June 13, 2024
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June 13, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Some of my best friends are empty nesters and a large percentage of my clients are empty nesters. In addition, I am an empty nester. We are all part of a population whose children have grown up and left home. The first symptom of being an empty nester is noticing the bedroom spaces are poorly used and do not reflect current needs. There are also common spaces like family rooms or basement game rooms that make little sense with neglected puzzles and games and faded posters of forgotten, young celebrities. We are asking ourselves “How can we reclaim our spaces?”

My husband and I are not alone in that when our children moved out, we added a dog to our family. Bringing a dog or a cat into your home means you need to carve out space for them and their belongings. If your house is filled with your children’s old items, how can you make a place for your Shepsi or Tiger? When an empty nester client asks me to help them take charge of their space, they often don’t actually know what they want to do. They are sure they want to make a change but they look to me to tell them what to do. It is not my style to tell people what to do. My style is to ask questions, listen carefully, repeat back what I have heard and ask the client if what I heard is what they meant to say. Their answers do not come instantly or effortlessly. Here we take a deep dive to analyze the space they have and the space they wish to have.

We begin with one area or zone at a time. I ask them several questions. What was its prior use?” Were they once happy with this space? Why is it not working now? How long has it been useless space? Can they make a sketch of what they want instead? How much will it improve the quality of their lives if the space is modified?

For some people this is a frustrating conversation that they may try to avoid. If this strikes a chord, could you be having trouble reclaiming your space? I invite you to analyze what is stopping you from making a change. Reasons could include one or more of the following:

I don’t know where to start.

I don’t know what kind of professional help I need.

I think, but I don’t know, that the cost will be prohibitive.

I KNOW the cost will be prohibitive.

The person I share the space with has different desires.

I haven’t given myself permission to make a change.

Why make a change if I may be moving in the next few years?

This space acts as a holding space for my children’s possessions.

Now that we did a brain dump of many reasons that stop us, let’s address some of them. First, if you don’t know where to start, it may help by speaking with friends, coworkers, family members and neighbors who have already gone through this. You will hear many points of view and many techniques for dealing with your same issues. Be a good listener and decide if any of their choices resonate with you. To become aware of what kind of professional help you need and what it will cost, again turn to your friends, coworkers, family members, neighbors and the very handy Google. If you are uncomfortable asking people the specific amounts they paid for services or materials, consider asking for price ranges.

If you and the person you share your space with have different visions and ideas, discuss this. Use your imagination and brainstorm together. Maybe you can merge your ideas. I have seen a guest bedroom combined with a display of antique cameras, a large laundry room/junk room converted to a laundry room and crafts room, and a baseball memorabilia gallery housed inside a home gym.

Now consider whether you have given yourself permission to make a change. This can’t be forced. I have heard first hand of organizers who bullied clients to toss possessions that they were not ready to part with. In extreme cases, the unhappy client brought the bags of trash and donations back into their homes in order to search for the items. Maybe months or years later they call me, tell me their horror stories and ask if they hired me, would it go the same way. I assure them most organizers are caring professionals with a code of ethics they follow that includes integrity and objectivity and will treat all clients with respect and courtesy. Sometimes giving yourself permission to make a change involves talking to a professional or a close confidant about your feelings regarding your new identity as an empty nester, a change in your marital status, etc. Another method of giving yourself permission to make a change is to examine your expenses and create an acceptable budget for the renovations. When we make things as concrete as possible, it is easier to understand and accept what we need to do.

If you think you will be moving in the next few years, you can tackle small, less costly projects that will add to the value of your home. Cosmetic changes, like a fresh coat of paint, are inexpensive and will update your home’s look, making it easier to sell. If you do nothing until it is time to sell, there is a good chance your realtor will wisely advise you to paint. Wouldn’t you rather paint now and give yourself the chance to enjoy a new color palette?

Have you set up your house as a free storage unit for your children, filled with childhood possessions or old furniture you think they should use as they are starting out? I had a client who was holding a full garage of furniture for her grandson, waiting for him to buy a house before she would downsize. While family members knew the grandson did not want the furniture, no one told my client. When her garage flooded, she became distraught because she couldn’t give these things to her grandson. If families could have frank conversations about what they truly want or need stored, it could help people live in the present, instead of waiting for the future.

While considering the best of all the ideas they discussed, I ask my clients to visualize themselves in the space and formulate the purpose that allows them to feel natural and comfortable. I ask them to make a step-by-step plan and identify which, if any, steps make them feel uneasy and why. Often, they are uncomfortable because they need more information. I encourage them and you to reach out to knowledgeable people for the answers to your questions.

If you think you would enjoy going through these exercises in person, join me at Congregation Ahavas Achim on Tuesday, Feb. 21 at 7:30 in Highland Park for “Reclaiming Our Spaces: How to Reorganize an Empty Nest with Fun & Creativity.”


Ellen Smith is Central Jersey’s Kosher Organizer and tzniut wardrobe stylist. For over 14 years, Ellen has helped people restore order and create calm in their homes and souls. See Ellen’s work on Instagram @ideclutterbyEllen. Contact Ellen for a complimentary phone consultation at [email protected]. 

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