THE UPSIDE OF DOWNSIZING

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LET'S REVIEW THE BRIEF HISTORY of moving, baby boomer style.

The college years: a leisurely affair featuring friends with a pick-up truck, Hefty bags and plenty of Boone's Farm apple wine.

The family years: a swirling tempest of moving vans and hastily packed boxes, which also relocated old coffee grounds and supermarket bags.

The present: finally, a thoughtful approach. Now that boomers are downsizing into 55-and-older condos and helping their parents ease into assisted-living, many are hiring newcomers to the moving industry: senior move managers.

These professionals guide clients through a journey that's often as much about sorting through a lifetime's worth of memories as it is about possessions. They help clients decide what to take, what to leave and how to redirect it. They also set up and organize their new homes.

The field is attracting many middle-aged women who are searching for a career that combines their entrepreneurial dreams with their nurturing abilities.

"Our service is far more than packing items; it's providing the intelligence in sorting through and interpreting a customers' needs and wants," says Kim McMahon of Let's Move Inc. in Howard County.

"There are times you have to work through what you want to bring to your new home. What is your lifestyle today? Where is it going? What do you enjoy? What gives you happiness and joy? Those questions help people decide what to bring and why. Sometimes they can't interpret that on their own."

The National Association for Senior Move Managers, founded five years ago, holds educational workshops and has established a code of ethics. It has grown from 22 to 220 members, with the majority operating on the East and West coasts. (Eight serve Maryland.) The average senior move manager charges $40 to $60 an hour, although rates can climb to $100 an hour in cities, according to NASMM founding member Margit Novack.

"Moving vans have always packed people and they still pack people. But those businesses aren't looking at re-creating an environment, they're only interested in getting things into a carton," says Novack, 56. She started Moving Solutions, a franchised business based in Philadelphia, when she tired of her career in corporate medicine.

Senior move managers usually have college, and often master's, degrees, she says. Some come from the corporate world, others from social work, gerontology and nursing. Many are attracted to the business because of personal experience.

Peg Guild, the 52-year-old president of NASMM, worked in commercial banking and real estate appraisal before starting her business, Assisted Moving Inc., in Raleigh, N.C. Although most of her clients are in their 70s and 80s, a growing number are baby boomers already used to paying for such services as housekeeping and property maintenance.

"We've had one couple in their 40s who said they were moving to a smaller house and had decided to 'divorce' their stuff," Guild says. "They wanted to have things be simpler."

Jane Weigley of Clarksville first called McMahon to organize bins that held decades worth of family photos. Then the 51-year-old homemaker asked McMahon and her partner, Allison Pihl, to help guide her move from the big-house-with-three-kids-and-a-dog-in-the-suburbs to an apartment in Washington where she and her husband will live until he officially retires.

It will be the eighth move of their marriage, she says. So far, it's the smoothest.

"The biggest advantage is that Kim and Allison keep me on track," she says. "I have emotional attachments to everything in my house, but they help me prioritize them."

Older people can feel depressed during the process of shedding possessions that recall their earlier lives. They often need help with downsizing, says Erlene Rosowsky, a geropsychologist in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

"Old age means becoming smaller and less in terms of roles, in terms of relationships, in terms of abilities -- and now, with downsizing, in terms of space and objects. It's another reminder of shrinking," she says.

"When people become old, they need to do some life review -- to feel, above all, that they've mattered. ... There's a wonderful benefit for older adults to tell someone the story of how they choose what they will take with them to their new place and what they want to give to someone else."

Sometimes the best person to hear those stories may be an "outsider." Rosowsky says children and their elderly parents often see the same things quite differently.

"A parent might say, 'That's the Christmas stocking I gave you when you were 4," while the child says, 'Ma, you don't need that any more,'" she says. "To an older adult, a cherished object is a reminder, an identification with other times.

"We all struggle throughout life to remain one continuous person. When the mirror tells you differently -- when reality intrudes on self-image -- it becomes very difficult," she says. "These possessions, these reminders of our past, shore up our own continuity, and maintain our sense of connection with those who have gone before us. They also show our desire to trust in our legacy."

Senior move managers are often surprised to discover that many adult children don't want the heirlooms and valuables that their parents assumed they would take. Approaching retirement themselves, middle-aged children are beginning to pare down their own lives. They're not eager for more silver that requires polishing or another set of china that can't go in the dishwasher.

One part of senior move management is finding homes that are worthy of a client's possessions -- sometimes through donations, sometimes through sales. Another part is learning about them. McMahon, 41, works in tandem with her partner. While one sorts and packs, the other listens.

"We had one client who had to touch everything in order to let it go," McMahon says. "Some clients have had to tell us a story about each and every object."

Later, McMahon has helped them select items that represent critical periods of their lives. They may bring three masks, or four cookbooks, or five Beanie Babies from collections that hold dozens.

"They don't shed their history when they move, instead they bring symbols of it," she says.

Sorting sessions can be so psychologically exhausting that a client may leave decisions simmering in piles marked "For Donation," "For Sale" or "To Be Determined."

"Sometimes you can't just plow, plow, plow ahead," McMahon says. "Clients can get so caught up in the emotional impact of some items, say trip memorabilia or a child's art work, that it can delay the job. So we will defer the decision until we've made some progress."

Novack steers her clients gently through the shoals of their stuff.

"I call it 'guiding to deciding," she says. "I don't say, 'What towels do you want to take?' I say, 'Do you think three sets would be the right amount?'"

Often people can move forward more easily, she says, if you give them choices while recognizing the importance of their most basic routines.

"Let's say a client slept on the left side of the bed for 47 years because it was the side closest to the bathroom. Now, in the new place, it's different. So you ask, 'What side do you want to be on? You can be on the left again, but you'll have to walk around the bed to get to the bathroom.'"

All the work is worth the satisfaction of a good move, she says. "A couple of years later, one woman told me: 'Who'd have thought my ninth decade would be the best of my life?'

"In her book [Personal History], Katharine Graham said, 'Moving is like childbirth. If anyone remembered how hard it was, they would never do it again,'" Novack says. "Well, childbirth is tough, but never for a minute was it not worth what I got from it. Moving is tough, too, but it's the only way to get from Point A to Point B. It's intense and emotional, but it does end."

Meanwhile, boomers are finding ways to improve upon the process.

For further information about senior move management, consult the national associations' Web site at nasmm.com.

linell.smith@baltsun.com

Moving on

Peg Guild, president of the National Association of Senior Move Managers, offers the following tips to prepare for downsizing to a retirement home.

Don't pack until you have sorted through your possessions. If you pack too soon, you will forget what you are taking.

Use your dining-room table as a staging area. One rule of thumb is that a typical retirement home kitchen will not hold more stuff than you can fit on the table.

Measure the linear feet of rod space in the closets of your new place and mark that off in one of your current closets. That will show how much clothing you can take.

Get rid of the threadbare towels and chipped china.

Eat down the contents of your pantry because it doesn't pay to move it.

Write down the histories of the furniture and possessions you want to give to family and friends. Then tape those tales to the individual pieces or put them in drawers.

Take photographs of your home and its contents long before you begin the sorting process. They will be good for your memory book - and also for your move planning.

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