How to make downsizing and moving much easier for seniors

More than a year ago, Mary Ann Oakley hired a college student to begin the difficult process of downsizing from a large, two-story brick home in north DeKalb County to a small, two-bedroom condo in Atlanta.

For six weeks, the college student helped Oakley, a retired attorney, clean out closets full of linens and sort through boxes of papers in the basement. They made countless trips to Goodwill and shelters for women to donate many of their items. But then the college student went back to school.

And in late 2015 when it eventually came time to pack up and move, Oakley, now 76, realized she and her husband, Dr. Godfrey Oakley, visiting professor of epidemiology at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, had barely made a dent in preparing to move from their house of 25 years. As Mary Ann Oakley, who has limited mobility, scanned her house – cabinets full of dishes, boxes brimming with photographs and papers, and furniture in every room of a house of more than 3,500 square feet – she felt overwhelmed.

“I remember looking around my house thinking, how in the world am I going to get rid of all of this stuff?” Oakley said.

She said she knew she needed help – professional help. She hired a senior move manager.

Oakley enlisted the help of Changing Spaces Move Managers, co-owned by Linda Kaplan and Holly Mitchell, two former advertising executives, who got the idea for the company through personal experiences.

“Our parents needed to downsize, and they needed a lot of help,” said Kaplan. “It wasn’t just the logistics of packing and moving; it turned out that some of the tougher issues were helping them manage emotions and preserve memories that were somehow connected to their possessions, and of course imagining a new way of living in a smaller, simpler space,” said Kaplan. “We know moving is stressful. And we felt like we had the expertise and experience to help others with a much-needed service.”

Kaplan, Mitchell and their team helped the Oakleys with every step of the moving process from measuring the new floor plan and helping determine what pieces of furniture would best fit in the new space to helping the couple declutter every room of the house, pack, unpack and set up in their new home.

Moving is daunting for any age, but for those who have lived in one house for many years, perhaps decades, purging things accumulated over time can be particularly emotional and stressful.

Senior movers help with issues that come with downsizing, including selling and donating items, as well as deciding what to keep and what to purge. They can help seniors select their favorite things – such selecting a handful of homemade cards and drawings from their children and tossing the rest, or deciding to keeping the teacup and saucer from grandma, but donating the rest of the set. Senior movers can also help digitize photographs and other memorabilia, and put photos into a photo book. And senior move managers also help when adult children don’t live near their parents or don’t have time to help sort through belongings.

Mary Kay Buysee, the executive director of the non-profit National Association of Senior Move Managers (NASMM) said membership has grown from about 20 in 2002 to more than 1,000 members today. There are about 10 senior move manager companies in metro Atlanta. Buysee estimates most senior move managers in this area charge between $60 and $80 per hour. The cost of a move can range from less than $1,000 to several thousand dollars, depending on the size of the move and level of assistance required.

Buysee said the rising demand stems from the growing aging population. By 2030, the elderly will account for one-fifth of the total U.S. population. The proportion of Georgia's population that is 60 and older is growing more rapidly than other age groups of the population. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that more than 20 percent of Georgia's population will be 60 and older by the year 2030, an increase of nearly 34 percent from 2012.

Much like the wedding planning industry of a generation ago, Buysee said senior move management has emerged from a little-known role to a trusted resource for thoughtful planning of a major life-changing event. She said adult children, while well-intentioned, may not have the time or expertise to help their parents downsize. And through NASMM, move managers can also coordinate a move from one city to another, working with move managers in other states.

Senior movers also problem solve. When Carol and Bob Nemo of Atlanta were getting ready to downsize, the seniors lamented not being able to take with them Bob’s collection of 3,000 beer bottles. They weren’t just any beer bottles, but instead bottles from his travels around the globe. And Bob had organized them by country and alphabetically, and proudly displayed in his home office. They couldn’t just toss them in recycling. So Kaplan and Mitchell called various pubs and restaurants around town to see if they had any interest, but none wanted them. Then Kaplan and Mitchell had an idea: take photographs of Bob’s favorite bottles and then have a photograph blown up into a huge, six-foot-tall poster, and hang it on the wall in Bob’s small office in his new home. (And then the bottles were recycled.)

“It’s perfect,” said Carol Nemo. “The photograph looks great on the wall – and takes up no space.”

Roger Kurth, owner of Senior Transition Services, worked in housing sales for many years, but then during the housing crisis in 2009, started looking for a new line of work. He had been hearing stories at church and in his community about seniors who were anxious and ill-equipped to downsize and move from a home of decades to a smaller place.

“This was an area of senior services that was under-served,” said Kurth whose company includes its own moving trucks, and while based in Snellville, works throughout the state.“Our goal is to take the stress out of moving.”

On a recent afternoon, Harriet Sessoms, an 82-year-old widow, covered her mouth in surprise when she stepped inside her new home, a two-bedroom condo in Atlanta. Just one day after moving trucks showed up at her nearby, large house, she slowly stepped inside a condo completely set up — her floral couch, wooden rocking chair, landscape paintings on the wall, dishes arranged in the china cabinet. Even her closet was organized with all of her clothing hanging and folded, organized by colors. Not a single box, or slip of packing paper. (Mitchell and Kaplan take photos of the insides of cabinets, closets and dressers, so if they help unpack after the move, they can recreate the placement of things.)

Sessoms lit up when she saw a wooden framed mirror, in her family for generations, hung close to her front door. She walked into the guest bedroom and saw a portrait of her late husband, Walt, on the wall in a guest room.

Sessoms’ daughter Kay said she made a few trips to help her mom move, helping her donate books and clothes, and whittling through her things. Kay said the hardest thing for her mother to get rid of was anything with handwriting. Her mother, she said, bought about 10 photo albums to organize letters and photos. Other things like furniture, books and holiday decorations were easier to let go of, she said.

“Living out of state, I can only do so much,” said Kay. She said having the help from Changing Spaces was “a blessing. There is no other way to describe it.”

One day earlier, there were 70 boxes, but a team of five women worked for several hours to get everything just right. The place was bright, cheerful.

“It’s absolutely beautiful,” said Sessoms. “It feels like home already.”

Meanwhile, Mary Ann Oakley, is comfortable in her new two-bedroom condo. She was happy some of her existing furniture, including a comfy beige couch and bookcases, fit nicely in the new space. She said there was only one piece of furniture she felt particularly strong about – a mahogany wooden corner cupboard, which her mom had custom-made in 1948. Oakley remembers the cupboard in her dining room as a child, which later became a fixture in her homes over the years. And it now stands in her living room.

Without senior movers, Oakley said recently in her new smaller home, “It either would not have happened or I would probably be on a funny farm or nuts.”

Tips for Downsizing from Changing Spaces, co-owned by Linda Kaplan and Holly Mitchell in Atlanta

If possible, create a floor plan first for where you are moving. Decide what furniture you would like to take and make sure it will fit. Choosing pieces that have good storage (chests instead of tables) helps when downsizing.

When sorting, work on one area at a time. For some that might be a room, others might need a smaller goal of a dresser or even one drawer at a time to help you focus. Working with a family member or move manager will often speed up the process.

Separate items into bins with labels and into categories: keep, give away, sell, donate, trash. Keep only what you truly love or need. Do not keep an item just because someone you love gave it to you. You will still love the person without keeping the item, and besides, someone else might truly love or need it. Changing Spaces likes to use the full stick Post-it® notes in different colors for each category.

For collections that you don't have room for, choose only your favorite. Take pictures of the rest. Keep a teacup and saucer on your shelf to remind you of granny. You don't have to keep the whole set.

Convert your hundreds of photos to a digital frame. Many pictures can be displayed, and you are preserving them as well.

Safety is a top priority. Think long and hard about taking throw rugs, glass tables and too much furniture which could end up being a tripping hazard.

Don't stop the purging. Properly dispose of expired medicines, pantry items and clothing you've not worn in a year. As you buy something new, dispose of something. Watch for recycling days organized by non-profits for electronics, shredding and hard to recycle items. You can check for some of these days.

Less is more. The items you really love will be seen in a new light and showcased in a space with less clutter. You will love them all the more. Having less in your living space is calming and freeing.