By Missy Sullivan
My dad’s loss of independent living came suddenly. He was a widower in his 80s and living in a one-bedroom apartment, but several mini-strokes had gradually taken a toll on his mobility and mental acuity. After the third or fourth such event, his doctor dropped the bomb: When he leaves the hospital this time, he can’t go home. In short order, we (his kids) needed to identify and tour assisted living facilities, grapple with the paperwork and finances, pack up his belongings, and figure out how to best offload his soon-to-be-excess furniture.
We had about four days to figure it all out.
As families go, I‘d say we’re more equipped than many to deal than many with such a task: We’re five in all—along with our spouses and kids, a small army—and we all live on the same coast, three in the same town as Dad. And thankfully, Dad had already undergone a series of moves that had gradually winnowed down his possessions. All good.
But make no mistake: Whether a move is forced or voluntary, health-triggered or not, helping elders get to the next phase or “right-size” their lives can be a massive, emotionally draining undertaking—especially if it involves getting them unstuck from homes where they’re weighed down by a lifetime worth of memory-laden possessions. “Stuff can really, really bring you down,” says Jennifer Pickett, associate executive director of the National Association of Senior Move Managers, a small, but burgeoning group of professionals aimed at facilitating the move process. “It can be paralyzing to an older adult.” (For more on the topic of the challenges of downsizing, see The Great American Sell-Off.)
If the term “senior move manager” is an unfamiliar one, you’re not alone; membership in the national association currently hovers around 600. But it’s a field you’ll likely hear a lot more about as our population ages rapidly and the average occupancy rate for senior housing inches back up. (It now hovers close to 88 percent, having inched up for four straight quarters, according to new data from the National Investment Center for the Seniors Housing & Care Industry.) Some senior move pros launched their businesses after careers as nurses, social workers or senior care administrators. Others were professional organizers-cum-closet-wizards who saw the demographic writing on the wall and jumped into this niche. Industry experts say they’ll cost, on average, $40 to $50 an hour, but can run over $100 an hour in bigger urban centers.
What do you get for that price? In theory, a far less stressful late-life transition—not just a clipboard jockey who’s organizing the whole shebang (distributing to family, donating, selling, dumping, planning, packing, moving), but a compassionate facilitator steeped in the ethical and safety issues of dealing with this often-vulnerable population. In practical terms, that means they know to keep the doors shut while they’re working in the home of a client with dementia, and they won’t just toss prescription bottles in a moving box, where they can easily get lost. And it means that before they sell off the client’s beloved collection of antique teapots, they’ll help ease the psychic pain of the loss by encouraging the owner to share the stories behind objects, maybe even help make a scrapbook. “They do a lot of listening,” says Pickett.
The problem is this: This is a field with virtually no barriers to entry, where industry “certifications” carry sometimes dubious value. So who do you want rummaging around in mom’s underwear drawer and how do you know if they’re trustworthy? Experts suggest checking references, making sure that the person is bonded and insured, and has had a criminal background check—and asking for the scope of work and cost to be laid out in writing in advance. Lastly, make sure they disclose any relevant monetary relationships. I’ve heard from folks in the field that, especially during the downturn, assisted living facilities hurting for residents would often offer to pay the fee of a senior move manager in order to help a potential resident to get unstuck from their home.