The Upside Of Downsizing

A New Breed Of Relocation Pros Helps Movers Wade Through Years Of Possessions

The Middle Ages

Staying young, growing old and what happens in between

April 22, 2007|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Sun Reporter

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.

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