De-Stressing Downsizing

Where to turn when you're ready to make the move



Illustration by Alexandra Bye

The mere thought of downsizing and moving to new digs strikes terror in the hearts of even the most stalwart souls. But when you’re a senior, and have likely lived in the same place for decades and accumulated a lifetime of memories and possessions, the fear and loathing factor multiplies exponentially.

Detaching, depersonalizing and decluttering is daunting indeed, and just contemplating packing can be paralyzing.

So who you gonna call? Clutter busters!

“If I can make a positive difference in a senior’s life, I’m going to do it. That’s why I started this business,” says Kathy Baldridge, owner of the Nashua-based Lifetime Transitions. She holds three licenses as a senior realtor specialist, estate liquidator and move manager.

Baldridge is a 10-year member of the National Association of Senior Move Mangers, which requires members to adhere to a code of professional ethics and standards to ensure that clients are moved expertly, compassionately, safely and affordably.

Place extra emphasis on compassionately.

“For seniors, this process is overwhelming, often gut-wrenching, and at times it can be heartbreaking,” says Baldridge, a downsizing diva who also serves on the State Committee on Aging.

It’s no surprise that NASMM’s membership roll grew from just 22 only a few years ago to more than 1,000 today.

For seniors, parting with belongings, especially those steeped in sentimental value, is considered by psychologists and social workers to be one of the most complicated and most stressful experiences of a lifetime.

The challenges aren’t limited to wrestling with the grief of leaving one’s home and the fear of losing not only stuff but one’s self-identity and self-esteem. There’s also the pressure of what seems like a mountain of physical challenges and anxiety over having to confront the unknown.

It is particularly difficult for those in their 80s and 90s, and when the elderly hoarding disorder comes into play at any age, it all gets monumentally worse.

“There is always the fear that when you let go of your things, you’re letting go of your life,” says Helene Parenteau, who is a member of the National Association of Professional Organizers and owns Organizing Specialists and Senior Downsizing in Salem. “These things represent your life and more than just your memories,” she continues. “They represent you. There is the feeling that if you let them go, you’re letting go of yourself and of the meaning of your life, and that is very frightening.”

The first reaction to change is almost always resistance.

But when staying in the home is no longer an option — if it has become unmanageable, unsafe or just too expensive — that’s precisely the time to call in family, friends or a professional and have that very tough conversation about the culling process.

“As we age, we become more emotional. I’ve seen it time and time again where clients are not only more emotional, they have a much harder time making decisions. The longer people wait, the harder it all becomes,” says Carol Martin-Ward, New Hampshire’s other NASMM member and the owner of Practical Organizing Solutions in Manchester. “Then, if they’ve lost their spouse, especially if that person was the one who made most of the decisions, it can be even more problematic.”

The best advice? Purge early and purge often. There’s no time like the present.

Even if you’re still in your 50s or 60s and not considering a move any time soon, get cracking and start cleaning out the clutter in the closets, cabinets, attic, basement and garage. Certainly begin at the first sign of deteriorating health.

Your future self will thank you for it.

 “It’s never too early to start. If you don’t have a process in place, then you will be overwhelmed by each part of a senior move, especially if you need to move quickly. People can’t believe I can help them do all of it,” Baldridge says.

Plan to sit down with your kids, and even grandkids, to determine which of your treasures they might like to have. But be prepared, and don’t be hurt, when they say “no thanks” to your valued antiques, china, crystal and silver.

If dishware can’t go in the freezer, dishwasher, oven or microwave, then millennials and many boomers don’t want it. Even worse, dealers don’t either.

“There is no market for any of these things. Nobody wants old stuff anymore. It’s tough to have to say that to my clients,” says Martin-Ward. “For them, it all depends on what memories are attached to these things. To me, it just looks like a piece of china, but my client remembers her mother lovingly serving home-baked blueberry pie on it. So I sit with people and listen to the stories, and sometimes they say, ‘OK, I’m good with it now and I can let it go.’”

Other times … not so much.

In those instances, one solution is to take photographs of yourself with those treasures, create a digital or hardcover scrapbook, and pass down the prized possessions to family members in that way. Then you can donate the items to charities and organizations, and as an added plus, you get a tax deduction.

“In the move-management scenario, people have a lot of knickknacks, and they have built-ins. Guess what? They forget there are no built-ins in a 687-square-foot assisted-living apartment,” Baldridge says. “We come up with strategies. I implement floorplan software. We know what is going where before the furniture and boxes go onto the truck, and the floor in the new place is already marked with tape showing where everything goes. We don’t want clients paying to move items that won’t fit or don’t work in the new place, and then they have to pay more to move it back out and figure out what to do with it.”

If you can alleviate the stress, tension and trauma when it’s time to right-size and relocate, it’s much easier to look forward to bright beginnings.

“If you go into assisted living, be sure to bring color and lighting into the space,” advises Parenteau, who is bilingual in French and English. “When I put someone into these units, I try to recreate their home in miniature as closely as possible. Bring what you loved about your home that will fit into the smaller space so you don’t feel so estranged. Then you can start your new chapter.”

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