Real Estate Agents for Older Adults Are Part Broker, Part Therapist
VERA LIGHTSTONE, a sculptor, jeweler and ceramist, never planned to move out of her loft in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, especially not in her 81st year. Why would she? She had 1,800 square feet of living and work space, high ceilings and a clear view of the Hudson River. In New York, that was a real estate trifecta.
“I thought I would die there,” said Ms. Lightstone, now 84, who bought the place 30 years ago for $60,000. But after she fell a few times, her three daughters thought it was time for her to relocate to a more supervised environment. Slowly, she accepted that things had to change.
So she called a friend who was a real estate agent, Ina Torton, not so much to sell the property and find a new one, but to help her cope with the psychological toll of leaving the place she had called home for three decades.
“It’s not like somebody 45 years old selling an apartment; it has a huge emotional attachment,” said Ms. Torton, who is in her 70s and works at Town Real Estate in Manhattan. “They’re giving up their security blanket, their home.”
Moving out of a house is overwhelming in general, but it is perhaps even more unnerving later in life, when one is not only shedding the physical objects that are accumulated over the years but also unwinding a lifetime of memories, even recreating a sense of self.
“It was a major change of identity,” said Ms. Lightstone, who acknowledged that she was depressed after selling her loft.
With that in mind, many realtors are now specializing in helping older adults whose needs are somewhat different from their younger counterparts. Part therapist, part housekeeper, part business adviser and part diplomat, these brokers help clients with everything from reverse mortgages and estate sales to packing, shipping and selling their belongings.
“We’re like a surrogate child,” said Susan Devaney, one of about 15,000 brokers in North America who are considered Seniors Real Estate Specialists, a designation that can be obtained online or in person.
It has become a necessary role, especially in an era when family members don’t always live near one another and are unable to assist with moving — or when their involvement adds too much emotional freight to an already tense situation. In this instance, the agent or “senior move manager” takes on many of the responsibilities traditionally handled by family members or offspring. Average fees are $40 to $60 an hour, but can be significantly higher in urban areas.“It’s hiring junk removal, finding innovative solutions to helping them figure out what’s valuable and what’s not, helping them part with possessions without parting with the memory,” said Jennifer Pickett, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Senior Move Managers. There are now about 850 senior move managers in the United States, up from 400 in 2009. “When an older adult says they’re not ready to move, it’s often that they’re overwhelmed by the process: ‘How do I start? What do I do with 40 or 50 years of treasures?’ We help them.”
Louise Phillips Forbes, a licensed associate real estate broker with Halstead Property in New York, has helped many older adults sell their homes and find new ones. “There’s a tolerance that you must have when you’re dealing with someone who’s got their life in four walls,” she said. “So, you hold their hand and you treat them as if they’re your own mother and father.”
She has also helped children prepare their family home for sale, including hiring painters, carpet cleaners and art appraisers or arranging for the Salvation Army or Housing Works to pick up furniture and clothes once a parent has passed away. She remembers how overwhelming it was when she and her sister cleared out her mother’s home after she died. “Family members sometimes can’t get out of their own way,” she said.
Steve Austin, 67, spent the last three years caring for his father, Ervin, in his Los Altos, Calif., home. After his father’s death in February at age 96, Mr. Austin called Joanne Fraser, a seniors real estate specialist with Coldwell Banker in Los Altos, to help him handle his next move.
“She directed me to the steps that needed to be taken and what I needed to anticipate,” he said. “She would pack up stuff if it was necessary; she arranged for church people to pick things up. She introduced me to the title people. She made sure all the t’s and i’s were dotted and crossed.” She also sold the property and found the apartment where he is currently living.
But like Ms. Lightstone, not everyone wants to leave his or her home. According to a report from AARP published in April, about 70 percent of those between the ages of 50 to 64 say they want to “age in place.”
“The vast majority of older adults want to stay in their homes and communities as long as they can,” said Rodney Harrell, director of Livable Communities for the AARP Public Policy Institute. “Nobody wants to be forced to go into a nursing home. They’ve built up their social connections. They like their friends, their favorite grocery store or park; they’re comfortable in those spaces.”
Ms. Devaney, the chief executive and founder of the Mavins Group, a moving management company, not only helps older adults determine their housing options, but also helps them retrofit their homes if they decide not to leave, including changing doorknobs to levers, widening spaces to accommodate a wheelchair, adding safety rails in the showers and more. Her company has also arranged laundry services, shopping, beauty care and transportation for outings. She has even called plumbers late at night for a flooded basement.
Ms. Torton credits her background leading stress management workshops and seminars on career change with providing her with the sensitivity to work with older adults. “It also helps that I’m around the same age,” she said. “I get what they’re going through.”
Ms. Torton assisted Ms. Lightstone in staging her loft for prospective buyers; itemizing and selling her belongings; managing her family’s expectations (including conversations with her children in different states); and selling and distributing her art work.
“I arranged for someone to wrap it all so that it could be shipped without breakage,” she said.
She also helped her find space to house her sculptures — one of which now stands in a public park on West 39th Street, not far from her former apartment.
“She was majorly supportive,” said Ms. Lightstone. “My problem was not so much furniture but the change in life. She was there for if I needed her. That’s a very comforting thing to have.”
Ms. Lightstone ultimately moved to The Williams, a residence on the Upper West Side, where she lives in a one-bedroom apartment. She pays $3,300 a month, which includes housekeeping costs, two meals and common areas for socializing. While she still misses her old home, her new residence has its own benefits, not least of which is companionship.
“If I drop dead in the street,” she said, “someone’s going to come look for me.”