For more than a year, Colleen Feay, her husband and in-laws slowly emptied the St. Louis Park house of her mother-in-law, who had moved to an assisted-living apartment.
The task turned daunting after an estate-sale company told them the possessions weren't valuable enough to hold a sale. Then, a charity rejected some furniture.
As a result, Feay estimates, the group of four 70-somethings each took about 20 carloads to Goodwill, Salvation Army, Value Village and smaller thrift stores.
"The grandkids have no interest in china, silver, linen tablecloths and old-fashioned furniture," she said. "None of us thought this process would take so long."
Downsizing a lifetime of accumulated possessions has become a sizable problem for families across the nation. With 10,000 baby boomers retiring every day and Americans age 85 and older comprising the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, real estate agents, organizers, estate sale companies and movers are stepping in.
"There's a terrific need for helping seniors move," said Mary Kay Buysse, executive director at the National Association of Senior Move Managers in Illinois. "We haven't even hit critical mass yet. With the oldest boomer being only 73, we're still five to 10 years away from a burgeoning group."
The association has existed for just 17 years and has more than 1,000 member businesses around the country, including 10 in the Twin Cities.
Businesses such as Gentle Transitions in Edina and Rose's Daughters in Minneapolis sort, donate, sell, consign and dispose of items before the move and schedule movers, arrange for packing, and set up everything in the new home.
Dina Buslovich, who owns Estate Maven in Plymouth, also shreds papers, properly disposes of old medications, and takes scrap metal to recyclers. "The whole process can take a couple of days to three weeks," she said. "We can get things accomplished that adult children may not be able to do. It's difficult as a child to tell a parent 'you can't keep this.' It's better to have the parent and a third party make that decision."
More people are entering the specialty, from real estate, home renovation, professional organizing and the retailers who buy and sell old stuff. Some are simply handymen and women tapped for all manner of repair jobs.
A decade ago, Becky Clifford of Eden Prairie took care of her aging parents — a father with cancer and mother with Alzheimer's — while also emptying, remodeling and putting their house on the market.
After her dad died in 2009 and her mom in 2011, Clifford was exhausted but saw an opportunity to help make the process easier for others. She got a real estate license in 2011 and affiliated with Keller Williams Realty, which has a specialty in elder care services.
"It's a program for seniors to make it possible to move in a stress-free environment," she said. The services covers packing, organizing, contents removal, home repairs and updates if desired, estate sale and home listing.
The downsizing process for families often starts with trying to sell items. When that doesn't work, they turn to donations. When a charity won't accept items that have fallen out of favor such as Grandma's china and china hutch and they're under a time crunch, they say, "Just get it out of here."
"You see a lot of desperation," said Daniel Turzinski, founder of Random Acts of Kindness (RAK) high-end thrift shops in Minnetonka, Chaska and Watertown. "The current generation doesn't want what their grandparents want. We see a lot of antiques that were passed down from generation to generation but now can hardly be given away."
Louise Kurzeka, owner of Everything's Together organizing in St. Louis Park, said that 10 years ago, downsizing a home for a move wasn't even part of her business. Now it's 50%.
"Clients say to me, 'If I ever want to leave this house, I have to get rid of stuff first. I can't do that on my own,' " she said. "Boomers were raised by kids from the Depression who were taught to hang on to things, even paper bags and egg cartons."
Bridget Gothberg of St. Louis Park hired Kurzeka to help downsize from a large house where she and her husband lived for more than 35 years. It took two months to downsize into an apartment about one-third the size of her house. Charities refused some of her goods. "It's hard when no one wants it. I made hundreds of decisions whether to keep, recycle or toss," Gothberg said. "I looked at silly stuff I still had from grade school that made me laugh, and then I threw them away. I was exhausted by the time it was all over."
With an avalanche of stuff to redistribute, professionals try to make the landfill a last resort, partly for sustainability but also prohibitive cost. When a move manager is dealing with a houseful of stuff that won't fit in the new apartment, condo or nursing home, hauling it to the dump can cost more than donating it.
Twin Cities charities are starting to get so many donations that some pros who try to unload at a thrift or resale shop have been turned away.
Mike Reimann, owner of a junk removal company in Minneapolis called Junk Genius, gathers furniture and other large pieces to take to a charity to avoid the landfill. "It used to be the charity would take it all, but now sometimes they say they're full and can't accept it," he said. "We have to ask to speak to a manager and talk up a piece before they take it."
Donations have nearly doubled in the last five years at Goodwill-Easter Seals Minnesota, according to Brent Babcock, Goodwill's chief sales and marketing officer. It doesn't accept large appliances, old TVs, mattresses and computers, but furniture is usually accepted.
Estate sale firms are also benefiting from the downsizing trend. Twenty years ago, there were three or four estate sales on any given weekend in the Twin Cities. Now there are 40 or 50.
"It's crazy busy," said Dana Arvidson of Estate Sales Minnesota. "We turn down a lot of people because we can't meet their deadline. We book out six to eight weeks in advance."
Not every home is filled with enough valuables to support an estate sale. If the possessions can't bring in $2,000 or more, some estate sale companies may suggest a garage sale instead.
When that's not practical, some families turn to a business such as Empty the Nest, a clean-out service that sells some goods at their Golden Valley thrift store. The proceeds reduce the cost of the service. The company gets about 10 to 15 calls a day from relatives of older people who are moving out of homes into senior or assisted-living apartments.
Empty the Nest often comes in after an estate sale to take away what didn't sell. "We get the call after the sale because the family doesn't want everything tossed, so we put valued items in our store, donate some and trash some," co-owner Joe Fischman said.
The cost after the donation reduction ranges from $500 to $2,000 for most moves at Empty the Nest. Senior downsizing moves from companies such as Gentle Transitions average about $2,000 to $3,000 but could be as high as $5,000 for a large Lake Minnetonka house, said co-founder Diane Bjorkman.
After seeing so many clients agonize about what to do with possessions, Clifford, the Eden Prairie real estate agent, recently decided to do some downsizing of her own. Now 69, she held an estate sale in anticipation of moving from a 3,600-square-foot home to one half that size.
"I've helped so many people go through the burden of downsizing decades of accumulation that I didn't want my two adult sons to go through that with me," she said.