A baby boomer’s rite of passage: downsizing

There are more rites of passage for baby boomers than we can count, but certainly one that is either ahead of most of us … or already behind us … is the task of downsizing. BoomerCafé co-founder and publisher David Henderson himself has just washed off the dust, after making a lot of fairly hard decisions. They’re hard because when it comes to downsizing, those decisions are permanent.

I still don’t comprehend downsizing. It’s like many of us decided to molt our feathers or get age spots on our hands at the same time of life. I didn’t realize how many of my friends had also decided to actively downsize — to whittle down a lifetime of possessions and stuff — until I started my own downsizing project and found that I could not give away things to anyone, stuff I thought someone would like. “No thanks” was often the reply, “I’m also trying to cut back.”

tops-driveinHeck, my old high school pal Fred said no to a framed sketch of Tops Drive-In in Arlington, Virginia. It was where we all hung out as teens, like the Mel’s Drive-In featured in the early ‘70s film American Graffiti. Tops closed decades ago, replaced by a McDonald’s. Come to think of it … why the heck did I have a sketch of Tops Drive-In anyway?!

What is it that seemingly intuitively taps us on the shoulders and whispers that it’s time to live with fewer things, less clutter? Something in our DNA? Awakening to a particular rustle of the leaves in the wind? What we see in our eyes when we look in the mirror … and just know it’s time?

Where did all that stuff come from anyway, all that stuff which I had collected and stored? Family heirlooms? Treasured memories? Just plain junk? My wife is a wise woman and simply says, “It’s from your long and rich life.”

David with an old CBS News videotape.

David with an old CBS News videotape.

I just recently finished the job. My downsizing project was four months of diligent, hard, and sometimes emotional work. There was the day I opened a box filled with two-inch broadcast videotapes that contained many of my reports during my years as a correspondent at CBS Network News. It was still exciting to see a yellow “CBS News” label that indicated my story had aired on “Cronkite,” meaning The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. But, here’s the problem: two-inch videotape is long-obsolete, replaced first by newer videotape formats, then in more recent years by high definition digital formats. It’s a heck of a process to find someone with a still-workable two-inch videotape machine that didn’t end up in a junkyard. So, I snapped a couple of photos and placed the box with a stack of other rubbish.

Cutting down on possessions for me started with my collection of several thousand music CDs. There were 14 boxes. I copied and archived most into iTunes, then gave them all away on the great community bulletin board website, NextDoor.com. I found loads of people more than enthusiastic to repurpose music CDs.


I had boxes of paper — drawings by my kids when they were really just kids, letters written long ago by my parents and grandparents, and yes, countless scripts for CBS News stories. I found a divorce decree from a deeply sad chapter in my life. I don’t know how you might decide to handle such things but I respectfully put most of them into large trash bags destined for a dump. You just can’t keep all those things … except for a couple of personal letters.

My biggest challenge during downsizing was deciding what to do with all the photos … thousands of them … that I’ve taken since I was a kid. I decided to keep them at least temporarily. I bought a photo scanner and will digitize them on some cold and snowy day this winter. And then they too will be thrown away … but not all, of course. There are images of my parents, children, family that cannot be parted with … at least not now.


  1. My wife and I are also at this stage. We must decide what to keep, what to give away, what to hold for the children, and what we must just throw away. What we have learned is that it is simple to acknowledge that it must be done, but it is another thin altogether to to actually begin the process. Thanks for sharing David!

  2. You’re an example for us all, David. How to downsize systematically. We started downsizing some time ago. And it’s not finished yet. Thanks for sharing, David.

  3. David, you are setting a bad example for those of us who piddle and who amass many “valuable” things while piddling. I’m not showing this column to the boss of the house. She already has enough ideas.

  4. We’re doing the same. Our last child has left the nest, and her stuff is going (she still has a few things to process…).

    We want to move to a CCRC – but I found it a lot easier to get rid of some of this with an assistant. She found homes for a few things, and helped remove things as I decided to get rid of them (such as actually taking the boxes of books to the library for its ‘Friends of the Library’ sales.

    Many things you can take a picture of – for the memory. School stuff is going into four scrapbooks for each of the kids. Papers saved have to do with 1) taxes, and 2) the house basis. The letters and photos will have to be dealt with later, but the years of videotapes were transferred by a nice personal service to hard drives, of which we will make copies, with an added list of who is in them, and give to the kids, too.

    You must – or your new quarters will be filled with stuff and your kids will make the decisions for you.

    Hardest: things we’ve inherited from our parents – because we miss THEM.

  5. Thanks, David. I’ve been downsizing over the course of the last ten years and it never really ends. I’m “fortunate” in that I’ve moved several times in that period. It’s easier to make a decision when you have to handle every thing and decide if it’s worth taking with you – usually to a smaller place. My rule of thumb was that if I hadn’t used it in the previous six months, I gave it away. That works for me.

  6. In preparation, I read the book on the KonMari Method to decluttering one’s life before our big move. The actual process was like an archaeological dig!

    1. Erin,

      Hahaha! I know exactly what you mean. Why on earth did I keep something or another, I kept asking myself. Most disgusting were batteries that had petrified and corroded inside things like tape recorders and radios. The easiest and smartest thing was just to throw them out.

      Thanks for reading.


  7. Congrats on the downsizing David. By the way, as to the photo conundrum, I was the family photo taker and collector of old family photos (for generations), so I had tons of old pictures. When we downsized in 2005 I sent five boxes to various family members and filled each box with photos of each person as a child, photos of family members they were closer too and even photos of family they had never met but had heard stories about. They loved it and they got to teach new generations who these people were and why they were important enough to take a photo of. I sent the boxes near Christmas and they opened them near the holiday as a family. Best gift they received that year.

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