The Good Life: Living better. Living longer.

Discovering the upside of downsizing

  • Article by: KATY READ , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 9, 2012 - 10:02 AM

Many empty nesters see moving out of the family home as a chance to simplify and find a new social set.

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Mary Hollinger downsized from a large house in New Jersey to a condo in Edina.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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It was good news, really, when Mary Hollinger put her house in New Jersey up for sale last May, then sold it -- to everyone's surprise -- in just two weeks. Then came the hard part.

Hollinger had about a month to pack up everything she had amassed over 45 years of raising a family in the two-story, four-bedroom house and paring it down to fit in a new, smaller place. A place, to complicate matters, that she hadn't actually found yet.

"My sister and I needed therapy," Hollinger's daughter, Sondra Samuels, joked about helping her mother through the hurried move.

"Leaving the house was sad," admitted Hollinger, 68, who was widowed in 2008. But home and lawn upkeep had become tough, and her daughters and grandchildren all lived in the Midwest.

The story ends happily. Relatives helped pack up and haul off the excess possessions. Hollinger got out in time, then found a condominium in Edina she liked. Less than a year later, the retired administrative assistant for a pharmaceutical company is happy in an elegantly redecorated condo not far from Samuels' Minneapolis home.

She's thrilled to be close to shopping and other conveniences, yet tucked in a quiet woodsy neighborhood with a view of a pond and a fountain. "It's just a beautiful place. In the summertime I can sit out on the porch and hear the water from the fountain. I love the location!"

Hollinger's story is typical of many older people and couples who decide to downsize after years or even decades in a house. At first, the prospect can be sad, scary or overwhelming.

"We have so many people that call us, dreading it, so many clients who cry the day we move them," said Diane Bjorkman, co-owner of Gentle Transitions, a local company that helps older people pack and move.

But eventually most discover that downsizing has delightful upsides.

A sense of relief

However beloved or steeped in memories, longtime family homes can be inconvenient. Empty nesters pay to heat and maintain rooms they rarely use. Laundry day involves running up and down basement stairs. Travelers fret about security when they leave town. Those facing physical challenges may find bathroom fixtures are precarious, lighting is dim, stairways troublesome.

"There's almost an overwhelming sense of relief," said Karen Carney of Agewell, a company whose services for older clients include locating new homes. "They say, 'Ahh, this is easier now.' They didn't even realize how much work [home maintenance] really was because they were in the midst of it."

Carney recalled one client, living alone in a three-bedroom home, who had become legally blind. Still, he was fiercely independent, liked socializing with the neighbors and resisted the idea of moving. But winters were isolating, and his daughter worried that he might slip on ice crossing the street to get the mail. Finally, the man agreed to tour a senior residence. He loved it immediately.

"He saw how friendly the place was and said, 'Wow, this is great,'" Carney said. Once he moved in, he was just as sociable as he had been in his old neighborhood. "He became the unofficial mayor, so to speak."

Clean, simple, safe

Mary Dworsky, Hollinger's interior designer, said many of her clients long for simplicity. They free themselves from homes cluttered with possessions accumulated over decades -- some items treasured keepsakes, others ready to pass on or discard -- in favor of a sleek, airy space.

"I'm in my 60s," said Dworsky, who specializes in designs for older residents. "I want something that's clean, simple, easy to maintain and safe."

The Twin Cities area boasts more than 400 living developments for seniors -- from independent living to those offering support services, such as assisted living and memory care -- not to mention countless condos and apartments that aren't exclusively for seniors but attract many because of their proximity to shopping, health care and other amenities.

Life in such places can be soothing, stimulating or both. On the relaxing side, residents are excused from big maintenance chores. Those with physical limitations appreciate features such as one-floor laundry, strong lighting, wider door frames, zero-threshold showers, grab bars. Meanwhile, social butterflies can take advantage of communal dining areas, exercise rooms and classes as well as organized outings and parties. There are book groups, Bible study groups, community gardens, lecture series.

Such events are particularly appreciated during Minnesota's long winters, said Linda Knutson of A Place for Mom, a senior housing and home care referral service. "It's not just, 'We're going to sit in a room and play Bingo.'"

Katy Read is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.

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