Betsy Devine Wilczek sat outside a house on Middle Neck Road in Port Washington, observing the stream of strangers lured to a huge tag sale featuring decades' worth of accumulated items from her husband's childhood home.
Her late in-laws — Frank Wilczek, an electrical engineer and ham radio buff, and his wife, Mary — left behind a house crammed with antique electronic equipment, stereo systems, a windup Victrola and pinball machine, old toys, board games and comic books that belonged to their two sons, a stamp collection, scores of books and three dozen alarm clocks.
“My father-in-law was a bit of a pack rat,“ she said. “He had a wide-ranging and wonderful collection of stuff that interested him. And he was blessed by having a tolerant and sweet wife.“
Like many other baby boomers with older parents, Betsy Wilczek, 65, and her husband, also named Frank Wilczek, 61, were faced with a daunting task: cleaning out a lifetime of clutter. In most cases, the accumulation reflects an emotional struggle — letting go of sentimental possessions.
“People have a hard time parting with things, especially the treasures they kept from their children,“ says Debbie Ginsberg, co-owner of Uncluttered Domain, a West Hempstead-based company that helps families get organized through various stages of life.
Beyond the emotion, there's a practical issue: Families often lack a strategy to decide what to keep and what to throw (or give) away, so they keep everything, Ginsberg says. The result is that many seniors end up with so much paraphernalia that decluttering becomes an overwhelming task, either for them or their adult kids, who inherit the problem.
In recent years, however, a growing cadre of experts has emerged to help families like the Wilczeks, including geriatric care managers, real estate specialists, professional organizers and tag/estate sale experts. And the need for their advice is likely to increase, as the “silver tsunami” of baby boomers gets older and finds their far-flung adult children unavailable to help them. But as the Wilczeks discovered, this relatively new world of professionals takes some navigating.
The Wilczeks' decluttering started last spring, shortly after Mary, widow of the elder Frank Wilczek, died at age 85. Frank had died a year earlier, also at 85. In the will, a few things were left to the couple's sons, Walter, who lives in Florida, and Frank, who lives in the Boston area; but most of the estate was left to the four grandkids.
“It was clear we needed to clean up the house so we could sell it for the grandchildren,“ Betsy Wilczek recalled. Her husband, a theoretical physicist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who won a Nobel Prize in 2004, left that task to her.
She turned to Nina Dobris, a geriatric care manager with Circle of Care, part of the home care network of the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System. Dobris had helped provide in-home care for Frank and Mary Wilczek during their frail years. As an advocate for seniors, Dobris considers herself a “rent-a-daughter,“ she says. “We act like a surrogate adult child. We do everything that parents need to remain independent in their home. I have referrals for almost everything people need.“
Most people find decluttering gurus through referrals — from health care workers, family and friends, elder law attorneys and other business associates. Families also may get names of experts from government agencies, nonprofit groups or trade associations of professional organizers or senior real estate specialists, but most organizations do not endorse particular individuals.
In the Town of North Hempstead for example, residents can contact Project Independence (tonhproject
independence.net), a widely recognized aging-in-place initiative, for advice about uncluttering a senior's home. Callers are assigned a staff social worker who does a basic assessment of the situation and usually offers to make a home visit. “We give them resource information, but we don't promote [specific] people,“ says Paula Uhl, deputy commissioner of the town's Department of Services for the Aging. “We invite some experts to give presentations, but we're careful to provide [only] education.“
Dobris first referred Betsy Wilczek to Donna Quinn, a real estate agent who works with partner Jeffrey Stone at the Port Washington branch of Laffey Fine Homes. They are among about 160 certified seniors real estate specialists on Long Island, given the designation by the National Association of Realtors (sres.org).
Wilczek did some independent checking of the referrals, but was confident in Dobris' choices, she says. “The good thing about having people recommend someone is that you have leverage when hiring that person — they should do a good job because 'Nina' recommended them.“
Like many professionals who specialize in senior-related issues, real estate agents Quinn and Stone were influenced by experiences with their own moms. “You need empathy; you need to create a bond with the homeowner. It's a long-term process,“ says Stone.
Often, Quinn and Stone, who are on the advisory board of Project Independence, work with seniors who recognize they can no longer readily age in place and don't charge for these consulting services. “We know that people want to stay in the house, but there's a dividing line when they may lose all their independence,“ Quinn says.
There also may be a safety issue: Some homes are so cluttered that seniors can no longer move freely. While older homeowners express a fear of moving, one of the biggest obstacles, Quinn says, is deciding what to do with all their possessions. “Many people tell us, 'We have so much stuff, we don't know where to begin.' "
Wilczek knew her challenge would be to empty the house so it could be sold. Built in 1927 by her husband's grandfather, the house still had beautiful floors and lots of nice details — if you could see them through the clutter. Quinn suggested hiring Ginsberg of Uncluttered Domain.
Ginsberg, who also had personal experience moving her mother to an assisted-living facility in another state, started Uncluttered Domain (uncluttereddomain.com) in 2006 with social worker Frady Moskowitz. “Sometimes people say, 'Oh, we just need help organizing, and we'll take it from there,“ Ginsberg says. “We're conscientious about people's budget. We try to find out what's bothering them the most and start there.“
Uncluttered Domain generally charges $50 to $125 an hour, depending on the project and the types of services provided. According to various sources, the average rate for similar services nationwide ranges from $55 to $85 an hour, based on experience. Some organizers charge a flat rate by the day or project.
Ginsberg told Wilczek that her staff would go through the house and organize the contents into categories: what to keep and distribute to family members; what to throw out; what to donate to charities; what to sell to recyclers; and what to sell through a mammoth tag sale. But there was so much stuff — and much of it of potential value to collectors — that Ginsberg suggested the family hire tag/estate sale specialist Madeline Winn, owner of Full of Surprizes Estate & Tag Sales (fullof surprizes.net), in Oceanside.
It took about five days for Ginsberg's crew to go through the house — it was so cluttered that some spaces were almost impassable. “She found a lot of treasures,“ Wilczek says of Ginsberg, “old deeds and papers, pictures of the family as kids, a suitcase of coins .?.?. She gave them to the family; the rest she organized.“
Winn set the price of tag sale objects, often consulting with collectors and appraisers in various fields, from electronics to vintage toys and games. “I tell people, 'Don't throw anything out until after the tag sale is done.' You don't know what people will want.“ In 2 1/2 days, she sold about half of the contents in the house, making about $20,000, from which Winn earned a 25 percent commission.
“I wish my father-in-law had been here,“ Wilczek says. “He would be gratified to see that people wanted this stuff.“
After the tag sale, Ginsberg cleaned out the leftovers that filled a Dumpster and donated usable items to local charities. From the organizing to the clear-out, Uncluttered Domain charged about $4,000.
The real estate agents had the house painted, patched and prepared for sale. Recently, a young couple expressed interest in purchasing it. “They're first-time home buyers and are extremely excited,“ Stone says.
In the end, the experts formed an “awesome team” that enabled the family to unclutter and sell a stunningly stuffed house. “There's an old New England saying,“ says Wilczek, who grew up in New Hampshire. “Yard by yard, life is hard. Inch by inch, it's a cinch.“
Sources of help
Need to help parents or other relatives organize their homes, get rid of clutter or manage the moving process to new living quarters? Here are some resources.
National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO.net) The website lists about 4,200 organizers, including about two dozen on Long Island. It has a directory of members and consumer tips on how to hire a professional organizer.
National Association of Senior Move Managers (nasmm.org) Trade group includes about 600 companies, several on Long Island, that specialize in helping older adults downsize and move to a new home, or adapt their current residence to age in place.
“Seven Layers of Organization: Unclutter Your Home, Unclutter Your Life,“ by Christopher Lowell (Clarkson Potter / Random House)