Longer life spans create business opportunities to serve seniors' growing needs.
After a 30-year career of helping patients at Ohio State University's Dodd Hall as a clinical nurse specialist, Cindy Gatens, 67, realized she was the one needing a helping hand or two.
"My husband's health was starting to get worse. I'd been working full time. So, when it came time to make a decision about moving and selling the house, it was a bit stressful," says Gatens. She made the decision to downsize from her family's Upper Arlington home of 30 years to a villa at Friendship Village of Dublin.
Gatens remembered an ad she'd cut out of an Upper Arlington weekly for a Columbus-based, senior downsizing business called Suzy's Helping Hands, which also does estate liquidations.
"There were just a variety of things that were heavier and hard to manage," says Gatens of the heavy lifting a move would require. Gatens has been wheelchair bound since age 18 when a car accident damaged her spinal cord. "I didn't want to burden my kids to have to (move things) for me."
Enter Suzy's Helping Hands. Run by entrepreneur Suzy Smith, Helping Hands is a six-person team offering a variety of services in the downsizing and relocation process for seniors.
From simple space organization or home de-cluttering, to the complexity of estate liquidation and selling a house, Smith and her team make sure every step of the downsizing process for seniors is covered.
"It's a big step, a huge step (for seniors), so you want to make sure you give them the confidence to make the change," says Smith. "What we do with the seniors is, we downsize their belongings. We downsize the whole estate. We figure out, what do they want? How do they want it?"
The need for a business like Smith's is growing, says Patty Callahan, caregiver advocate for the Central Ohio Area Agency on Aging. COAAA is one of 12 regional agencies across the state.
"Our aging population is growing, and the businesses to support them are growing, too," says Callahan. "The needs are great and people are seeing that these kinds of services are in demand."
For Gatens and her husband, Paul, the need started very small and simple: Changing out summer and winter wardrobes, as well as Christmas decorations.
"I had my winter stuff in the basement, and my husband was having trouble with his health. And my kids, they hated doing that," says Gatens, who started working with Smith and team about three years ago. "She or someone on her team would come between winter and summertime and help me switch out my clothes."
But, soon enough, Gatens knew she needed more.
"I knew I was going to retire," says Gatens. "We knew we'd need to downsize."
The process for the Gatens was the same as it is for any senior preparing to downsize and move, says Smith. From start to finish--and billed at an hourly rate per man-hour--the move can take up to two months.
"(It) involves a tremendous amount of supplies," says Smith. "Many times we have to have Dumpsters, we have to set up for the auction houses, prepare items being donated."
Smith says every one of her team members has an understanding of what can sell and what can't. Those items that can sell are auctioned off, donated to Goodwill, or taken to a shop like Grandview Mercantile. Antiques are taken to specialty shops to sell; non-sellable items are trashed.
Smith and her team set up all the sales and provide the money to their clients. She'll even take items and ship them to grandchildren or children at the request of their clients.
"We're the liaison between them and the families and the attorneys. We're very careful and very slow to work them through it," says Smith. Smith says that she and the project manager will stay in constant communication with children and family members about the progress of the downsizing and move. "It takes a village to move a senior. It's a turnkey operation if they want it to be."
For the Gatens, Smith and her team made about three total trips of downsizing before they were ready to move.
"I felt so good about going through all my stuff," says Gatens. "Little by little I'd go through things."
Smith then scouted the villa at Friendship Village and advised Gatens what furniture would fit and what wouldn't.
"She was very helpful checking out the space," says Gatens. "I wanted a couple shelves built, and Suzy has a gentleman who built shelves for me. She helped me look at what I needed for storage and got me some cabinets for my files. They hung pictures and got the house all set up."
In Gatens' case, she and her husband sold their house on their own. For those who need it, Smith also provides a realtor to the client, as well as assisting with estate liquidation.
"We do everything, from beginning to end," says Smith.
That continuum of service allows Smith and her team to grow with the constantly changing needs of aging clients--from simple downsizing, to moving into a condo, to assisted living and, if needed later on, a nursing home.
Smith says the ultimate goal is to make her clients feel relieved of the burdensome details of simplifying their living situations.
"The beauty of this downsizing thing is that, when they're done, they know where everything went and they have a sense of accomplishment," says Smith. "They feel like, 'OK, I've done this and now I'm free.'"
Callahan says that, for those seniors who can afford to hire a private company like Suzy's Helping Hands, the expense is preferable to the time, effort and strain put on downsizing seniors and their families.
"It can be a very overwhelming task for anyone," says Callahan. "If you have a lot of things to sort through and you're not sure what you can fit into whatever living situation you've chosen, they can be a tremendous help with that."
And for Smith, every move adds a new dimension to her personal outlook: Moving seniors and helping them through difficult times in their lives has given her own life perspective and meaning.
"Every home is different. And every home has had its sadness and its good times. Most likely you hear what's really happened with the family," says Smith. "You learn to understand that no matter where people are, they need to be accepted and loved right where they are. If they've made it through life this long, they need to be honored."