To Keep or Not to Keep? That Is the Question! Expert has downsizing tips for seniors on the move


It’s one of the newest and fastest-growing industries in the country — businesses that assist aging seniors with downsizing and relocating.

Greg Gunderson is the owner/president of one such company, Gentle Transitions. To explain how his staff helps seniors declutter and move into a smaller place, often a retirement community, he held a seminar Dec. 5 at Oakmont of Pacific Beach.

Gunderson said he founded Gentle Transitions in 1994 in Manhattan Beach and has expanded to California cities from Chula Vista to Redding. His mother, who started a similar company in Minnesota, was his inspiration. He believes she founded the concept of relocation services for seniors when moving her own mother into a retirement community.

The labors of moving can be daunting for anyone, Gunderson explained, but seniors face down some even tougher challenges. Most are leaving a home they’ve been in for 30 or 40 years after assuming they’d be there through their dying days. The amount of “stuff” they’ve accumulated through those years can be overwhelming and distressing. Many face physical or mental health issues that make decision-making even more difficult, and often family members aren’t nearby to help.

Gunderson recalled a woman who was moving from a La Jolla townhome to a La Jolla retirement community. “Her only family support was from New York City and I was told the move would be months away as the family member could only come to La Jolla periodically to assist with moving arrangements.

“During our initial visit, we showed the woman what furniture could be accommodated in her new space, completed the floor plan, and explained how the moving process would work. At the end of the visit, she commented, ‘What are we waiting for?’ She moved three weeks later, rather than the three to four months expected by everyone.”

Step by Step

To ease the relocation process for older adults and make it easier on their baby-boomer kids, Gunderson broke down the moving process to four steps:

1) Create a floor plan and determine what to keep and what not to keep. This can be done by using small, round stickers of green (keep), red (don’t keep), and yellow (decide later).

2) Sort everything. Figure out what will go where and get rid of all the extras.

3) Pack the “keep” items in boxes with labels clearly marking the contents and designating what room they are for in the new place.

4) Move, unpack, put things away, and set up the new place. (Gunderson’s company will make the beds and set the dinner table the day of the move.)

Keep? Don’t Keep?

This sounds simple, but there can be a lot of pitfalls.

How do you decide what’s practical and what’s sentimental? What lurks behind the closet and cupboard doors that no one has opened in a while?

As Gunderson puts it, every item has a story and sometimes that story makes it hard to let go of something.

During the seminar, he held up items for public vote: Should it stay or should it go? One item was a pair of women’s heeled shoes (don’t keep) versus a pair of athletic shoes (keep). There was the well-worn Christmas decoration (keep for sentimental value), and the polo shirt with the tag still on it (don’t keep).

• Clothing? Most people wear only 20 percent of what’s in their closets. Take five, white button-down shirts down to two. Make sure what you take still fits.

• Furniture? Gunderson said avoid new furniture shopping completely: “Think of using the furniture you have in different ways. Maybe that big couch in the living room won’t fit your new place, but the smaller loveseat in the den might be perfect.”

• Books? If they’re read or used regularly, keep them. If they’re not, they fall under the category of “sentimental items.”

• Family photos? Moving is never the time to review them, you’ll just get bogged down in the process. Pack them, move them and sort them out later.

• Holiday decorations? Gunderson recommends keeping a few special items and donating the rest: “A sentimental reason to keep something is every bit as valid as a practical one. Bring as much as you like, as long as you have the space,” he assured.

He pointed out that some seniors find it easier to part with their things if they take photos of it all before it goes. People tell him the photos are almost as good as having the stuff itself.

Gunderson concluded his presentation by stating that he’s found most clients feel relieved after moving and are revitalized by their new surroundings. “They often look and feel younger, and wish they’d made the transition a lot sooner,” he said.

WANT TO KNOW MORE? Gentle Transitions charges $3,000-$5,000 for its services, depending on the size of the new place. The process takes four to six weeks.