Baby boomers are downsizing — and the kids won’t take the family heirlooms
For 30 years, Pat Fryzel stored her children’s memorabilia, and her grandmother’s, too. But when she and her husband downsized, from a large Winchester home to a two-bedroom Boston town house, there was no room for the American Girl dolls or Nana’s cake plates. So Fryzel asked her grown kids to collect what they wanted.
She was not met with much enthusiasm. “They said, ‘Take a picture and text it to us,’ ” recalled Fryzel, 64, a retired nurse practitioner.
For generations, adult children have agreed to take their aging parents’ possessions — whether they wanted them or not. But now, the anti-clutter movement has met the anti-brown-furniture movement, and the combination is sending dining room sets, sterling silver flatware, and knick-knacks straight to thrift stores or the curb.
And feelings are getting hurt, as adult children who are eager to minimize their own belongings — and who may live in small spaces, and entertain less formally than their parents did — are increasingly saying “no thanks” to the family heirlooms.
“It’s a bitter pill,” said Ellen Sullivan, director of operations for Andover- and Dedham-based Home Transition Resource, one of a growing number of firms in the booming field of “senior move management.”
The thriving industry is a symptom of the challenge. While the senior-move specialists assist older clients with the mundane aspects of moving — choosing a mover, say, or calling the cable company — they also play the role of family therapist, buffer, diplomat.
“We can help to soften the blow if the kids don’t want anything but are afraid to tell their parents,” said Kate Grondin, founder of Home Transition Resource. “We can shift the focus to how wonderful a donation would be.”
The cold math of downsizing can be seen in a 2016 profile of buyers and sellers from the Massachusetts Association of Realtors. From the ages of 18 to 54, when a person sells a house, the next home he or she buys is larger. When sellers hit 55, the homes they buy next are smaller.
But the square-footage numbers don’t capture what space means in emotional terms, in memories: the mahogany hutch Grandma inherited as a young bride, too big for the dining nook in her retirement community apartment; the books that have been like friends, too voluminous to take along; the kids’ art projects and book reports from long ago.
But as meaningful as possessions can be, often the true stress is not even about them, said Len Fishman, the director of the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
“It’s happening in the context of downsizing,” he said. “Your world was expanding, and now it’s beginning to shrink. What goes along with this kind of move is a life review, asking what’s next? Am I going to be useful? Will my life have meaning?”
In some cases, downsizing seniors understand why their children don’t want the heirlooms they’re trying to pass down, but that doesn’t always make it easier.
Indeed, after years of watching her interior design clients deal with the disappointment that comes when a child says “no,” Leslie Fine found herself in a similar situation.
She and her husband are moving from a house in Newton to a South End condo in the Ink Block development, meaning she’ll no longer have basement storage.
“I have a lot of mementos from my grandmother that my mother foisted on me,” said Fine, 59. She dutifully stored them for three decades, in boxes she never opened, and while she doesn’t expect her daughter to take them, she’s now facing a quandary.
“How can you take these things to a consignment shop?” she asked. “It’s almost like a burden that we carry with us through life. Sometimes I wish we had less connection to our possessions.”
The burden is only likely to grow. The number of Americans ages 65 and older is projected to more than double, from 46 million to over 98 million by 2060, according to a 2016 report by the nonprofit, Washington, D.C.-based Population Reference Bureau.
Locally, no one is better positioned to see the stress an unwanted La-Z-Boy can induce than those working in the senior move management industry. Unknown just a few decades ago, the field now has a trade group — the National Association of Senior Move Managers — that counts 950 member companies.
Prices in Boston average $75 to $100 an hour, according to the association.
Anne Lucas, the founder of Ducks in a Row in Winchester, often tries to reframe a situation, away from loss and toward joy.
“I did a downsizing talk recently and everyone asked, ‘What do I do with my crystal and china?’ I said, ‘Drink your OJ out of it. Who cares if the gold comes off? The kids don’t want it.’”
Senior move managers regularly lower clients’ expectations — kids these days don’t want old stuff, they tell their clients — but Amy Roberts, owner of Out of the Box Moves in Belmont, often plays matchmaker.
“We’ll take pictures and e-mail the family members to see if there are any pieces they want,” she said. “To be honest, it’s hard.”
Some adult children, of course, don’t want to disappoint their parents so they take whatever is offered and then store it — forever.
“I have never had an instance,” said Michael Cappelletti, the founder of Cubiq, a concierge storage company, “where someone said I want [to retrieve] my mother’s Hummel collection.”