New Adventures in Smaller Quarters: Firms Help Elders Make Transitions

For more than 40 years, Dorothy Glowacki of Winchester, Mass., enjoyed living in the comfortable white Cape that she and her husband bought when their daughter was in fifth grade. With six rooms, the house had space for her piano, three looms, and shelves and shelves of books. Even after she was widowed 30 years ago, Mrs. Glowacki stayed, happily surrounded by memories and mementos.

Then last fall she decided to move to a local retirement community. She knew she faced a daunting task: paring down a lifetime of possessions to those that would fit in a one-bedroom apartment. Glowacki also knew she would need to make arrangements herself, since her only daughter lives in California.

"It's difficult to decide," says Glowacki, a former librarian. "Some things you want to keep not only for yourself now, but because you know your family will want them later."

More downsizers

As the ranks of older Americans grow, so do the numbers of people moving from long-established homes to Sun Belt condos or other types of retirement housing. Today 13 percent of Americans are 65 and over. Assisted-living residences serve an estimated 1 million people. About 350,000 live in continuing-care retirement communities, according to the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging.

In most cases, say managers of retirement communities, family members help with such moves. Some facilities supply floor plans and cutouts of furniture that can be arranged on a template. Others offer a moving coordinator.

For retirees like Glowacki who have no children nearby, another kind of service is springing up: professional "move managers," who see themselves as "surrogate adult children" to assist in selling possessions, packing, and resettling. Glowacki hired The Next Step in Acton, Mass., which specializes in moves related to "major life transitions" - retirement, widowhood, or divorce.

"We became like her daughters," explains Ruth Shapshay, a partner in the two-year-old business. "I took her to the new place she had bought. We measured the rooms. Then we came back to her house and figured out what she could take. She wanted to send a few pieces of furniture to her daughter. We sold some things as antiques and other things elsewhere."

Typical fees for move managers start at $800 for a very small apartment and range up to $3,000 or $4,000 for a large house.

With or without help, this downsizing is no small task. Carol Ubertini, director of sales and marketing at New Pond Village in Walpole, Mass., finds that people often equate getting rid of things with "getting rid of memories. They remember who sat in this high chair, or they'll say, 'My husband and I celebrated our 50th anniversary on this couch.'"

To minimize that dislocation, professionals emphasize the need for careful decisions. Estelle Best, a move manager who operates Best Arrangements in Skillman, N.J., says, "We all have favorite pieces that are our comfort pieces, whether it's an old chair that's been passed down, or an old lamp we've enjoyed, or a wonderful bureau. Ideally, we can always find a wall or floor space to put that piece."

Orderly transitions also depend on not feeling rushed. "The best thing is to have time, and not to decide all in a hurry," says Glowacki. Shapshay and her partner, Jean Sifleet, spent three weeks packing Glowacki's belongings, always consulting her on what she wanted to keep. When time is short, experts say, people tend to bring too many possessions.

Yet they caution that it is better to keep too much than to harbor regrets later. Explaining that an empty apartment can be deceiving, June Boyd, executive director of Renaissance on Peachtree in Atlanta, says, "Quite often the square footage can accommodate more furniture than the eye can fathom. Too often I've heard the comment, 'Gee, that piece would fit right there - I wish I still had it.'" She adds, "If you have to ask the question, 'Do I really want to keep this?' the answer is often yes."

What goes, what stays

Furniture represents only one aspect of paring down. RoseAnn Urban, marketing director of Holley Court Terrace in Oak Park, Ill., says, "Many times people have a hard time parting with china, and they bring too much stuff for the kitchen and too many linens."

Glowacki kept her best china but says with a laugh, "I haven't opened the china closet since I've been here. I eat my dinners in the dining room." At the same time, she adds, "I should have kept more small kitchen things - small bowls and saucepans."

Glowacki discovered that she could have brought more books, and she needs a bigger filing cabinet. She also kept too many travel slides. "Who's going to look at them?" she asks. "On the other hand, you like to keep family pictures." And she cautions against jettisoning all hobby-related materials.

Glowacki is satisfied with her move. "You can't judge completely accurately," she says. "But in general, I think I made good decisions."

Move managers warn against cavalierly tossing out unwanted items. Shapshay says people often throw away things that have value, such as old postcards, linens, and dolls. One woman who moved to an independent-living facility five years ago ignored her son's advice to give away her books. She contacted a used-book dealer, who paid $500.

Even things that are not salable, such as kitchenware and clothes, can often be of use to others. Shapshay and Ms. Sifleet take unopened canned goods to a food pantry and old towels to a humane society. "Most people have a charity they care about, and they're happy to donate certain items," Mrs. Best says.

Some things prove difficult even to give away, such as old typewriters and irons. "Everybody thinks old encyclopedias are going to have some value," says Shapshay. "And old phonograph records are very difficult, unless it's jazz."

Focusing on gains

Beyond possessions, there are emotions to consider. Best and her husband, John, encourage clients to "look at this phase with excitement, curiosity, and hope."

And Steven Cohen, executive director of Orchard Cove Lifecare Center in Canton, Mass., emphasizes the need to "help people focus on what they're gaining, not what they're losing." Those gains include security and companionship. His staff also encourages residents to see downsizing as an opportunity to share items with family members. "So many people have talked about how wonderful it is to go to their children's or grandchildren's homes and see a possession they prized for so many years gaining new life," Mr. Cohen says.

For relatives helping with a move, Ms. Urban underscores the importance of empathy. She says, "We have to play the role of being pretty objective to go through the downsizing mode, but we can't become too callous about it. The smallest thing may have a lot of memories."

Another key to a successful transition is keeping the person making the move involved in the process. Says Urban, "Many times adult children are very well-intentioned. "They'll say, 'Don't worry about it, Mom, we're going to buy you all new furniture.' But if people move into a new environment with all new furniture, they've lost something they felt at home with. Those helping with the transition must be sure it feels like home and is what the person wants, because this is their new home."

Even retirees not yet planning a move can find freedom by scaling down. Glowacki says, "If you've got children who have been storing things with you all these years, that's what you should start getting rid of long before you move. Make them take a few things every time they come to visit you."

And Shirley Tie, who runs It's Your Move in Exeter, N.H., says, "Begin thinking early about who you might want to have some of your more treasured possessions. If, one way or another, people can do it early, it just makes their life easier."

Ms. Ubertini adds, "At each stage of life we have to let go a little bit."

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