Senior move managers save time, frustration

For The Baltimore Sun
"We are cheaper than therapists," said one senior moving consultant.

Asked what she would like to take to her new one-bedroom apartment in a retirement community from her three-bedroom house in Summit Park, Judy Frankle initially answered: "All of it."

Knowing there was no way she could fit what she had accumulated over 60 years in her new home, she later acknowledged, "I've decided, but I don't know whether I can."

The 85-year-old couldn't downsize alone — she has balance and mobility problems and uses a walker. Her daughter, Marcie Cissell, made efforts to help, but moving a home filled with a lifetime of memories was "way too big of a job," she said.

Her answer to dealing with the enormity and emotional turmoil: Cissell hired a senior move manager — the Abilities Network in Towson, one of several referred by the retirement community — to do it in two months.

For older people who have lived so long in one place, shedding so many things is a stressful hurdle. The physical and mental changes later in life contribute to the challenge.

"We have these memories that connect to these little trinkets or art we have on the wall, or photographs," said John Cagle, an associate professor of social work at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. Downsizing and moving may translate into "losing a bit of your own identity."

Senior move managers specialize in navigating issues of downsizing. These include culling, selling and donating items; creating a floor plan, packing, unpacking and dealing with condo rules for moving. They can photograph contents of cabinets to re-create the placement of clients' items, listen to back stories about belongings and, working with movers, have the new digs unpacked by the end of moving day. They are a neutral third party.

"We are cheaper than therapists," said Charna Kinneberg, owner of Senior Transitions in Harford County.

How many people specialize in this isn't clear. The National Association of Senior Move Managers formed with 22 companies in 2002 and now has about 1,000 members. About 25 operate in and around Maryland, according to its website.

"We estimated that last year, our members managed 100,000 moves," said Jennifer Pickett, the group's associate executive director. Those moves accounted for about $150 million in revenue.

Frankle said she trusted the Abilities Network team to help her decide what will make her comfortable in her new place and what to get rid of.

"They've been marvelous," Frankle said.

They also sped up the process.

"It's difficult," Frankle said of parting with treasured possessions. "I'd much rather see them go to my daughter and son," grandchildren and other relatives — a common sentiment.

On a recent day, with two wall units of knickknacks being reduced to one, Teresa Treadwell lined up 10 glass paperweights. At her suggestion, Frankle chose three to move with her. Swarovski crystal figurines? A granddaughter wants them. An egg-shaped tchotchke from a trip to Russia? It's coming with her. Wedgwood box? No. Frankle already gave seven menorahs to family members.

"The trick with this generation is to rehome as much as possible," Kinneberg said.

For Cissell, other relatives and Frankle's caregiver, there's been "homework," such as cleaning out closets.

Not everyone has adult children there to help.

"It's wonderful for her that her daughter is so involved," said Heather Murphy, a senior move manager heading up Frankle's transition.

The Abilities team uses a hands-on, board-style floor plan to help clients visualize which furniture will fit in the new home.

"It helps our clients to understand if they can hold the pieces and move them around," Murphy said. "They see that everything won't fit."

Every senior manager keeps a list of favorite resources. Depending on their value, furnishings may land at auction houses, estate liquidators, thrift shops and nonprofits, with move managers keeping track — enabling clients to benefit from sales and tax-deductible donations — or in a junk hauler's truck. They know who picks up goods and who doesn't.

But sentimental value isn't resale value. Midcentury modern is the furniture most prized. Heavy dining room sets don't sell well, yet they were an older generation's coveted purchases. Fancy china and silver also have tumbled from favor.

"People in their 20s and 30s, that's not what they want. People who are in their 40s or older go to a store and buy what they want, and the people in their 50s already have furniture," said Mike Stafford of Stafford Estate Sales in Bel Air.

People also look to move managers for their sense of what may be valuable, how to find out and sell it.

"I came across an oil painting" by a well-known artist, recalled Donna Eichelberger, who operates Graceful Transitions in Chevy Chase. "It brought $17,000 at auction."

Some use websites like MaxSold, Everything But the House and eBay to reach broader audiences and to show clients the low prices for used furnishings; it may be easier to donate them to help needy folks.

Bob and Judy Cohan, who are in their 70s, are downsizing to a condo in Pikesville. Bob sometimes uses a cane, and the stairs are an issue in their Mount Washington home.

With snow and everything else to deal with, "I think it's becoming too hard to take care of," Judy said.

Though their son offered to come from Georgia to help, they told him to stay home. They hired Kinneberg's Senior Transitions, referred by a co-worker of Judy's, for what Bob called an "overwhelming" job.

The couple sold their pool table on a neighborhood listserv and took 10 bags of paper to a local shredding event — but Senior Transitions helped them go through decades of accummulated belongings, find a handyman and develop a floor plan.

"We can do as much or a little as you and your family want,'" said Kimberly McMahon, co-owner of Let's Move in Fulton and a former NASMM president.

Senior move managers say business is increasing.

"There are 80 million baby boomers," said Pickett, noting they're more accustomed than their parents to outsourcing tasks. Census Bureau figures from 2010 said more than 1.8 million Marylanders were over the age of 60; in 2009 projections, 22 percent of Maryland's population will be 60 and older by 2030, up by 26 percent from 2012.

The Mid-Atlantic to Northeast corridor is among the busiest for NASMM members, Pickett said. A survey indicated that nationwide, they charge between $40 and $60 an hour, but fees run higher in urban areas, Baltimore included.

"They saved my sanity," Cissell said of the help moving her mother.

Tips:

Senior move managers offer these tips for downsizing:

•Don't wait for a crisis to declutter; unload stuff and organize.

•Senior move managers recommend about eight weeks to downsize and resettle a client.

•Move before selling the house if possible. That allows for adding items and a smoother transition.

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