Realities of Downsizing: Insights and Advice from a Transitions and Moving Expert

When it's time to downsize, it's more than just packing - it's about family history and current family dynamics. Adviser Marcia Mantell shares insights from her interview with an expert.
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By Marcia Mantell, RMA

“Don’t leave me with this mess, Mom!” Marie LeBlanc’s son told her a few years ago. He was referring to the big house chock-full of “collections” from a life well-lived and enjoyed. While years too early for Marie and her husband to consider downsizing, she did take his message to heart.

Marcia Mantell

Marcia Mantell, RMA

And, she remembered how difficult it was to help her dad clean out his house twenty years ago. Yet, she acknowledges how that one event sparked her career change. After 20 years as a process engineer and sales rep, Marie started her own company, Transitions & Liquidation Services, Inc., in 2002.

Downsizing is so much more than logistics

Transitions & Liquidation Services, or TLS, is as utilitarian as it sounds. At first glance, this company specializes in helping people move from their current large home to something much smaller. There are packers and movers and those who help set up in the new location. And, some of the services offered are all about the liquidation side: setting up garage sales, assessing what can be donated, and planning traditional estate sales.

All of these services are critical needs when a person or couple is too physically limited to handle a move or who have become incapacitated and need the help to relocate. Often, on a short timeline.

But Marie’s company is so much more than planning and logistics. Much to Marie’s surprise, this job is really all about the people and their life journey. It’s about family history and current family dynamics. She brings an incredible depth of empathy to her clients and their families, respecting both the life road that the older person has traveled and the collection of treasures that represent that life’s climb.

Getting help when you need it most

Marie’s clients are often a family member of an older person. During the first meeting, she sees first-hand how much frustration is already building because mom or dad didn’t move out of that big house years ago. “I’ve been telling her for years she can’t handle living in that big house” is something many clients vent to Marie. The younger generation is stressed and strapped for time with busy careers, kids, and other commitments. And now, they need to deal with an older relative’s relocation and the decisions that come with downsizing.

Rather than adding more stress to a fragile family environment, Marie acts as a mediator. She helps navigate the decision-making and the actual move to lower the emotional temperature.

The fights are about the stuff…but it’s never about the stuff

During these highly emotional times, everyone is out of sorts. For the younger generation, there’s a lot of reverting back to their childhood. Marie deals with siblings fighting with each other as the stress level rises. And, with how unreasonable parents can get with their adult children.

The fights start out with something like who will get the jewelry or the artwork. But they quickly dissolve into something we’re all familiar with: “Well, mom loved you best, so of course you’re the one to get that.”

For so many adult children, they are squeezed around the middle. Marie describes the stage when the older person has to make a transition as an hourglass. All of a sudden, there is a tremendous amount of sand falling on the younger person.

At the same time, the older person is reeling from so much change. They often have such a difficult time emotionally that they abdicate decisions and simply walk away.

The sand is pouring through that small port in the hourglass, building up quickly. Clearly a recipe for disaster for so many families.

Both generations need more understanding

Marie spends a good portion of her time helping each side navigate and understand the other. She’s seen first-hand how mothers excel at “working the guilt angle.” They want their treasures to be passed down and taken care of.

The daughter (usually) has no use whatsoever for those collectables from Mom. She reminds her mother that she lives in a tiny apartment. Or has four sons who don’t need the figurine collection.

Neither person can see the other’s side and arguments escalate quickly. Marie often pulls the younger party aside to say, “Do the honorable thing and just take it. You don’t have to keep it out but do the right thing for your mom.”

Marie is adept at keeping the goal out front. The goal is the reason the family hires her company in the first place. They need to physically complete a transition or move, including downsizing and disbursing “stuff” all on a deadline.

When transitions and moves occur

Families call Marie for help with moves and transitions during some of their most challenging times:

When the first spouse dies. Avoiding reality was easy when both spouses were alive. But when the first dies, the survivor is often not able to step in and play both roles.

When an individual dies. Often, there is no family available or nearby to clean out a house. Setting up an estate sale and readying the property for a sale is often best handled by a professional.

When parents don’t want to burden their children. Many older people proactively downsize and relocate. But the physical demands can be challenging. It’s helpful to have advice from a third-party about what to keep and what to give away. And, what will fit in their new home.

When someone is having memory issues. Marie deals with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease up close. These families often need help finding the right living and care arrangements. Then, the entire transition, including selling the house, needs to move on a fast timeline.

When an older person falls. This is often the worst part of aging for families. It’s not just about the injury after the fall. Many people never regain their full physical abilities. They must move to a skilled nursing facility with two-person assistance to help them with daily living activities.

Marie’s Pearls of Wisdom

To date, Marie has handled nearly 1,800 moves and transitions. She’s seen many families dealing with aging, incapacity, illness, relocations, and downsizing. And they each deal with the reality differently. Here are five pearls of wisdom from Marie’s experiences that may help your family when most needed:

Move when you are physically able to handle it. Even with movers and packers, there is still a lot of physical demand—and emotional demand—on a person. Consider moving earlier than might be ideal. Once older clients are settled in their new, smaller homes, they often report that they wish they had made the move years earlier.

Review your will and estate documents to make sure they are written as specific as possible. Otherwise, family members are trying to remember or interpret what you intended. Without clear documentation, your wishes might not be followed correctly. Or worse, your children and grandchildren end up feuding.

Talk to those you want to inherit your property before writing your will. In an effort to be “fair,” many parents write “divide my property equally between the children.” One child interprets that as splitting up the physical stuff and another assumes you meant they should sell it all and split the cash. Two very different interpretations.

Respect and embrace aging. This goes for both generations. For the older generation, understand that with aging comes wisdom along with aches and pains. Your body and mind are tiring. You lose the ability to process information with as much clarity as you had decades ago. And, that’s ok. For the younger generations, respect the journey the elders have been on. While you’ve got decades yet to go, be more understanding and patient, and recognize the emotional toll that change takes on older relatives.

Arrange for your pets to be well cared for if you can’t keep them. Many times, community-living places can’t take pets. Have a plan for who will provide love and care for your pet if you can’t.

Years after starting the business, Marie and her husband decided to take steps to downsize. While not retiring yet, they acknowledged the wisdom of their son’s request. It wasn’t easy, but it was necessary. “Sometimes, the best gift you give your children is to make your own decisions,” Marie says. Wise words from someone who sees the other side every day.

About the author: Marcia Mantell, RMA®, NSSA®

Marcia Mantell is the founder and president of Mantell Retirement Consulting , Inc., a retirement business consultancy. She develops innovative programs, marketing materials, and educational workshops in the financial services industry, for advisors and their clients. She is author of What’s the Deal with Retirement Planning for Women?, What’s the Deal with Social Security for Women? and blogs at BoomerRetirementBriefs.com.


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