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Guy and Patricia Bauman have slowly been passing family items to their children in an effort to downsize.
SHNS photo/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by Bob Donaldson
Guy and Patricia Bauman have slowly been passing family items to their children in an effort to downsize.

How do you divvy things up among the children without bruising feelings? What if you’re still overrun with stuff after friends, family decide what they want? Not to worry — professional organizers can help seniors navigate these
downsizing decisions

By Gretchen McKay
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Many seniors have a difficult time emotionally when they downsize from the family home to a retirement community or apartment. Yet deciding which items to take with them — and how to get rid of everything else — can be an even bigger stressor.

Just ask Guy and Pat Bauman. This month, the couple moved from the three-bedroom ranch in McCandless, Pa., which they bought as young marrieds in 1959 to a two-bedroom carriage house in a retirement community in Valencia, Pa.

They spent hours every day for six weeks before the move sorting a lifetime of possessions into various boxes and piles. Some items, like Guy Bauman’s grandmother’s writing desk and the Haviland china that belonged to Pat Bauman’s mother, were quickly marked as keepers.

But even after some “ruthless” clutter-busting, the couple still didn’t know what to do with the giant railroad platform Guy Bauman spent years working on with his son. It would kill him to put it out on the curb.

“This is the hardest part of the whole moving ordeal,” he admits with a sigh, surveying the piles scattered about his once-tidy basement.

“It’s our age,” his wife offers as explanation. “We were brought up where you don’t throw anything away.”

The Baumans are luckier than some in that they have adult children, including one who lives nearby, to take many things off their hands. But what if that’s not an option? Worse yet, what if friends and family members have already picked through the offerings and you’re still overrun with stuff? Some are so paralyzed by the thought that they simply decide to stay put.

Fortunately, you don’t have to. Today, there are a growing number of senior move managers and professional organizers who can help the elderly navigate these emotionally charged waters.

Paul Regan, “The Organizer,” is among those who can help seniors figure out what should be thrown out, given away or put on commission with an antiques appraiser. His key questions are:

  • When was the last time you used this?

  • Will it fit into your new lifestyle?

    For instance, someone who is moving to a retirement community with meal plans should probably think about giving most of the family crystal and china to their children.

    The dispersal of a lifetime’s worth of stuff often comes down to a frank discussion of what’s truly important to them.

    “My role is, I guide and they decide,” says Regan, who charges by the hour.

    For the past two months, he’s been working with Cathryn Irvis, widow of former Pennsylvania state House Speaker K. Leroy Irvis, to clear out their nearly century-old house.

    Many items are going to her two children, while others, including many of her husband’s 3,000 books, will go to the University of Pittsburgh’s Hillman Library. His woodworking tools were sold to one buyer on eBay. As for his many carvings, sculptures, paintings and model airplanes? That’s still being determined.

    Vickie Dellaquila of Organization Rules also has made a career of helping downsizing seniors declutter, sort and organize their belongings.

    Dellaquila, who recently published the step-by-step guide “Don’t Toss My Memories in the Trash” ($14.99, Mountain Publishing), says seniors often don’t realize how much planning and organization goes into a move, and how stressful it can be. It’s even worse if an illness, physical disability or death has forced the move on them before they were mentally ready.

    Huge obstacle

    So valued is this emerging niche service that at least one retirement community — Sherwood Oaks in Cranberry, Pa. — pays for five hours of professional organizing services for all new residents.

    “Getting the family home cleared out is a huge obstacle,” says vice president Katherine Vojtko.

    But how do you divvy things up among the children without bruising everyone’s feelings?

    Obviously, it makes sense to talk about particular items when everyone is still in good health and then formalize any decisions about who gets what in a will.

    Faux auction

    Mario and June Melodia had a better idea. When they downsized from their family home, they held a faux auction to divide up their collection of antiques and other belongings among their three children.

    “I had a friend who ended up not talking to his brother over a chest of drawers, and that really worried us,” recalls Mario Melodia, 77.

    First, they had an appraiser estimate what the various pieces would sell for at auction and in an antique shop. Then they gave each child the same amount of play money with which they could “bid” on the items.

    To keep things as fair as possible, a different heir got to choose first on each round. They also set a very important ground rule: While spouses could attend the “preview,” only the children were allowed to bid.

    “The idea was, if two of them liked the armoire, they could negotiate with each other,” says Mario Melodia.

    The auction was such a smashing success that the couple is considering doing it again in the future for all the new things they accumulate.

    “Why wait until you’re dead and they argue over it?” asks Mario Melodia with a smile. “I think everyone should do it.”

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