April 13, 2008
Shrinking the World, or at Least Your Corner
By ELIZABETH OLSON
PEOPLE who are about to shed personal belongings, by necessity or choice, may find the task overwhelming and emotionally painful. Now they don’t have to go it alone, thanks to an emerging group of workers called “downsizing specialists.”
Clients of these specialists may be retirees who need to pare the possessions of a lifetime to move to assisted living or retirement homes. Or they may be baby boomers who, once their children have left for college, want to move from big homes in the suburbs to smaller spaces in the city. Or they may be people of any age who just desire a simpler, less cluttered life.
Downsizing specialist isn’t a formal designation with its own professional association; it’s a term for a job that combines organizing, psychology and plain old hand-holding.
People with backgrounds in gerontology, social work, health care and psychology are entering the field. They are helping their clients survive the daunting task of sorting out their furniture, collections, art, knickknacks, clothing, books and other items, and arranging for them to be sold, donated or discarded.
Small companies are being created to tackle those tasks. They can be independent services like Simple Transitions, in Littleton, Colo., which opened last year in response to the growing number of retirement communities around Denver, or franchises like Smooth Transitions, based in Louisville, Ky., and Moving Solutions, based in Havertown, Pa.
Some professional organizers, who customarily organize items within a home or office, are adding downsizing to their repertoire, often catering to the boomer clientele.
“It was 9/11 that got people thinking that they wanted to simplify and get their affairs in order,” said Standolyn Roberts, president of the National Organization of Professional Organizers, which has 4,200 members.
Some downsizing specialists also belong to the National Organization of Senior Move Managers; its membership has risen in recent years to nearly 200.
Downsizing can be lucrative: many specialists say they charge $45 to $75 an hour to sort and dispose of possessions through estate or online sales, auction houses or charities.
Denise Gustafson and her two partners at Simple Transitions obtain referrals from retirement and assisted-living communities, real estate agents and families.
“A lot of time it’s the children that call us to help,” Ms. Gustafson said. “They often don’t live in the area, and they realize they need some help for their parents.”
The three partners at Simple Transitions have had to handle issues with their own ailing parents. They understand that it is not easy to let go of family heirlooms and other items that have been accumulated over many years.
“One of our first clients just sat in her kitchen and said she just didn’t know where to begin,” Ms. Gustafson recalled.
Another client, Regina Reynolds, 85, decided last year that it was time to move to a nearby retirement community. She had lived in the same apartment in Lakewood, Colo., for 20 years, and had plenty to get rid of, she said. And she had to do it quickly to claim her new retirement community space. So Simple Transitions spent a week helping her last August.
“They would ask me — in a nice way — to decide whether I wanted to keep something — yes or no,” she said. “They took things to the Goodwill, books to the library, helped me clean out my storage, which was full, and shipped things to relatives back East.”
Some specialists say they are not downsizing, but “right sizing.”
“What we’re trying to do is arrive at the right amount of stuff for the right amount of space,” said Barry Izsak, who runs Arranging It All, based in Austin, Tex.
Mr. Izsak says some clients want to “downsize in place.” These include Gwen and Eugene Prewit, who have spent more than two months sorting through their four-bedroom home in Lakeway, Tex., to make it more livable.
The couple had become overwhelmed by personal heirlooms along with antiques, china and other items that Mrs. Prewit had brought home from her estate sale business.
“Some days we could barely get in the door,” said Mr. Prewit, a retired computer developer. After their children’s Christmas visit, “we both realized we needed someone from the outside to help us,” he said.
Mr. Izsak’s colleague, Serein Rohrer, drew up a plan for the furniture the couple wanted to keep, and figured out how to dispose of the rest. She has been spending five hours a week helping them.
“She asks us — do you really need this? Do you really love that?” said Mrs. Prewit, who added that the experience could be stressful. “Sometimes I’ve said, ‘That’s not going,’ but 98 percent of the time, I’m happy with what we’ve done.”
Ms. Rohrer says that one way to help people accept the loss of their possessions is to take photographs of some of the items to be discarded.
“It’s like a personal trainer. You can’t learn the workout at the gym all on your own without someone to guide you,” she said. “This is the same thing.”
Fresh Starts is a monthly column about emerging jobs and job trends.