When Betty and Dick Duke married 23 years ago, they each sold a house and together they upgraded to a larger home in Chevy Chase, Maryland. In retrospect, the couple says they probably should have downsized their possessions then.
“We met in a grief support group after we had each lost our spouses, but we didn’t expect to find love again,” says Betty, 86, a professor at the University of Maryland. “We just moved everything from our previous homes and then when we wanted to sell our house 20 years later, we had masses of stuff to go through.”
The Dukes hired a professionally trained “senior move manager,” from Let’s Move, a move-management company purchased in 2019 by Wayforth, a larger move-management company, to facilitate their transition from their Chevy Chase home to a smaller home in a nearby independent living community.
“We had lots of boxes that hadn’t been opened since we moved into the house,” says Dick, 91, who is retired. “We ended up working with the same move manager twice, because after a year we decided to move out of the independent living community back into a smaller home in Chevy Chase.”
Whether you’re moving into an active-adult community with an array of recreational amenities and social activities or an independent living community, which can provide on-site health care, housekeeping, maintenance and dining services in addition to social amenities, you may need some help moving. Generally, homes in active-adult communities — and especially in independent living communities — tend to be smaller to reduce maintenance needs. That means residents often must pare down their furniture and possessions before moving.
“The biggest difference between moving someone into an independent living home instead of an active-adult community is the space,” says Ann Newberry, owner of Smooth Transitions in Ashland, Massachusetts. “Both allow you some space to make it your own, but typically the higher level of care that’s offered, the smaller the space.”
Handling logistics and emotions
Relocating from a home you’ve lived in for 20 years or more is challenging for everyone, but it can be particularly hard for older people with decades of memories in their home and limited space in their new location.
“A senior move manager does everything but the actual move,” says Mary Kay Buysse, executive director of the National Association of Specialty and Senior Move Managers in Chicago. “If you’re relocating from a home that you’ve lived in for 30 to 50 years, your moving day is the tiniest piece of the puzzle. A move manager puts all the pieces together before the move and then puts everything together after the move for a smooth entrance into the new environment, right down to making the nightstand look exactly like the same.”
Move managers handle logistics and work with older adults and their families to cope with the emotional aspect of letting things go, too, says Anna Novak, owner of Home Transition Pros in Arlington, Virginia.
“There are a host of challenges that go along with moving, including family dynamics and the guilt of getting rid of a family heirloom,” says Novak. “We also manage the physical aspects of sorting through items and coordinate with a moving company.”
One of the most important aspects of hiring a move manager is to find someone you can trust, says Jason Suderman, owner of Lifecycle Senior Services in Carlisle, Massachusetts.
“A move manager needs to listen, learn and establish trust with their customers,” says Suderman. “We need to learn where each person’s sensitivities are. Sorting is one aspect of the job, but the dispersal is especially important. What may look like a shabby blanket to you could have important sentimental value for someone and should be handled with care.”
Move managers typically charge an hourly rate of $60 to $125 depending on the location and the complexity of the job, says Buysse. Some charge by the project. Typically, a free in-home consultation is required to generate an estimate of the total cost.
“Customers sometimes expand the job and ask the move manager to do more once they start with working them,” says Buysse. “But move managers aren’t just for big houses. They can do as little or as much as you want. You can set a budget, and they can tell you the best way to spend it based on your individual needs.”
Helping from start to finish
While many people approach downsizing by sorting items to donate, keep or throw out, move managers often start by identifying items that will go with the owners to their new home.
“Our senior move manager brought a ‘magic board’ with her that showed what would fit in the floor plan for our new home to help us figure out what we wanted to take first,” says Betty. “Next, we asked our adult kids if they wanted anything, and our move manager helped us pack those items.”
The move manager helped them go through everything that was left to determine which items needed an appraisal or could be auctioned.
“Our move manager worked with MaxSold to sell everything else right down to our ironing board through their auction system,” says Betty. “On moving day, she had two trucks arranged perfectly so one of them could drop items off to my two daughters’ homes.”
One of the best parts of working with a move manager for the Dukes was the unpacking.
“When we moved in, the move manager unpacked everything perfectly, including putting kitchen items in the cabinets we wanted, making the bed and hanging photos for us,” says Dick. “They took out all the trash and recycling.”
While the Dukes worked with their move manager for nearly a year before their move, some people hire a move manager a year or two in advance and others have what Novak calls a “house on fire” move that needs to be organized within days.
“The biggest challenge for downsizing is decision fatigue,” says Novak. “If you have 40 pairs of shoes, just pick the 10 you use or like the most. You don’t always need to sort everything into three piles. Sometimes it’s better to just choose what you want to keep and let the move manager figure out how to disperse everything else.”
Clients with plenty of time sometimes hire a move manager to work with them over the course of a year for a couple of hours a week to sort through items the day before trash day or when a donation center is open, says Suderman. Assigning “homework” with deadlines can keep people motivated to downsize their possessions, he says.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all approach,” says Novak. “There are so many variables, including how willing or able the customers are to do some of the work themselves, how much furniture they have and even the quality of what they own. If someone has high-end items such as art, designer clothes, fine jewelry and a coin collection, we’ll need to negotiate with art buyers and consignment stores.”
Suderman worked with a family that had 2,500 pieces of art and heirlooms that took months to inventory and disperse.
One of Novak’s clients who moved from Reston, Virginia, to Vermont, got rid of 80% of their belongings through an auction with MaxSold.
“MaxSold sold everything from garden tools to a colander to extension cords — everything they didn’t need to move — through an online auction,” says Novak. “It’s not really an income-generator, but it’s a great way to offset the cost of moving. The MaxSold team coordinates with the buyers to pick up everything.”
A guide through the process
Move managers can create a digital inventory of items that can be helpful for practical and sentimental reasons. People can keep photos of their collections to retain the emotional connection without physically keeping the items, says Newberry.
“Sometimes people react well to straight talk about whether their stuff will fit into their next home and sometimes it’s better to tease around the issue a bit such as asking if the couch will fit in the elevator in their new building,” says Suderman.
A move manager can guide people through the “goodbye” phase of downsizing. “Most of all, people want to know that something they value will go to a new owner who will care for it,” says Newberry. “They want to know it won’t be trashed.”
Newberry works with shelters in her area to donate clothes and other items. “When you’re working with seniors, it’s important to take into account the environment they grew up in,” she says. “People in their 80s and 90s are different than people in their 50s and 60s. People from the Depression era value their possessions more because of the hardships they went through to get them.”
Move managers can also smooth relations between family members. “Sometimes family members want to help but they impose their own values and tell their parents or grandparents that something is ugly or falling apart,” says Newberry. “When we can sell an item, that makes the seniors feel good, to know that someone will appreciate it.”
She has intervened a few times to solve family disputes, such as when a daughter of her client was determined to “help” by making her father try out different chairs to see which was easiest for him to use.
“I asked her what the harm was in letting him move the recliner he loves to watch TV in every day,” says Newberry. “The dad was overjoyed because that’s the only thing he really wanted to keep and the daughter was happy, too.”
Sometimes family members do want their parents’ or grandparents’ belongings, which creates another challenge.
“If you want to distribute sentimental items to family members, it’s best to offer everything to everyone at the same time to avoid hurt feelings,” says Buysse. “If you post photos on a website and give everyone access on a first-come, first-served basis, you can avoid giving people things they don’t want.”
Move managers recommend truly saying goodbye to possessions and not relying on storage. “We try to steer people away from storage unless it’s a temporary solution to store items for family members who can’t pick anything up for a few months,” says Suderman.
Buysse says people can waste thousands of dollars on storage. “One person whose family we helped with an estate sale had paid $99,000 in storage fees to avoid making hard decisions for many years, but nothing in the unit was valuable,” says Buysse.
Sometimes an outside opinion is just what’s needed to clarify decisions to make a smooth transition into a smaller home. While move managers work primarily with downsizing baby boomers and seniors, younger people can benefit from a seamless moving experience, too.
Start early. The more downsizing you do long before a move, the easier it will be, says Buysse. “It doesn’t get better with age,” she says.
Start with your biggest items. If you own a kayak or a piece of exercise equipment you don’t use, you may be able to sell it, says Suderman.
Determine what to keep first. Choose your most important items first, then figure out what to do with what’s left, says Newberry. Measure your new space and use a floor plan to make sure what you want to keep fits.
Identify what you use daily. If you’re limited to moving 20% of your belongings, that can help you focus on just the essentials that you use or enjoy every day, says Novak.
Focus on one room at a time. Going from room to room can be exhausting and disorganized. Buysse suggests clearing one room at a time to decide what to sell, donate, toss or distribute.
Evaluate your collectibles. In some cases, items that you’ve saved such as baseball cards, comic books and “Star Wars” memorabilia can be valuable, Suderman says, so have them appraised.
Avoid paying for storage. It’s tempting to pile up everything that doesn’t fit in your new home into a storage unit, but many people end up paying thousands of dollars for items that eventually will just be thrown away, says Novak. Take photos of sentimental items and then give them away or sell them.
Consider hiring a move manager. The National Association of Specialty and Senior Move Managers has a searchable database by location.