Jonathan Benjamin, 62, works full time as a pediatrician in Newton. Two years ago, as an empty nester and new widower, he was finding it painful to be alone in the Chestnut Hill house where he and his wife had raised their three children. But even the thought of moving to a condominium overwhelmed him. “I didn’t know what should go to my kids, what should go into storage, what should go to the condo,” he says.
Benjamin’s adult children live in California, New York, and North Carolina, so he didn’t expect them to dismantle the house. Instead, he hired Joan Roover, a “senior move manager,” a trademarked term for professionals who help older people downsize. These managers call in estate appraisers and trash collectors, antique dealers and electricians. For their more elderly clients, they study the floor plans of assisted-living apartments and find tactful ways to explain that there simply won’t be room for that recliner bought on sale at Jordan Marsh in 1962. In other words, they come in and they deal — in cases when adult kids can’t, or don’t have time, or there aren’t adult children at all.
For Benjamin, some of the challenge was the sheer volume of stuff — he jokes that his late wife was a “closet hoarder” — and some was the emotional difficulty. “I remember sitting with Joan in my library and saying, ‘I don’t know where to begin,’ ” he says. “She said, ‘Let’s take it one step at a time.’ ”
As the first wave of boomers closes in on 70, the ranks of senior move managers are growing. The profession’s rapid expansion is a signal of some of the ways in which this generation’s old age is likely to be different from that of their parents’ and grandparents’. Boomers are expected to have more money, a longer life expectancy, and smaller extended families than previous generations, all of which suggests more professionals will assist them as they age. In 2002, there were 22 senior move managers in the United States. Today, there are 750, with 41 of them in Massachusetts.
Clients say such services offer crucial help with logistics — including a special protocol for handling medications — but also something more: emotional support, for both parent and children. Wendy Handler, 59, is a real estate broker in Denver, but her parents were, until recently, living in Dedham. When they decided to move to Colorado, the couple hired Roover to manage their transition. Handler says she came to think of Roover as a “surrogate sister” during the process. “She becomes part of the family and gets the dynamics,” says Handler, whose parents are in their 80s and 90s. “When you’re not there, you feel so guilty and terrible that you’re not helping, and she is able to.”
The phrase “surrogate sister” denotes closeness, of course, but also a certain critical distance. Hired helpers can be the ones to declare that the first-grade report cards of children now in their 50s do not all need to be saved — a judgment call that can be difficult for the “children” themselves.
In addition to speaking uncomfortable truths, move managers free up adult children to spend meaningful time with their parents and in-laws. Lori Gans, 52, is a nonprofit fund-raising consultant in Newton with teenage children who spent much of the spring helping her mother-in-law prepare to move into a retirement community. But when 90-year-old Florence Gans hired Roover, Lori says, the whole family was relieved. She and her husband could then enjoy their time with Florence, going through old family papers and photographs and “hearing all the stories” because they weren’t worrying about taking apart her computer or emptying the garage of hazardous waste, a remnant of Florence’s late husband’s cleaning-supply company. “Joan’s worrying about that,” Lori says with a laugh.
The outsourcing of worry isn’t new, as generations of nannies can attest. But the women who become senior move managers — and they are almost all middle-aged women — seem more comfortable with the language of commerce than is true in some caretaking professions. Joan Roover, a boomer who trained as a social worker and lawyer and worked in health care, opened her company eight years ago in her home. “I decided I wanted to exercise my entrepreneurial streak,” she says. Her area clients have included Lois Lowry, author of The Giver, and attorney Alan Dershowitz. Meanwhile, Kim McCarthy wanted work that would allow her to be available to her children. After a need arose in her own family for help clearing out an elder’s home, she “wondered why there wasn’t such a service already.” In 2007, she decided to open one for the Worcester area.
These entrepreneurs are tapping into a valuable market. Close to half of the US adult population will be older than 50 by 2017, according to a report by the Nielsen company, and those adults will control some 70 percent of the country’s disposable income. A lot of services will be aimed at them, and for many they won’t come cheap.
Jennifer Pickett, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Senior Move Managers, estimates the average fee is $40 to $60 per hour but says rates in the Boston area may be up to twice as expensive.
But among those for whom time is as valuable as money, some see the service as a bargain. Roover says she increasingly gets calls from clients at the young end of the baby boom requesting help not for their parents but for themselves. Divorcing couples use her services to dismantle shared homes. So do busy professionals who are moving and delighted to find they can hire somebody to deal with the details — and the sometimes complicated emotions.
Today, Jonathan Benjamin is happily settled in his condo in the Waterworks Building near Boston College. His three children traveled home to go through their mother’s personal items, but he and Roover together took care of the rest. Benjamin says hiring a move manager meant he could be visiting a daughter in California while the last bits of trash were removed from the old house. It meant he could keep up his medical practice. And it meant that on move day, he could walk into his new place and find liners in his kitchen cabinets and his socks tucked neatly away in a drawer.
Alison Lobron is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.