Estate Planning and Retirement: How to Downsize Like a Diva

Jeff Bell
Kristi Brewer, left, sorts through belongings in her new apartment with help from Laura Schulman of A Moving Experience LLC.

Laura Schulman remembers how difficult it was when she, her husband and their three children pulled up roots in Chicago and moved to Columbus in 2006.

She had lived in the Chicago area her entire life and found herself a bit overwhelmed by all that was involved in the transition to a new city and home. But she enjoyed some pieces of the move, including handling the myriad details that went into organizing and packing her family’s belongings and setting up their new home.

Nine years later, Schulman drew upon those skills when she founded A Moving Experience LLC. Focused on helping seniors downsize before a move to an apartment or assisted-living facility, the company tries to take the work and worry out of a move by concentrating on the emotional and physical aspects of the process.

“I was 40 when I moved here and learned how emotional it was for me,” she says. “When it’s 40-plus years later, people are not physically at their best. It can be extremely overwhelming or even paralyzing for them to manage all of it and what to take with them.”

A Moving Experience is one of a growing number of senior move management companies in central Ohio and across the nation. They typically help organize a client’s possessions, design floor plans for new residences, schedule and oversee movers, handle sales and donations of discarded items and pack and unpack before and after the move.

And, perhaps most importantly, they provide emotional support for older persons struggling with the reality that they need to leave a place that may have been their home for decades.

“It’s such a blessing to be able to do what we do,” Schulman says.

A Moving Experience is among about 1,000 companies that are members of the National Association of Senior Move Managers (NASMM). That’s up from the 16 companies that founded the association in 2002, says Mary Kay Buysse, executive director of the Chicago-based trade group.

The growth is due in part to what’s been called the “silver tsunami” of baby boomers who have reached retirement age or will do so in the coming years. The vast majority will face downsizing decisions as they move to smaller living spaces or age in place. Buysse points to data that shows 10,000 Americans turn age 65 every day. By 2030, a projected 79 million U.S. residents will be that age or older.

The trend can be seen in central Ohio. There were 252,175 people ages 65 and older in the seven-county region in 2017, an increase of more than 62,000 compared to 2010, according to the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission. Such gains are expected to continue over the next decade.

Buysse says NASMM members must meet strict vetting requirements. They include taking the association’s cornerstone courses, abiding by its code of ethics and submitting to oversight by the group’s Ethics Compliance Commission.

Those standards are critical in an unregulated industry in which senior move managers “get into the nooks and crannies of a private home like nobody else has,” Buysse says. “This is such an intimate relationship,” she says. “Our members take that responsibility very seriously.”

Senior move management charges can range from $40 to $120 per man hour nationally, Buysse says. The average price for a move is around $3,000, plus the cost for the moving company.

That can be money well-spent for not only seniors, but their adult children who turn to senior move managers for help in assisting an elderly parent make the transition at what often is an emotional time for all involved.

Leslie Smith and her brother, Ray, called on Schulman and A Moving Experience for help in moving their mother, Helen, in September. She left her long-time home in Worthington for an independent senior living community in Atlanta, where Smith lives.

“We needed someone who knew how to be patient and understanding of the process my mother was going through,” Smith says. “The biggest service Laura provided was her ability to talk with my mother and help her understand she would support her in this process.”

Smith and her brother also hired a senior move manager in Atlanta who worked with Schulman to coordinate things on that side of the move. “They worked together to recreate the room layout so it was similar to our mother’s home [in Worthington]. That was extremely valuable,” Smith says.

She believes it is important for family members to start planning for a move when it begins to become clear an elderly parent’s living situation no longer works. That was about five years ago in her family’s case. “We had done all the research,” Smith says. “Then it was just a matter of saying ‘let’s implement this now.’ ”

While such moves are often difficult, Karen Spiller of Smooth Transitions of Central Ohio says she tries to help her clients see the good in the moving process. She and her husband, Matt, launched their senior move management business in 2011. It is a licensee of Louisville, Ky.-based Smooth Transitions, which operates in 25 states. The company was founded by Barbara Morris, who is considered a pioneer in the field.

Karen Spiller says she learned quickly that older people moving from a long-time home need a lot of empathy from those assisting them during the transition. “We try to make it less overwhelming for them and easier for them to sleep at night,” she says. “It’s really about listening to what matters most to them. We look for ways to save something that’s important to them or honor it.”

Smooth Transitions provides everything from floor planning for the new living space to coordinating move-in day. The Spillers have a pool of about a dozen part-time workers to draw upon at peak times and work with moving companies they trust to do a good job. The company charges $50 an hour per person working on the move. “When we’re done,” Spiller says, “people tell us that’s the best money they ever spent even if they were hesitant at first.”

Some nonprofits are getting into senior move management, too. They include the Furniture Bank of Central Ohio, which created Downsize with a Heart as a social enterprise venture in 2017. “We were looking for a way to serve seniors, increase furniture donations we get for families and make a small surplus to help underwrite our mission,” says Furniture Bank President Steve Votaw.

While his organization already had moving trucks to help with that part of the process, it saw the need to send some staff members through NASMM training courses on how to work with the elderly. “It’s an emotional time for them,” says John Vidosh, who oversees Downsize with a Heart. “They have all this stuff and memories from living in the same home for 40 to 50 years. Often they will tell us stories that relate to their furniture pieces. It’s a form of grieving for them.”

He says Downsize with a Heart plays the role of a general contractor, coordinating the various aspects of a move from start to finish. That includes helping clients sell items to help cover the cost of a move—it ranges from $45 to $60 per man hour depending on the season—and donate unwanted items to Furniture Bank, although that is not a requirement.

“It resonates with seniors that any surplus will go to support our mission,” Votaw says. “We’ve been successful once we’ve met with families and shared our model.”

Jeff Bell is a freelance writer.