Choosing the stuff of life

When 'downsizing,' purge what doesn't support who you are, says Crownsville organizer Susan von Suhrke

  • Susan von Suhrke of Timely Transitions LLC holds up one of her tools of the trade for getting organized: Post-It notes.
Susan von Suhrke of Timely Transitions LLC holds up one of her… (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
August 29, 2010|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

Old age ain't for sissies.

— Bette Davis

Her father had lived for a decade and a half in a big house on the Eastern Shore. Then he started showing signs of dementia. In 2008, Barbara Turner finally had to take the reins.

It was tough enough that Turner, a retired newspaper journalist, was forced to move her dad into assisted living. But what should she do with his stuff? She wanted to keep it all — the chairs, the old photos, even the lawn equipment. But her own home started filling up.

Then it hit her. "There's an opportunity cost for everything you keep," she says. "You have to stop and ask yourself: 'Is this [object] going to make my life better? Will I love it? What right does it have to be in my space?"

She's one of a growing number of Americans dealing with questions of space brought about by aging — and one of more than 30 who filled a classroom at the Pascal Senior Center this month for a talk by Susan von Suhrke, a Crownsville resident who left corporate life not long ago to join the expanding and often emotionally charged field of senior move management.

"We [all] need to surround ourselves with things that support who we are and where we want to go right now, and get rid of the things that undermine [that]," says von Suhrke, a certified relocation transition specialist. "As the population ages, and more people find themselves downsizing or just moving, the choices are hard. But it's liberating to make them."

At the seminar, Pascal Center manager Nancy Allred makes a few opening remarks, and as the talk begins, many listeners wear anxious expressions. As it unfolds, some loosen up and laugh. With her tall stature, operatic voice and overhead slides, Von Suhrke, 61, makes for a reassuring guide.

But aging in modern America is complex, and our best hope in managing it might lie in facing a simple question that predates von Suhrke's industry by centuries. "It's a way of asking, 'Who am I?'" she says.

Moving boxes

Professional organizing got its start, some say, about three decades ago, when it became clear that American life had grown faster-paced, careers more changeable, relocations more frequent — fertile conditions for chaos and stress.

Whenever it was born, the field's top trade organization, the National Association of Professional Organizers, which turns 25 this year, boasts more than 4,200 members. About 90 of those, including von Suhrke, live within an hour's drive of Baltimore.

Von Suhrke ("it rhymes with 'turkey,'" she says) was a ripe candidate to jump in.

Born in Colorado and raised in New Mexico, she has moved a dozen times in her life, weighing anchor in places as wide-ranging as Kansas City, Augsburg, Germany, and New York. "I certainly know my way around a moving box," she says.

Tailoring her belongings to those new homes forced von Suhrke to develop a few basic culling principles. "Sometimes you keep things because they were a gift from someone, or you think you might get around to using it," she says. "Sometimes a thing might even bring back unpleasant memories, but they're linked to someone you've lost. But guilt isn't a good reason. If a thing doesn't enhance or support who you are or want to be at this stage, let it go."

In a field known to attract workers from many backgrounds, von Suhrke accumulated experiences the way someone who lives in the same house for years gathers possessions. Many are useful, she says, as she spends her days helping clients rearrange work spaces or kitchens ("take the items you use less often and keep them in the hard-to-reach spaces"), "de-cluttering" basements or planning for a move. (Professionals generally charge somewhere between $40 and $90 an hour.)

A classically trained vocalist, she performed as a professional singer at 16, then got more stage time while earning degrees in musical theater and dance. A dog lover, she started and ran an obedience-training school (she and her husband used to show Briards), worked as a sales rep at an Army base, even taught swimming.

In Anne Arundel, where she has lived since 1981, she spent a decade as an administrative assistant with an aeronautical communications firm, finding time to become "that person who organizes the events" at church. "I've just always been known as that 'fix-it' person," says von Suhrke, who believes that organized parents tend to raise organized kids.

Three years ago, she saw an article in a local paper about professional organizers. The field seemed to call for skills she had in spades: problem-solving, teaching, encouraging, even public speaking. It called for less startup money than most. And she figured she could work out of the small home she shares "with a 6-foot-2 husband and two big dogs." She downsized into a new career.

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