Facing medical concerns, 75-year-old Bill Giesenhagen and his wife, Maggie, moved out of their single-family home near Denver last month and into an apartment in an assisted-living community.
The Giesenhagens downsized the right way, starting to plan their move in 2006 and giving themselves enough time to adjust to their new lifestyle. They also hired a senior relocation specialist to help them get organized and deal with the emotional task of selling off belongings they could no longer keep.
Giesenhagen, a diabetic and open heart surgery survivor, and his wife lost almost half their living space when they moved into an 1,800-square-foot apartment at Classic Residences by Hyatt, in Highlands Ranch, Colo. But there, he is guaranteed to receive fast medical care should he need it — a relief to his wife, who still works and often travels.
"She was concerned about my being by myself at home," said Giesenhagen, a retired general contractor. "We don't have to worry about that anymore."
The Giesenhagens' transition to a smaller home was almost seamless, but for many people 55 and older, making the decision to move from a house into a smaller apartment, condo, assisted-living facility or nursing home can be a source of stress, apprehension and fear.
"It's overwhelming for both sides, both physically and mentally," said Nan Hayes, president of MoveSeniors.com, one of many Web sites that help seniors find relocation resources.
Ideally, the decision to downsize is voluntary and well-planned.
But sometimes age makes it hard to maintain a single-family home. Other times, financial circumstances, the desire to be closer to family, health issues, a spouse's death or other crises force a move, requiring emotional decisions by seniors and their adult children.
Plan early, plan well
More than 75-million baby boomers are approaching retirement, and, while most will likely decide to stay put, some will be leaving their longtime residences behind.
Elinor Ginzler of AARP recommends starting the planning process as early as possible, even years before the actual move takes place. Early planning makes dealing with a crisis situation, such as a health issue, a bit more manageable.
It's not an easy conversation to have, especially for seniors who have lived in the same place for years. Lines of communication must be kept open between adult children and senior parents to make the switch easier. Planting a "For Sale" sign on the lawn can be a sad moment for all involved.
Relocation can be disorienting, confusing and depressing. Seniors should not feel like a burden if they need to lean heavily on family and friends for advice and guidance. They should also learn ahead of time about the services available in their new community, from hospitals and in-home nurses to home maintenance and transportation.
Seniors should ask around for a reputable moving company and review their contract to make sure there are no hidden fees.
There are many resources to help. Certified Relocation and Transition Specialists, for example, are relocation experts that help seniors make the transition into their new living space. But costs for their services can run into the thousands of dollars, depending on the job. Also, ask for references and check for complaints filed with the Better Business Bureau.
Other good places to start researching include, MoveSeniors.com, the National Association of Senior Move Managers, and Web sites such as seniormovesrelocation.com and agentlejourney.net.
"We understand the language of tears during the letting-go process," says Sally Allen, chief executive of A Place For Everything, who helped the Geisenhagens move.
Relocation specialists assess which belongings will be moved and how much space is available at the new location. They review the floor plan of the new home to determine what will fit, and help the family sort their possessions.
Some people may be reluctant to get rid of possessions that won't fit in their less spacious homes. Families must decide what stays and what goes, and it can be difficult for people to say goodbye to that old wedding dress or little Susie's first pair of shoes.
Unwanted items can be disposed of through auction, estate sales or donation, which the relocation specialist helps organize.
Specialists also can help pack and schedule moving times. Once the movers finish their job, the specialist then goes to the new home, helps unpack and sets up the new layout.
"You try to recreate their space as best you can, especially when you are dealing with dementia and Alzheimer's," says Betsy Peterson, a relocation specialist from Oak Ridge, Tenn.
Senior relocation specialists are also helpful for adult children who live in a different city than their parents and cannot be there for each step of the downsizing process. Seniors with no family and a limited support network also can benefit from outside help.
Allen explains, "Our services can be more ruthless, in the sense that it's an outsider's objectivity that the senior and the adult child both appreciate because they can talk to us separately about their feelings."