The Art of Downsizing: Living in Retirement By Rhoda Lurie

Moving into a smaller living space is often an inevitable consequence of retirement. The children have moved out and the need for furnishings and personal possessions is greatly diminished. Nonetheless, it can be a daunting task, both physically and emotionally, to move into a small retirement apartment. Our story is about Vita, an 87 year old California woman, who recently moved into an independent living facility with less than 700 square feet of space after spending her life in much larger homes. Here are some of the things that she did.

After losing her devoted husband after 55 years of marriage, Vita decided to move to a Santa Monica independent living apartment. Before this, she lived in a number of large houses, where she had entertained extensively and had raised four sons. In 2006, with her husband’s health declining, they chose to move to a retirement home in Westwood to be near his medical facilities. At that time, she gave away all of her household possessions to her children and friends, including a huge collection of books, kitchen paraphernalia and miscellaneous possessions. They moved with only their personal clothes and medicines. She had no attachment to material things as she felt she could always acquire more. For 7 years they managed with used furniture, a lovely glass coffee table, 4 upholstered chairs and two Chinese ceramic containers that had belonged to her mother. A few Japanese and Chines porcelain objects were left in a son’s storage space.

In November 2013, shortly after her husband passed away, it was clearly time for Vita to move and reinvent herself in a place that she could call her own. After much searching, she found an independent retirement facility in Santa Monica with a beautiful view overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Apart from the excellent location, the facility offers exercise classes, crafts, movies, political discussions, singing groups and much more. It was here that her zest for life was reborn and a new beginning was at hand.

“This is just the right place for me. I like it very much. My view is absolutely magnificent – even at night, I can hear the ocean. I love it!” Vita enthusiastically said. So we must conclude that a positive attitude is an important first step.

Vita’s unit is small; a living room 18’x15′, a slightly larger bedroom 20’x18′ with a small bathroom and a small kitchenette area between the two. How does one maximize the space, make it livable, attractive, artsy, comfortable and feel like ‘home’? Because Vita, (her name meaning ‘Life’) had lived in many houses in the past, she was quite comfortable to adjust to a different environment. She had moved to this new place with only a few pieces of furniture and four upholstered chairs.

My name is Rhoda. I have known Vita for about 10 years and I offered to help her redecorate. My thought was to maximize the space in an artistic and different style that would be comfortable, attractive and personally meaningful to her.

My first mission was to get rid of the four blue and white bulky upholstered chairs. One had to climb over them to get to the other side of the room! They had to be removed and given away as well as a heavy wooden cabinet and long wooden bench. A nice bookshelf with artifacts and a small wooden desk were allowed to stay and Vita and I were ready to go shopping. My plan was to do the reconnaissance investigation first and then I would take her to see my suggestions. I was fully aware of the fact that Vita loves ethnic art and especially color. Red is a favorite.

My thinking revolved around 3 swivel leather chairs that could be placed around the glass-topped coffee table. She was enthusiastic and enamored with this idea and in the store I took her to, she selected a black chair with matching ottoman, a teal chair and a beige one to round off the collection. A great start for the living room. My search continued for a contemporary area rug with the right colors, and with luck, we located one on line.

We found a lovely modern looking lamp and the art on the wall features a Chinese scroll, an original Vietnamese oil painting of women waiting for a boat to take them home after a day’s work and an antique Vietnamese Mao painting. The bookshelf has some of her favorite books, a Buddha head as well as a standing Buddha, some old Chinese Maio necklaces and some African sculptures.

On the opposite wall is a collection of painted masks, an old Chinese marionette wearing an elaborate costume, a Tibetan Bench and two ceramic stools. Vita also had a folk art collection of items from Mexico. The west facing view is glorious with the Pacific Ocean glistening in the background. She can admire the view all day and spends as much time as possible in this cozy and warm living room.

The bedroom is done in black furniture and a gorgeous and comfortable red leather chair and ottoman. In this room Vita can relax with television and marvel at the view of the ocean.

Behind her bed, she has a collage of her whole family: late husband, her four sons with their wives and all the grandchildren. Their presence is constantly felt. Her residence, though small, is a happy place.

Is there a formula for successfully making this transition? Vita has a zest for life and surrounds herself with meaningful friends and art. She drives around in her red 2000 Volvo. Its her 11th Volvo and she independently goes everywhere about town. She will go to a movie, a play or shopping on her own. Nothing holds her back. She can be an inspiration for others and with her attitude that ‘every cloud has a silver lining,’ she always forges ahead.

Rhoda Lurie © 2014
Photos by Richard Sullivan

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