Not so long ago one would be hard pressed to find Ingrid Reed at her home in Princeton on a weekday afternoon. You would more likely find Reed, a longtime observer of New Jersey state politics, in New Brunswick, where she directed the Eagleton Institute of Politics, or in Trenton or some other political hotspot as a founding trustee of NJSpotlight.com, a news website that covers state politics and policy issues.
Although both are still involved in various community groups, times change. Reed and her husband, former Princeton Borough mayor Marvin Reed, are both retired. And on one recent Tuesday afternoon, Ingrid was at home pondering the fate of her collection of citrus juicers. Ingrid and Marvin are in the process of moving from their two-bedroom townhouse on Cameron Court to an apartment in the Stonebridge at Montgomery retirement community — about one-third the size of their current place.
Ingrid looked over her collection, which sits on a row of shelves in the kitchen by a bay window. “I’m interested in anonymous design,” Ingrid said. “I’m fascinated with these juicers because each one has been designed by somebody and nobody knows who it is. When I bought them they were at rummage sales for a dollar, and they’re collectibles now.” Is there room for her prized collection in the new apartment? That’s one of thousands of small decisions the Reeds have to make as they prepare for a life in smaller quarters.
The Reeds are not alone, and as the baby boom generation ages into full retirement many people will be following their path. At some point in their lives, most people will have to downsize their households, but the process is rarely easy.
Organizers, thrift store operators, and leaders of nonprofit groups who help the elderly say they have noticed a growing number of seniors downsizing their homes as they move from the places where they raised families to small condos or apartments in senior living facilities. With downsizing comes the need to dispose of a lifetime’s worth of possessions that may or may not be wanted by anyone else.
“There’s just a large baby boomer population that’s retiring,” says John Odalen, an organizer whose business, Organize and Maintain, is based in Lawrenceville. “Downsizing could be someone my parents’ age moving from a four bedroom home into a two bedroom house, to a couple in their late 70s or 80s moving into an apartment or assisted living. There is going to be even more demand for this as baby boomers continue to retire and get up in years.”
These moves are often fraught with hard decisions. “Imagine if you’re living in a house for 30 or 40 years, how much stuff you would have. You really need to think about what you’re going to need for life going forward,” Odalen said.
The Reeds are both originally from Vineland. Ingrid’s father was a German immigrant who owned a fertilizer factory, and her mother was a housewife who had previously worked as a governess for the president of Campbell’s Soup in Philadelphia. Marvin’s father worked in agricultural management and owned an egg and poultry distribution center.
Marvin, who is now in his mid 80s, was operator of Princeton Media Associates, a public relations firm, and was the longtime communications director for the New Jersey Education Association. He served as mayor for 13 years, retiring in 2003. Ingrid, who is in her late 70s, retired in 2010 as policy analyst and director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers.
The Reeds are probably more prepared for this transition than most people — this is their second move to a smaller home. The couple raised four children in Princeton in a six-bedroom house on Maple Street. In their first round of downsizing 17 years ago, they got rid of many of their possessions. Their children were happy to take much of their furniture, but they still had to figure out how to deal with three stories and a basement full of stuff, some of which didn’t fit their new lifestyle. “I vividly remember putting out our tent and camp stove on the sidewalk for the garbage to pick up,” Ingrid said.
Harder to deal with were the memorabilia and objects with sentimental value. The Reeds even had items recently inherited from their own parents. Much of it is still packed away in boxes, and Marvin and Ingrid are only now sorting through it all. “We are trying to think about what our kids will want to know about us when they are more mature,” Ingrid said. “I saved the program from my high school graduation that said I was valedictorian, but I dumped a rusty and not very valuable trophy that I got. Who would want to carry that around?”
Marvin had his own unique collection that he ultimately decided to throw away. “One of the first things I got out of here was what I call mayor memorabilia,” he said. “It took me 12 years of not being mayor to do that.” Newspaper clippings from Marvin’s time in office went into the trash, but consultants’ reports on consolidation from 1979 and 1996 were donated to the library because it didn’t have a copy of its own for the public record.
Other things are harder to find homes for, but it seems like a waste to throw them away. Ingrid said her Lenox porcelain collection turned out not to have much monetary value, even though it was expensive to begin with. (Retiring boomers are flooding the market with Lenox right now, Odalen said.)
Ingrid also found it difficult to find a home for their good dishes. “Our wedding china was plain white Royal Copenhagen,” she says. Like most people, the Reeds ate most of their meals off an everyday dish set, and their good china rarely saw the light of day. Marvin hit upon a solution to their dilemma: donate the everyday dishes to charity, and eat their meals with the wedding china from now on.
The couple has managed to donate many of their possessions to charitable groups. Marvin said he was pleasantly surprised at how many social agencies were able to make use of their unwanted housewares. Ingrid looked for specific groups that could use certain items. For example, they gave many books to the local library, and all their gardening tools to Isles, the Trenton-based nonprofit that is engaged in a community farming project.
Furniture poses one of the biggest challenges. The Reeds said that it was almost impossible to get rid of their sofa beds, which were unwanted either because they were too heavy, or because charitable groups don’t accept mattresses. No one wants sofa beds, but other kinds of furniture might find a good home and even bring the owner a little cash.
Beverly Kidder, owner of Decorators Consignment Gallery in Hopewell, says seniors often put their furniture up for sale in her shop when they are preparing to move. She asks them to send her pictures before bringing it in, so that she can separate what’s marketable from what would only take up space. In the latter category are computer desks, made obsolete by laptops, and media centers, made unnecessary by flat screen TVs.
Formal living room and dining room furniture is also a tough sell. “This is a radical change in the market from even five years ago,” Kidder says. “People today want a relaxed attitude, like farm tables where kids can do their homework or a woman can do a project. When young people get married, they do not register for china or crystal or stemware, because if you can’t put it in a microwave or a dishwasher they want nothing to do with it.”
She recently sold a high end Stickley dining room set with eight chairs and a large table for $3,200. Kidder estimates it was $15,000 new, if it was on sale.
Sadly, low prices are the norm with liquidating personal assets. Odalen recalls one client had a 50-year-old baby grand piano with many family memories attached to it. “The family home needed to be fixed up and sold,” he wrote in an E-mail. “The piano needed to be removed ASAP so renovations could begin. I did some research and found the piano wasn’t worth much, maybe $500. But given the time crunch, and the fact that any buyer would need to pay a professional mover and have it tuned, he ended up selling it for $100. He was content because he didn’t need to pay to move it, or worse have someone break it up for trash. But this is an example that old doesn’t mean antique. And if you want to get top dollar, you need enough time to find the right buyer.”
All of the personal organizers interviewed for this story — who charge in the range of $40 to $70 per hour — stressed the importance of starting downsizing early because of how difficult a job it is for people who are dealing with health problems, the loss of a loved one, or another traumatic event in their lives.
Downsizing is not high on anyone’s to-do list and many procrastinate. “Unfortunately a lot of times it’s sort of an emergency situation. Something will happen and an elderly parent will go to the hospital, and then they have to come home to an assisted living facility,” Odalen said. “The family has to rush and deal with the stuff. How are you going to deal with the house when you are acting in an emergency? You can’t make the best decision.”
Even if it’s not an emergency, downsizing can become more complicated as people cope with the curve balls that life throws their way. One of Odalen’s clients, a 60-year-old retired advertising executive, lives in a Princeton townhouse piled high with decades worth of accumulated treasures. Odalen is currently helping the client sort through it all in anticipation of having to move out at some point due to declining health.
The client, who has two grown children and is separated from his wife, inherited even more possessions when his father died 10 years ago. Now, entire rooms of his home have been given over to storage. He is finding it difficult to let certain things go, and was candid about his struggles but requested his last name be omitted from this story.
“I kept a lot of things because I thought I would be using them again in one way or another, or I was interested in them, or I liked what they represented, or I thought they might be useful in the future,” said the retired businessman (who asked that his name not be used). “A lot of things just kind of take on other meanings. They have associations with whose they were, or where you got them. Things from my parents home have some kind of sentimental meaning. I may not even like the object or value the object, but they were my mother’s or father’s prized possessions.”
The retiree says he recently got rid of a statue of the Virgin Mary that belonged to his mother, but it was hard to part with it because of its associations. “It’s a very cliche’d statue,” he said. “They’re actually kind of cheesy, but she had it in her room as a little girl. I don’t even like the thing.”
Odalen’s client also is planning to give away or sell a canoe, which he is probably not going to use because of his health problems, and his woodworking machinery. “I just had the realization that I’m not going to build anything anytime soon. I have problems with my hands, so I’m just letting go of things I won’t be using.”
Suzanne Neilson, a professional organizer based in Princeton who is helping the Reeds organize their move, has seen much worse cases in her career as an organizer, which began in 1998. One difficult case became apparent as soon as she walked into the house. Her client had piled things so high that there was nowhere to sit, with every chair submerged under at least a foot of papers.
“I could see it was going to be very difficult for her to get rid of anything,” said Neilson, who decided to start in the kitchen, since her client had no place to cook.
“Here, the papers were probably a foot and a half high on the counters. I lifted up one old grocery store flier and said, `Okay, can we get rid of this?’ At that, she burst into tears and said I was just like her ex husband, who was always accusing her of things. But she couldn’t get rid of the one grocery store flier,” Neilson recalls.
It took Neilson hours to persuade the woman to discard the flier, and the two parted ways before making much progress in cleaning up the home.
Another client “had mounds and mounds of papers everywhere,” Neilson said. She tried to organize the hoard and get her to dispose of some of the letters, but she made little progress before they gave up amid mutual frustration. “She focused on things like how she wanted all the letters put perpendicularly into the envelopes, and was angry when I wouldn’t put them in that way. She couldn’t seem to let go of much of anything, even cans of tomato soup from 10 years ago that were bulging.”
Other times, Nielson made herculean progress in dire situations. She even appeared on the television show “Hoarders,” a reality series in which organizers and therapists help people dig out of extreme clutter.
“I have clients who had to make pathways through the stuff in their house to get from one room to another. One man, who had a second floor overlooking the first, had so many books piled up that I was very concerned that the part overhanging the living room was going to collapse.” She helped the man get rid of most of the books.
Another time, Neilson was sitting in the home of a woman, who offhandedly mentioned her piano, which came as a surprise to Neilson. She had been working in the home for three months and had never seen one. The woman took Neilson into the living room, where they had worked many times, moved aside some items, and sure enough, there was a piano hidden under piles of junk.
Neilson is sometimes reluctant to venture deep into clients’ homes because of precariously piled belongings, fearing burial in an avalanche of bric-a-brac. “What if this stuff all comes crashing down?” It’s not an unreasonable concern. It’s not unheard of for hoarders to be killed by their own collections — see sidebar, page 11.
Most of Neilson’s cases are in the normal range. She usually gathers like items together and makes an inventory to help them decide what to keep and what to discard. One woman discovered she owned no fewer than 54 dresses, most of which didn’t fit and were out of style. “She realized there was a lot of overage in the house that she hadn’t even noticed,” Neilson says. “Some of these dresses were stored away in the attic.”
Often people are tempted to begin stockpiling items when their children move away, which makes things more difficult when it comes time to downsize. “When the children are gone, their closets become your own,” Neilson says.
Neilson uses a number of techniques to help people sort through their belongings. She says she often begins by asking clients about particular items, and asking when the last time they used them was. “Frequently they can’t think of the last time they used it.”
“It’s overwhelming for a lot of people,” Neilson said. “Often they don’t know where to start. It’s difficult to get rid of your possessions because you become attached to them and you also lose perspective on how much you have versus how much you need.”
Usually she finds the hardest part about cleaning up is getting started. “In my clients’ houses, I might find 5 to 10 organizing books because people buy them and think it’s going to help them get organized. But it’s like many things: you can read about it, but for some things, you just need somebody to come help you get started on the right foot.”
Working as a personal organizer has changed the way Neilson thinks about her own possessions. She grew up in New York where her father was a metallurgical engineer and her mother was a homemaker. “Both of my parents were extremely organized,” Neilson says. A childhood photograph of Neilson’s bedroom shows shelves where her mother had placed her one stuffed animal — a rabbit — with a stack of three books about a foot away, and beyond that, a music box. There is little else.
“I thought that’s the way houses were,” Neilson says. She majored in fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania and worked as a writer for trade publications for most of her professional life, including a veterinary journal and an electromechanical society journal, working part time while she raised three children. Everywhere she worked, she was known as an organizer who kept things running efficiently. When the kids were grown, she decided to take her penchant for neatness and her eye for design and use it to help people improve their living spaces.
Since she began working as an organizer, Neilson says she has been more mindful of the clutter in her own home, especially since she has seen just how unwelcoming a home can be to visitors if it is filled with junk. “It can become oppressive if you’re with someone whose environs are overwhelmingly filled with stuff. It’s stressful. It does make me want to go through my stuff more than I might have otherwise, and get rid of things I probably don’t need or care about. I have enough things that I only keep the things that feel beautiful to me and that make me feel good when I look at them.”
Neilson also recommends that people make detailed inventories of their things and review it with their children to avoid disputes over valuable objects. Peter Erdman, who lives in an apartment at Stonebridge, did exactly that 12 years ago when it came time for him and his wife, Hope “Patsy” Erdman, to move out of the six-bedroom home on Russell Road where they had raised three children. What the children didn’t want, they offered to the people who had bought their house.
“It’s a hard job,” said Erdman, who feels now that his own tendency to keep things orderly helped. “It takes a lot of planning and a lot of work.” He enlisted the help of an employee at Stonebridge who helped them get organized for the move. The planning paid off, and Erdman was happy to have gotten rid of so much of his stuff. “You get attached to things, and you keep them in the attic or the cellar, but when they’re gone, you don’t miss them,” he said. He said he and his wife were happy with their downsized life until she died in 2007.
Annette Rion, owner of Tranquil Transitions, a Piscataway-based organization and moving company, says the process of moving is emotionally taxing for many of her clients. Her business specializes in helping seniors downsize and serves the Route 1 corridor area in addition to Piscataway. “We’ve had clients who would cry because they were leaving the home that they had raised their children in, and now their wife or their husband is deceased and the kids are gone, it’s a mourning for the space and the life that they had.”
However, not all stuff is the enemy of happiness. Rion is sometimes hired by the children of senior clients to help out with their moves, and she always tells them to be respectful of their parents’ feelings about belongings during transitions. “Treat them the way you would want to be treated,” she said. “Just because sometimes items don’t seem important to you, that doesn’t mean they’re not important to the owner of them.”
Sometimes the process of moving can reveal genuinely valuable things that the owners had forgotten about. Rion has found jewels, savings bonds, checks, and even piles of cash while helping clients clean out houses.
Ingrid Reed found treasures of a different sort while going through her attic. There were fascinating family photos, and letters her father had written her mother. There was a scrapbook her mother had made that had pictures and newspaper clippings from Ingrid’s childhood. She went to the library and scanned it all, and put it on thumb drives for her own children. “I had a wonderful time taking things and scanning them,” Ingrid says. Scanning not only gave her family access to the documents, but probably preserved them as well, since they would have crumbled away sitting in another attic.
Occasionally, objects have emotional value to other people as well, a good example being Ingrid’s juicer collection, which may have a future home within the family.
“My 16-year-old granddaughter actually asked if she could have them because it reminds her of her own childhood,” Ingrid said. “She said it reminded her of when the kids would come over and make lemonade and limeade. They would see which ones caught more seeds, which ones produced more juice, and so on.”
“The upside of this is the rediscovery of things,” Marvin said. “We’re lucky to have each other around because it’s fun sharing these things.”
For a list of area groups that take donations, and more downsizing resources, visit the Princeton Senior Resource Center at www.princetonsenior.org/downsizing_and_moving.cfm. Professional Organizers such as those mentioned in this article typically charge between $40 and $70 an hour for their services.