"I have a few trains," Jim Estep says as he leads a visitor into a dark shed where he used to park a motor home.
A few trains, indeed. When Estep turns on the lights, the big garage looks like the best Christmas a boy could ever imagine: there are toy trains everywhere. Steam engines and diesel locomotives pull their loads through miniature villages full of brightly lit houses and shops. There's an airport with planes parked on the runway, and a lake with little boats. A glittering Ferris wheel spins at an amusement park. Ranks of extra engines and spare rolling stock line one whole wall. Model airplanes with wing spans wide as a boy's arms hang from the ceiling.
When family members can't help an elder downsize, it may be time to call for outside assistance.
Choosing the right helpers is critical, says Debbie Bassett, an owner of TLC Solutions in Grants Pass, a senior moving service. Moving services like TLC often offer a free consultation to determine the scope of the project.
A trade association called the National Association of Senior Move Managers has hundreds of members across the United States, and can direct elders to local moving consultants. They're on the Web at www.nasmm.org.
Elders should have a clear understanding of what services will be provided and what those services will cost. Bassett and her business partner, Nida Kozaczuk, for example, charge by the hour for their services ($35 per person per hour). They do not buy any of their clients' possessions or accept gifts for their services to eliminate any possible conflict of interest.
They provide packing and unpacking services for elders who are moving and help them set up their new home. They do not do the actual moving, but they can connect elders with movers they know and trust.
— Bill Kettler
"There's Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley," Estep says, pointing to life-like, finger-sized figures outside a tiny theater.
The retired Navy pilot gathered his toys over decades — a house here, a train there — and now they fill his RV barn. He used to invite local kids to see his toys. Then, about a year ago, his health started to deteriorate. He had two strokes that left him temporarily paralyzed, and he took a nasty fall. Now, as he turns 80, he faces the prospect of letting it all go. No one in his family wants the trains.
"I think people that collect, they don't realize some day they're gonna have to get rid of all that stuff," he says. "It's more of a project to get rid of it than to get it."
Estep's dilemma is an increasingly common one. Millions of aging Americans have spent their adult lives collecting things, but their treasures have to go when they move to a smaller home or an apartment in an assisted-living center. An entire industry has developed to help them downsize. Even in the Rogue Valley, there are moving consultants who work with elders, deciding what they can keep, and how to dispose of — or "redirect" — what they can't.
"People are overwhelmed with their possessions," says Debbie Bassett of Grants Pass, an owner of TLC Solutions, a senior move management service. Bassett and her business partner, Nida Kozaczuk, work with elders to systematically decide what to keep, what to sell for money, give to family or friends or charity, and what to throw away.
Bassett says the hardest part of downsizing can be deciding its time has come. "Nobody will downsize until they're ready," she says, or until they're forced to by something such as a medical emergency or the death of a spouse.
Possessions and collections represent "a time of life when we're able to function fully and manage all these details," says Ellen Waldman, of Ashland, a geriatric care manager and owner of Senior Options, a senior support service. "Now, we are asking them to face the fact of their aging in a way that they might not have considered previously. Even if we call it downsizing, what are we really saying?"
Kozaczuk says disposing of collections often starts with contacting people with similar interests to determine what can be sold for cash. The Internet has opened countless opportunities for selling collections through services such as ebay and craigslist. There are also hobby-specific sites where collectors sell everything from toy trains and dolls to collections of stones and postage stamps.
"Information and contacts is where the power is," Bassett says.
Pricing items to sell can be challenging. There are pricing guides for many collectibles (including toy trains), but prices vary depending on an item's condition and rarity. Bassett says people who are liquidating their prized collections want to get top dollar for their treasures, but they often have unrealistic expectations about what an item will fetch, based on how much they paid for it.
"People always think their stuff is worth more than it is," she says. "It's only worth what somebody else will pay for it."
She says most people will be lucky to sell collectibles for as much as 25 percent of what they paid for them. A number of factors work to hold prices down. So many people are scaling back these days that the sheer volume of stuff for sale has depressed prices, she says. Moreover, in a weak economy, fewer people are buying, and they have less money to spend.
Bassett says when she and Kozaczuk first started their business seven years ago, second-hand stores and antique shops would happily buy nearly everything they brought in. These days, the stores that are still in business don't even want to look at what they have to offer.
"They have warehouses full of stuff," Bassett says.
"When we tell people (what their things are worth), they're aghast," Kozaczuk says. "Some people have things like Norman Rockwell plates that they paid so much for, and now they're lucky if someone will give them a dollar for them."
Bassett says people need to be willing to spend some time or money to get the best price for their collections. They can do the research themselves, or hire someone to do it for them.
Some collectors don't necessarily need the financial return from their treasures. Bassett and Kozaczuk encourage people who are financially secure to consider donating their collections to their church, or a youth group or a favorite charity. The donation may provide a tax deduction for the giver, and the recipient can sell the collection for cash to fund its programs.
The tax deduction from giving away a collection can sometimes be more valuable than selling items for cash, Bassett says. Any giving strategy should be discussed with a tax expert to determine whether it's advisable, and donated collections should be fully documented with photos and appraisal values in case tax officials question the deduction.
Elders need to understand that disposing of big collections, or a lifetime of possessions, may take more time than they anticipate, Bassett says.
"The decision-making process is very taxing on people," Bassett says, but it's important to keep chipping away, even if it's only spending two or three hours several times a week.
As Christmas approached, Estep was still weighing his options, but he seemed to acknowledge that the time had come to do something.
"I can't take it with me," he says. "I'd feel guilty if I left all this stuff for my wife."
Bill Kettler is a freelance writer living in Rogue River. Reach him at email@example.com.