What would a contemporary Cinderella, now aged 75, wish of her fairy godmother? Faced with the prospect of downsizing for a move to the palace for retired royalty, she would probably ask for a quick and painless transition. Just a few waves of the wand, and presto, she and her prince would be happily ensconced in their new quarters, surrounded by their most favorite things, and everything else would have been distributed to their loyal and deserving subjects.

Cinderella can use magic. What about the average senior couple or individual senior who decides to move out of a house he/she has occupied for 30 or 40 years? There’s no fairy godmother out there, but there are senior moving managers, people who orchestrate a move from beginning to end, from what to take or give away to unpacking at the new place and disposing of the 50 to 75 boxes that most seniors need to transport their belongings. Self described as the “wedding planners of movers,” senior moving managers oversee a major life event while calming the anxious principals. They deal with anything and everything that comes along, ensuring that the big day proceeds smoothly.

This nascent specialty fills a much-needed niche in the ever burgeoning world of “seniors in transition.” Although Americans on average move about every seven years, a very sizable percentage of seniors have lived in the same house for 30 to 40 years. Those who decide to move to a smaller unit in a condo or a retirement community – or are nudged in that direction by their adult children – are faced with dismantling a lifetime’s worth of possessions and memories. The prospect is daunting.

In many cases the adult children spearhead the move, but oftentimes the kids can’t take time off from their jobs, they live in other parts of the country, or as Genevieve Auguste, a senior moving manager in Bethesda, Md., said, “They get along well but don’t want to start World War III.” Another problem with family help is that the sorting and dismantling process can take forever. Everyone frequently stops to reminisce about all the different pieces of their shared past, and the parents usually have to be out of their houses in a relatively short period of time. Beyond the practical reasons, the clients tend to accept advice more readily when it comes from a neutral third party, Auguste said.

At the senior moving manger’s initial visit, he or she explains how they will orchestrate a move, then devises a specific game plan tailored to those clients, and, most importantly, diffuses a lot pent up anxiety. For most clients it comes as a great relief to learn that the senior moving manager has many resources and that she will find “a good home” for everything useable that the seniors are leaving behind, Auguste said.

On the second visit, the enterprise begins in earnest and the sorting starts. A senior moving manager, or a facilitator, as most call themselves, goes through the entire house with the clients and stickers designations on every item. Diane Bjorkman, a facilitator in the Twin Cities, Minn., area, uses red, yellow and green stickers, which she characterizes as “traffic lights – red is trash and a no go, yellow is a maybe, and green is a treasure and a definite yes.”

At timesthe sorting can get testy, but humor and tact will usually bring the clients around, said Tammy Wilcox, a facilitator who works with Bjorkman, “They all start by saying ‘I want to take everything’ and I tell them it’s either you or your sofa!” As Wilcox moves through the house she said, it’s also important to remember that “wheat and chaff” designations are subjective, and that one person’s treasures are another’s throwaways – a pile of paperbacks may be very special to one person and trash to another. The facilitator also has to nudge the client to be practical. For example, Wilcox said that people often want to take all their cooking equipment, but they haven’t cooked in 15 years.

Before or after the initial sorting, the facilitator makes a site visit to the new quarters, most often a condo or an apartment in a retirement campus that can include independent, assisted living and/or complete care arrangements. The information gathered is critical because the drawings given to the clients are often incomplete. The facilitator re-measures the space and adds important details such as wall bump-outs or recesses, exact window and door locations, door swings and ceiling heights.

The next step is the great reality check – reconciling what the clients want to take with what will fit. Greg Gunderson, a facilitator in Manhattan Beach, Calif., takes a low-tech approach. Working with the clients, he attaches the corrected plan to a magnetic board and then arranges scaled pieces on it that represent their furniture. He’s found this to be a quick and easy way to try several different arrangements, and it also prods the clients into to being realistic about what will fit. Gloria Bersani, a Chicago facilitator, is more high-tech – she uses a CAD (computer-aided design) software program to lay out the plan and determine furniture placement.

In cases where a client lives alone and is not able to participate in the sorting decisions because of ill health or dementia, an experienced facilitator can figure out what is used on a daily basis and should be moved to the new place. To make the transition as easy as possible for someone with severe dementia, Wilcox photographs the client’s house and arranges the furniture in the new place to match it as closely as possible. She’s so skilled at this she said, “Many don’t realize they are not at their old house.”

The flip side of where to put the furnishings in the new place is what to do with everything else. For many families, this is the experienced facilitator’s most important service. After 50 to as many as 1,000 moves, the facilitator knows exactly who to call for which item. If the clients have artwork or something that appears to be a valuable antique, she brings in an appraiser. If there are enough saleable pieces of furniture and other items such as china and table linens, she arranges for someone to hold an estate sale in the house or to take the items somewhere else to be sold. If the sellable items have less value, she arranges for a garage sale. More often than not, the eight facilitators I interviewed said the furnishings are “donatable” but not sellable, and they contact the right charity to pick them up. Adult children take some things, but often they already have a house full of their own furnishings.

When the sorting and designating are completed, the facilitator arranges for the packing. Some facilitators bring in a crew to do the packing themselves and some do not. The critical factor is having enough people to do it in a day, so that the clients’ lives are minimally disrupted. The packing is scheduled for the day before the clients move. When possible, the clients are not there, and they spend the night in a hotel or with a relative. If the clients stay until the end, the facilitator does not disturb their bedroom until the morning of the move, so as to minimize the distressingly “naked” look of any household that is being readied for a move.

On moving day, the facilitator and packing crew go to the new place, unpack everything, put it away, remove all the packing boxes, make the bed, and often leave flowers before departing. The seniors are “tucked into” their new home, ready to start the next chapter in their life and make new friends.

SIDEBAR:

How do you find a senior moving manager? The eight that I spoke with, who are scattered across the country in major cities, said that most of their clientele learns about them from the staff of the senior community that they are moving into. In some cases, the retirement facility will cover all or part of their cost.

Senior moving managers are not, as yet, a widely known service, but there is a national organization, the National Association of Senior Moving Managers, which has a locator feature on its Web site: www.nasmm.com. NASMM has about 100 member firms. Many of them are small mom-and-pop operations, but the older and more established ones have as many as 25 employees. To accommodate a long-distance move, the members often work together, with one orchestrating things at the seniors’ current residence, and the other handling the move-in at the new place. One NASMM firm, Art of Moving and Living, of Bethesda, Md., and Miami, Fla., has its own national network of partners, and it also manages second homes.

Although the NASMM organization and its members specialize in senior moves, they will move anyone of any age. Some orchestrate executive relocations for major corporations, and some move much younger families because a parent may be temporarily incapacitated by a broken knee cap, for example. All of them work with the “young-old” – the 55-and-older group who may still be working full time and not have time to deal with a move, or who may be retired and able to do much of the work themselves but still need guidance and advice.

Questions, or queries, or a column topic you would like covered? Katherine Salant can be contacted at www.katherinesalant.com.

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