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Originally published Sunday, February 22, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Consultants help seniors downsize but preserve familiarity

There are about 500 "move management" consultants in the country, ready to tap into the 78 million baby boomers headed for retirement, not to mention the dwindling members of my mom's generation.

The Washington Post

My 92-year-old mother motors around her two-bedroom, one-floor ranch home in Syracuse, N.Y., with the help of a walker. She is comforted by a lifetime of mementos, photographs, her old furniture and the daily presence of my brother and sister, who live close by.

You couldn't pry Mom from her home with a crowbar.

But many older people aren't lucky enough to have family near and an easily navigable home. Enter Transitional Assistance and Design, a Gaithersburg, Md., firm that helps them move from a beloved home to somewhere more suited to their circumstances.

"When you say moving and downsizing to anybody, their stomach probably goes south," co-owner Joel Danick said.

"What we do for our elderly clients is to make something in a smaller version while maintaining the features of the original. We are the wedding planners of the moving industry," Danick said.

A business-school professor told me once that if you had enough money and a need, you can always pay somebody to fulfill it. That's what I thought of when I talked to Joel and Susie Danick, who started the company in 2000.

This is a cottage industry coming to the forefront, the Danicks said. There are about 500 "move management" consultants in the country, ready to tap into the 78 million baby boomers headed for retirement, not to mention the dwindling members of my mom's generation.

Help for grandmother

The Danicks started their company when Susie, 38 at the time and a part-time nurse, helped move her grandmother to a senior assisted-living complex. The grandmother, who was in her 80s, was reluctantly leaving her spacious condominium for a small studio. She feared she was heading toward a nursing home.

Susie painted the apartment in similar colors and duplicated the furniture arrangements in the living room and bedroom areas so they were similar to what she had in the condo.

"When she went there, it felt like home," said Joel, 50.

The sales-and-marketing agent at her new place asked whether the complex could show the apartment to other potential tenants, as a model of how cozy the new home could be. Word got around and others started asking Susie whether she would decorate their apartments. She had 35 clients the year.

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The Danicks now help about 300 older people a year to downsize without losing a sense of home that evokes familiarity and memories.

Transitional Assistance and Design grosses around $500,000, employs 14 full- and part-time workers and provides the Danicks with a handsome income. Joel even quit his executive position at Balducci's grocery stores four years ago to help.

In the early days, Susie enlisted her girlfriends for help. They would send their kids off to school, work for five hours and head home at 2 p.m. to greet their kids.

"I didn't look upon it as a business," Susie said.

She calculated her prices by calling interior designers she knew. They suggested about $100 an hour. So she set her fee at $35 an hour.

Nearly 10 years later, it has grown to $75, which includes the redesign of the apartment.

Packing and unpacking runs $45 an hour. The blended rate ends up around $50 an hour.

Moving outsourced

The actual moving — putting the stuff in a truck and driving to the new home — is outsourced to Town & Country Movers.

"One of our core business decisions was to stay focused on management and consulting," Joel said. Another benefit: You don't have to lay out the money for a vehicle fleet.

Like most businesses, the biggest cost is personnel (nearly half). Insurance is next. Then it drops swiftly.

The Danicks have a public-relations person on retainer and they spend about 5 percent of revenue on materials, from wall hooks to boxes to bags. They run the business out of their home, so there is no office leasing involved.

Full-timers, including a handyman, earn low five figures, and the "move specialists" who do the packing, unpacking and aesthetic work around the apartment earn $15 to $30 an hour, depending on responsibilities.

Joel said the company offers employees an individual retirement account and matches up to 3 percent of salary. There is no health-care benefit.

I guessed their net at around $150,000, and the Danicks did not disagree.

Each move is a mission. They invade a client's home, shooting digital photos of the entire place, creating a map of the floor plan and re-creating it on a small scale at the Danicks' home office, moving little scaled cutouts. Every detail is considered, from towels to window treatments, from custom paintings to china hutches.

When one client had accumulated 100 masks from a lifetime of travel around the world, Susie asked the client to pick five favorites and designed a wall display to bring them along.

Any new purchase above $75, from a frame to furniture, must be approved by the client and is reimbursed.

"Every plan is customized," Joel said. "Some just need unpacking. Some need decorating help and full service in between."

The minimum is about $600 for a two-person crew for one day. One job, involving moving out of an $11 million home, took a crew of 13 all day and cost thousands.

The unpredictable happens

There are headaches. One client got ill at the last minute. Timing the use of elevators, lobbies and parking can be tortuous and time-consuming. And the job is physical — imagine packing and unpacking your house five days a week.

There is a network nationwide of senior transitional-assistance businesses. So if my mom in Syracuse wanted to move to D.C., the Danicks and a similar company in Syracuse would work it from each end, with one packing and one unpacking.

The one who gets the initial contact does the coordinating.

The staff includes retired teachers, nurses, production managers and people who work in estate sales. Most are between 40 and 60. There is a lot of hand-holding, empathy and gentle persuasion that goes with the job.

"It's purposeful work," said Joel, who carefully screens and does background checks on employees. He brings the same passion to the consulting business as he did to the grocery business.

"They are both customer-service businesses," Joel said.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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