In 2015 John Walsh, at age 34, was busy raising his kids and plugging along in his career as a risk manager for large multinational insurance companies. Then, as he says, life gave him a tap on the shoulder.
Walsh found out that both his parents, who are in their early seventies, were suffering from neurological disorders that would prevent them from living independently. Suddenly Walsh, who lived in New York City, and his sister, a nurse practitioner at the University of Pennsylvania, had the task of finding them a new place to live and moving them there from the family’s three-story Princeton home that they had lived in since Walsh was in middle school.
Finding an assisted living facility for them was daunting enough. Walsh visited 19 different ones in the area before settling on one. As with any senior “downsizing” move, the new quarters were much smaller, and could fit only a tiny fraction of the decades’ worth of possessions that the couple had accumulated. Not only was the space smaller, but assisted living homes need to leave wide spaces clear for wheelchairs and such things.
Walsh’s mother, a real estate broker for Callaway Henderson for 35 years, and his father, a corporate executive who worked as a turnaround specialist CFO, had amassed many belongings during their careers and world travels, all of which Walsh now had to deal with. Walsh says that a good rule of thumb is that for every year you spend in a home, you should spend eight hours decluttering. In Walsh’s parents’ case, two decades of home occupation and putting off decluttering left the family with about 20 full days worth of work to deal with the belongings.
“I was born in Brazil,” Walsh says. “They had some Brazilian artwork. My sister was born in Indonesia, so they had some Indonesian artwork, too.” There was a large bed from China, and a number of other valuable items. “It became pretty overwhelming for my family, and I made it less stressful by taking the role of ‘quarterback,’” he says.
Some of the items were sold in consignment stores, others were donated (for a tax write-off), and others were simply thrown away.
After all was said and done, the process took 15 months of hard work. It was difficult, but Walsh was good at it. So good that he decided to quit his 15-year insurance career and become a senior moving specialist full time.
“I wasn’t getting a lot of personal gratification or satisfaction through that,” he says. “I got a lot of gratification from helping my parents through one of the most stressful times in their lives an our family’s life. I kind of have, inherent in my bones, the need to give back to the local community and help families.”
In April he opened Senior Solutions on Nassau Street in Princeton. Since then, he says, he has helped eight families manage their senior downsizing moves. Furthermore, recent changes in the federal tax code that limit the size of deductions that can be taken for local property taxes, has encouraged residents to move out of large, expensive homes in the Princeton area. Walsh says he counted 17 “for sale” signs in his parent’s neighborhood during a recent trip. “Families are looking to downsize and they don’t need or want a large home anymore,” he says.
There are many services that remove clutter (such as 1-800 Got Junk,) but these do not specialize in senior moves. Walsh says he is the first business in the area to do so. He says that many times his fee is less than competitors after factoring in the money he is able to make by selling items at consignment shops or online marketplaces like Facebook Marketplace, Letgo, and eBay. Anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of items from an average senior home are suitable for sale.
Not everything can be sold. For example, many Baby Boomers own expensive china sets and high quality, heavy, hardwood furniture. These items are difficult to sell because younger buyers setting up their homes tend to not want china sets and prefer lightweight, easy to move Ikea-style furniture over hard wood behemoths. “The millennial generation coming out of college and looking to buy their first home or continuing to rent after college is perfectly satisfied with Ikea furniture,” he says. “They want the ability to be mobile and not hunker down.”
Seniors must make decisions about what they are taking to their new home, what is being passed down to their children, and what is going to be sold or donated. Walsh works with groups such as the Trenton Rescue Mission, Homefront, and Dress for Success Mercer County to make sure that any items donated end up in the hands of someone who can use them. For family photos — precious but bulky — Walsh uses a service that scans them and puts them on a thumb drive for the seniors and on a cloud storage service for the younger family members.
Walsh, whose business is insured and bonded by the with the National Association of Senior Move Managers, is teaching a course at the Princeton Adult School this fall at Princeton High School on Senior Downsizing. For more information, visit www.princetonadultschool.org.