When Lois Paul left her job as a bank officer in the early 1990s, she never imagined she would find a new line of work managing the disposition of estates and helping older adults downsize. A lawyer she knew asked her to help figure out the relative value of items in a household, and that led her to start a business. Now, after two decades as owner of Transitions Management, she has stories to tell and advice to share with seniors who are transitioning to smaller spaces.

“Identify what you really love and make room for it.”  Bring things that make you happy to compensate for the loss of space. The new home will “build itself” around those items.

“Old people don’t sit on couches, they sit on chairs.” Make sure every piece that moves to the new, smaller space will be useful to you.

“A favorite 40-year old mink coat is still 40 years old.”  Be realistic about the value of items you have. While they may have been precious to you, recognize they may not have the value you imagine in today’s marketplace.

“Pick the important pieces you love, and why not be generous after that?” Think of neighbors, friends or service providers who might be glad of dishes, linens, furniture, etc.  And don’t forget charities. ORT resale, the Junior League, church rummage sales, Goodwill, and the YWCA top Paul’s list. 

“Have a good conversation before it’s too late.” Use downsizing as an opportunity to tell family members stories about items in your home and ask them what items they would like to have.

“Sometimes family members are reluctant to have a conversation,” Paul says. Alternatively, a parent’s perspective can be “I’m not dead yet, don’t push me.” She sees those situations as lost opportunities to share memories and family lore. She has several pieces in her own home that she treasures for both their beauty and their connection to her childhood and family history.

In other cases, when children in a family cannot seem to get along, parents hesitate to incur the stress of trying to distribute things fairly. In that case, Paul recommends a process she has used successfully. First, family members draw numbers from a hat. Then they take turns, in number order, putting stickers on items they want. Afterwards they can trade. For particularly tense situations, she offers a key variation: “Sometimes it helps if Mom leaves while this is going on. Without her there, the kids usually figure it out. Parents don’t want you fighting.”

Joanie Wilkins and Mary Lou Smith similarly like to avoid family tiffs with their downsizing business, Smith & Joans Shrinking Homes. They advise that selling items in the home, converting them to easily divided cash, is often the best solution. A trend they have seen is that “the next generation often doesn’t want or value anything from their parents’ home.” When older adults find that saddening, Wilkins offers perspective: “This piece has been loved for the last 85 years. Your grandmother loved it, your mother loved it, you loved it, and
it’s not going to a bonfire. There is a family somewhere out there who will love it.“

Smith and Wilkins call themselves “house whisperers.” They say they enjoy providing a service that helps someone manage what can be an overwhelming transition.

This pragmatic approach is what Smith and Wilkins see as an essential counterweight to the stress of transitioning to a smaller residence. “It’s tough to go from one chapter of your life to the next,” says Smith, “and downsizing is paralyzing for most people. They think ‘How do we get rid of all of this? It’s overwhelming. I don’t know where to begin.’” She adds that most people are grateful when they “don’t have to ask their family to drop everything to help out.”

Smith and Joans’ business proposition to downsizing seniors is: “Take what you want and walk out the door. You don’t have to sort it – we do it all.” They manage estate sales, consignment, charity donations and disposal of everything the homeowner leaves behind. While there is a base fee for their services, Smith says, “After everything is done [clients] usually end up with a check.” Both Smith and Wilkins, who, like Lois Paul, serendipitously stumbled into their business, say the work they do is interesting and fun. Calling themselves “house whisperers,” they say they enjoy providing a service that helps someone manage what can be an overwhelming transition.

Diane Lequar is a community volunteer and writer who lives in Evanston with her family.