so hard,” says Cheng. “My fear is if I get rid of her stuff I might get rid of her and may not love her anymore.”

Documentary looks at how seniors face their attachment to their ‘stuff’

The CBC Docs POV documentary The Art of Downsizing follows three older people going through the process of downsizing. It looks at the attachment people have to their stuff and how they find ways to let it go.

Barbara Dodds, 79, knew she had to downsize from her Mississauga, Ont., home after her husband died. They had lived there for 21 years, raising their children. And over that time, they had also accumulated a lifetime of stuff.

“I know I have to get rid of things no matter where I go,” says Dodds. “I just look at smaller places and think, ‘Where am I going to put everything?’ And that’s where I get overwhelmed. How am I going to decide what is the most important thing to me in my life?”

Dodds turned to Barry Gordon, who operates Gordon’s Downsizing and Estate Services.

Downsizing is a difficult process

Gordon knows how difficult downsizing can be. He’s been helping people downsize since the mid-1970s. Back then, he was helping farmers sell their land and farm equipment. Today, his clients are elderly couples and widowers, downsizing from large homes into condos, apartments or retirement communities.

“It doesn’t have to be hard in every way,” says Gordon. There is a method, he claims, and it’s the opposite of the popular Marie Kondo method. With the Kondo method people focus on each item and toss the ones that don’t ‘spark joy.’

Downsizing is different from decluttering, says Gordon.

“It’s not about the item. It’s about the event.”

The first step, he says, is to figure out where the client is going to live. Knowing that you’re moving from a 2,400-square-foot home into a 500-square-foot condo makes the winnowing process that much easier. Gordon goes so far as to draw up floor plans so a client can visualize what will fit, room by room. That’s the beginning of the letting-go process.

It continues by getting clients settled into their new living circumstances, looking ahead to the future. Doing this puts time and space between the person and their stuff. Stuff they originally thought they needed starts to be seen as it is —something old and no longer necessary.

But there are always items so integrated with memories that it’s impossible to get rid of them. In those cases, Gordon recommends “chilling:” letting the beloved item sit in the property that is being vacated then revisiting it a couple of weeks later. Often, seeing the item in the empty home and in a new light finally allows the client to let it go.

Seniors move forward with new lives after downsizing

For Cheng, he was able to part with his massive collection once he realized the items he and Andrachuk so cherished, even as they were in storage, were just gathering dust.

“That’s what stuff is here for, for people to love, not in a box, hiding somewhere for 20 years,” says Cheng.

He consulted with antiques dealers, sold off what he could, and donated many boxes to charity.

“Before she passed away, Kathy and I used to talk about getting rid of stuff in the storage because it’s costing us a lot of money,” says Cheng. “All the money we paid for the storage, we could have used to travel the world. This was our dream. But because of the storage, we had no spare money to be able to do this.”

Once he completed the downsizing process, he finally booked himself a ticket on a cruise.

Dodds says she has no regrets about downsizing into her new smaller apartment in Mississauga.

“This is my new beginning and I’ll create new memories,” she says.

Watch The Art of Downsizing on CBC Docs POV.