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When it’s time to deal with generations of stuff, call in the pros

When Mary Hockmeyer was looking to move from her 200-year-old farmhouse in New Hampshire to a retirement community in Maine, she knew she needed help.

“I think I would have had a nervous breakdown if I’d had to do it on my own,” the 79-year-old said with a laugh. “My [late] husband and I had lived there for 30 years, and there was a barn, too.”

04/07/16 -- A basement or attic is no place to store treasured family items. “If it’s not important enough to keep out in the open and display, you are not keeping your memory the best way,” according to Deborah McLean of Maine Senior Guide. “The notion of keeping memories in the cellar or attic is really kind of creepy and uses up psychic space in your life.”

04/07/16 — A basement or attic is no place to store treasured family items. “If it’s not important enough to keep out in the open and display, you are not keeping your memory the best way,” according to Deborah McLean of Maine Senior Guide. “The notion of keeping memories in the cellar or attic is really kind of creepy and uses up psychic space in your life.”

When Hockmeyer made the move in December to her newer, smaller place at Oceanview Retirement

Village in Falmouth, she did it with the help of sisters Liz Pattison and Kim Dorsky. The pair are founders and owners of Simply Sized Home, a business dedicated to helping people downsize and organize in the midst of major life changes.

“People keep a lot of stuff,” Dorsky said. “They keep things because there are memories attached to them and they fear if they get rid of things, they will no longer be able to have the memory associated with it.”

People also accumulate new things, often without discarding the old, with the mindset of “using it again one day” and then tucking it away in the attic or garage.

When it comes to dealing with years — even generations — of accumulated belongings, Dorsky said many people put it off until they are forced into action.

“Sometimes it’s when mom or dad are moving into a retirement home that is much smaller than the family home, so space dictates they need to get rid of things,” she said. “Or maybe the parents have died and suddenly the children are left with a housefull of stuff — either way, reality kind of sets in and the painful process of letting go becomes essential.”

That’s where businesses such as Simply Sized Home, come in.

“Our job is not to twist anyone’s arm to make them get rid of something,” Dorsky said. “Our job is to be the voice of reason.”

If a person has, say, 75 flower vases in the home, Dorsky and Pattison suggest the owners cull them down to the three in each size they reach for the most.

“We are not going to wrestle something out of someone’s hands,” Dorsky said. “We listen to the person because, ultimately, it is their stuff, and it is their decision what they want to do with it.”

04/07/16 -- Sorting according to keep, sell, donate or discard is the first step in organizing items left behind when a loved one passes away or an elderly parent is moving to a smaller space. There are companies around Maine that can help in this process.

04/07/16 — Sorting according to keep, sell, donate or discard is the first step in organizing items left behind when a loved one passes away or an elderly parent is moving to a smaller space. There are companies around Maine that can help in this process.

Those decisions can range from putting off the inevitable by putting belongings in storage units to full on downsizing through selling, donating or tossing out things.

The sisters are working with an elderly woman who needs to get her entire home cleaned and sorted out before she moves out of state next week.

“Out of the blue, she just started bawling,” Dorsky said. “Suddenly we are hugging her and asking what triggered that, and then we take a step back and look at something else.”

A lot of the time, she said, it comes down to taking the emotional “temperature” of the room.

That can mean helping an elderly resident sort through decades of memories or working to avoid family feuds when treasured possessions are involved.

“We are constantly having to navigate around that, and we have deep respect for all the people involved,” Dorsky said.

Others are embarrassed that they have let things get so out of hand by accumulating so much, she said.

“We try to put them at ease right away,” Dorsky said. “We are there to help and not to judge, and we tell them there is nothing they can show us that will scare us.”

The biggest challenge can be separating people from what they see as tangible memories.

“What you want to keep is the memory, not the item,” Deborah McLean, owner of Maine Senior Guide, said. “You can do what it takes to capture that memory — take a photo, create an album that you can look at and share.”

Too often, McLean said, people tuck items away for safe keeping, never to be seen again.

“If it’s not important enough to keep out in the open and display, you are not keeping your memory the best way,” she said. “The notion of keeping memories in the cellar or attic is really kind of creepy and uses up psychic space in your life.”

Packing things away like that can turn into hoarding things that may bring joy to other people, McLean said.

“Unless it is something really valuable to you, you don’t have to feel guilty about parting with it,” she said. “Someone else will love it.”

At Simply Sized Home, Dorsky and her sister will help people sort those long held items into three groups — things worth selling, things that can be donated for others to use and things that can be thrown out.

Dorsky said she has working relationships with various auction houses, antique dealers, consignment shops, donations sites and movers around the state.

“It depends on where the stuff needs to go,” she said. “We match it with the person and can arrange for all pick ups and deliveries.”

Dorsky made it clear the business is run on a strict hourly fee basis only and never seeks commissions from items that may be sold.
Everything is done confidentially.

“I think some of the best things we see are what can be donated out of a household that is downsized,” she said. “Last year we organized donations of $300,000 worth of stuff to 21 different charities.”

In other cases Habitat for Humanity has come and actually disassembled buildings or refugees have accepted items for setting up new homes in Maine.

“Our clients love this,” Dorsky said. “They see their things going to people who will use them.”

Ideally, she said, family members will have planned in advance who gets what and businesses such as Simply Sized Home will come in and deal with the rest.

It can all be overwhelming for the homeowner, especially the elderly, Dorsky said.

“The woman we are working with now [who is moving out of state next week] has a lot of stuff, [and] she’s 85 and exhausted emotionally and physically,” she said. “We are working to sort things and to keep her focused, but we have to be gentle and not push too hard.”

It was exactly the approach Hockmeyer needed when she hired them.

“The thing that horrified me was my house always appeared to be very neat, but being an old house it had a lot of closets that I never thought about that were stuffed full of things,” Hockmeyer said. “They were wonderful, they came in, analyzed the situation, got all the boxes for packing and made all the arrangements for the move [and] really babied me through it.”

Once at her new home in Falmouth, Hockmeyer said Dorsky and Pattison made sure everything was in place from arranging the furniture to hanging pictures on the wall.

“I found it so hard to make decisions alone,” Hockmeyer said. “They were wonderful helping me get through that.”

While parting with things can be poignant, clients share a universal relief when it is done, Dorsky said.

“We tell them it will be okay and we will sort it all out,” she said. “You see the anxiety literally melt away.”

Dorsky figures they have helped more than 300 clients since they began four years ago.

“You just need determination to do this,” she said. “Whatever faces us, we have to solve it and figure it out.”

The National Association of Professional Organizers has a list of businesses who consult and assist with decluttering and organizing at www.napo.net.