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That might sound callous at first, but Warren sees her job as helping people part with some of the things that are no longer practical in a new retirement setting. Her sorters are trained to help clients make decisions about well-loved possessions. "You have to be gentle enough to listen to someone's story about their grandmother's Spode but strong enough to ask, 'so which is your favorite china? let's take that one.'" Clients who presort save on hourly rates, says Warren. Clutter bugs end up paying a premium as they sit in a comfortable chair and discuss the fate of each item with a sorter.
A move to a retirement community comes freighted with emotion. Sorting through a lifetime of possessions, reminiscing, feeling sad and saying goodbye to a house is a necessary part of the grieving process, says Barbara Kane, a licensed clinical social worker in Bethesda, Md., and author of Coping With Your Difficult Older Parent. "Moving is about the loss of our role as a householder, the one thing we still have control over in the last stages of life," she notes. "That's why it's so tough."
An adult child often instigates a move because a parent is too frail or demented to live alone, she says. But the transition may be so upsetting that it triggers depression in an elderly person, requiring medication or counseling. And older adults with difficult personalities those who are overly needy, self-centered, controlling or anxious may require extra nurturing and understanding during a major transition.
"Instead of arguing with your parent, you have to empathize," Kane says. "You've got to say, 'Mom, I'm sorry it's so hard.' Period." Attempting to convince parents they're better off in a new setting is a mistake, she adds. "They'll hear that as abandonment and be even more threatened and rigid."
Retirement communities and geriatric-care managers may know of packing services that specialize in dealing with the elderly, says Novack, who is also a founder of the newly formed national association of senior move managers. The association's website nasmm.com) has links to companies around the country, and Novack hopes the organization will have a voluntary certification program in the next few years. She advises families to inquire about professional credentials, liability and workers' compensation insurance, references, written contracts and fee structures.
Some relocation help is available to people who move to one of the 5,700 member facilities of the American association of homes and services for the aging (AAHSA), a Washington-based group representing nonprofit nursing homes and assisted-living and continuing-care retirement communities. "We wanted to provide an affordable service to seniors to make the transition as painless as possible," says Scot Scurlock, an AAHSA vice president. A coordinator provides phone support and tracks details during a transition but is not on site for packing and unpacking.