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Finding Help in a Crisis Downsizing

Senior move managers can help you unclutter a home and relocate, but you'll pay $40-$125 an hour

by: Sid Kirchheimer, from: AARP Bulletin, August 24, 2011

For Roger and Alma Kline, retirement downsizing involved no long-planned move to a beachfront condo or Arizona community, no leisurely thinning out of the lifetime of possessions in their home of 20 years in Casper, Wyo.

Rather, it came suddenly and unexpectedly on March 14, 2010, when Roger suffered an aneurysm that first brought hospitalization, then a move with Alma to a residential care facility. The Klines, both 75, would never return home again.

Chalkboard drawing of downsizing your home - a cottage industry of service companies can help you

Photo by Jana Leon/Getty Images

It fell to daughter Andrea, 45, of Minneapolis, to manage an emergency downsize. "I remember sitting in my parents' house … looking at all their belongings and thinking, 'What am I going to do now?' "

Many people do the job themselves. But growing numbers are turning to a cottage industry of firms specializing in "senior move management."

Caring Transitions, which has 116 franchises in 35 states, put the AARP Bulletin in touch with Andrea after she brought the firm in. "Less than 24 hours after my call, a team arrived at my parents' house," she said. "They helped me pack. They organized all the stuff and contacted places to make donations, as I sold other items on Craigslist. They helped get the house in order so it could be sold." Among the things they noticed — the roof needed repair.

The services cost $800. Andrea used 10 vacation days from her job and figures that the company's help meant she didn't have to take another week off. "Like my siblings, I could better focus on my father's health," says Andrea.

The Klines' case was typical. Professional managers normally enter the picture in "situations where a move is immediate and necessary because of the loss of a spouse, loss of health or ability to live independently," says Mary Kay Buysse of the National Association of Senior Move Managers. The association's membership has grown tenfold since 2006 to about 600 companies in the United States and Canada.

Such a move can mean going from a 2,500-square-foot home that a couple has had for 40 years to a 400-foot unit in an assisted living facility.

The management firms charge $40 to $125 per hour and rarely do the actual moving. They do the before and after chores, from packing and seeing to donations to arranging furniture in the new digs.

But most downsizes aren't emergency operations. They take place for a lot less money, with yard sales, online sales and calls to family, friends and local charities to come for giveaways.

However it's done, the move can be trying emotionally.

Here are six tips on how to fly smoothly from your empty nest.

1. Start early. "The biggest mistake is waiting until you sell your home or tragedy happens," says John Buckles, who founded Caring Transitions after enduring his parents' forced downsize due to failing health. He is now president of the company.

A good rule of thumb: Start paring down at least one month before you list your current home for sale (less clutter makes it appear larger), and at the first signs of declining health.

2. Have a plan. Hit the "heart of home" rooms first. That's usually the kitchen, living room and family room, which tend to be the most cluttered and contain items with the greatest emotional value and everyday use. Make four piles — keep, donate, give to family members and trash.

From these rooms, work outward. Items furthest away, in sheds, garages and attics, generally have less practical use in the new living space.

Work with a space plan of the new home to ensure a "right size." When the new, smaller room dimensions are known, experts typically use scale white-board diagrams of the rooms to determine how items will fit — or won't. So measure all furniture before deciding what to keep and unload.

3. Involve the kids. "One big problem is seniors thinking their children want that grandfather clock or Waterford when they really don't," says Buysse. A heart-to-heart about items' emotional — and monetary — value is in order.

4. Keep memories, without the clutter. Making DVDs of photographs is a space-saving option to hauling boxes of old pictures. "One client had a collection of rare teapots but couldn't take all 78 with her," recalls Buysse. "So she took her three favorites with her and we made a framed poster of the others."

5. Donate. Goodwill and the Salvation Army may be the first thought for donations, but items like Civil War memorabilia or fancy camera equipment may be better suited for a museum or school. (The camera equipment of Roger Kline, a former photographer, was donated to a local college.) Such legacy gifts may even result in special plaques or recognition in addition to tax deductions. Even everyday items may benefit off-radar organizations. Everyday glassware, for instance, will fetch little money at a yard sale. So donate it to a children's camp or a soup kitchen.

6. Be a shrewd yard sale manager. For a better turnout, call it a "moving sale" — especially when selling furniture — and advertise in the local newspaper and Craigslist. Post bright signs on nearby roads (fluorescent poster board costs about $3 for three sheets that can be cut in half).

Include large directional arrows, not just addresses that drivers will find hard to read as they whiz by.

Organize items by groups — books on one table, tools on another, etc. Know the "dog" items. Bedbug fears and years of wear and tear can make sofas and other upholstered furniture a tough sell.

"In most cases, expect no more than $20," says Buckles. You might do better just donating them. Also on his "don't waste your time" list are tube and rear-projection TVs and run-of-the-mill small kitchen appliances such as toasters.

You may also like: Donate electronics, clothes. >>

Sid Kirchheimer writes about consumer and health issues.