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A women pulls a wagon with large, colorful boulders. Illustration.

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I needed help to sort a lifetime of my mother’s belongings

Moving had been a fraught subject even before my mom got sick. After her diagnosis, we found an organizer-slash-diplomat

I stood in the house where I grew up and considered a stack of moving boxes. All of them bore the same word, scrawled with a Sharpie: HEAVY. They weren’t, really. “Heavy” was a code word, a signal from the woman I had hired to orchestrate my mother’s move from the house she lived in for more than 40 years.

Mischa was a senior move manager—a profession I had not known existed, but now could not imagine doing without. Part organizer, part diplomat, part psychologist, a senior move manager does exactly what the title suggests: They handle the logistics of downsizing for a major move as well as the emotions and politics that older people and their families bring to the process.

Sorting the belongings of a lifetime is a big job, even for the most efficient and least sentimental of homeowners. My mother is neither of those things. Fiercely intelligent but a little scattered, she regularly tidied but rarely threw anything out. To make matters worse, a year earlier, she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. That is a terrible diagnosis for anyone to hear, and my mother couldn’t accept it. Nor could she accept that anyone else—especially me, the person who made her go to the neurologist—might need to make decisions for her now or in the future.

Moving had been a fraught subject even before Mom got sick. My father died in 1999, leaving her alone in a five-story townhouse in Philadelphia. We looked at apartments, but she wasn’t ready to downsize. She didn’t want to leave her garden. She imagined herself semi-retired and running a consulting business out of the fourth-floor office. Besides, she said, “there is so much stuff in the basement.”

Once we suspected dementia, my husband and I had done battle with the basement one January weekend, in hopes of loosening that particular anchor. On the first morning, Mom stood with us for a few minutes holding a pen and paper (to write down I know not what), but then she disappeared upstairs and never returned. Mark and I sorted and cleaned and replaced moldy boxes with plastic bins. We made liberal use of 1-800-Got-Junk. But it took another year and that awful diagnosis before Mom and her live-in partner, John, agreed to move.

Now we had to do for the rest of the house what we had started in the basement. What Alzheimer’s takes first from people, though, is their judgment and capacity to plan. Mom thought she could move everything—and I do mean everything—into a two-bedroom apartment. She wanted to take a piece of art that hung in the old double-height living room and hang it on the 8-foot walls of the new apartment. And she didn’t want to hear from me that she couldn’t.

Enter Mischa, whose name had been on a list of resources given to me after my mother’s diagnosis. She was an independent operator who worked with moving companies, auction houses, and storefront charities. In the 1990s, when the first specialists in moving older people appeared, many had backgrounds in gerontology or social work. They saw an unmet need—one that has only grown along with the aging population and my generation’s apparently increasing disinterest in inheriting antiques. The National Association of Senior Move Managers began in 2002 with 22 members; now it has roughly 1,000.

Although it isn’t always part of the job, Mischa understood the need to engage in shadow diplomacy. Mom believed she had hired her, and Mischa treated her with the utmost respect. But in truth, Mischa worked for me. I had explained the situation to her before my mother knew she existed. While Mischa went through the house with the help of my mother’s caregiver, Kelly, she sent me photos and I made decisions long-distance. Mischa and Kelly dealt with clothing, three incomplete sets of china, one complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica, board games (still shelved outside my childhood bedroom), old prescription medicine, my father’s tools (in the basement, naturally), and much of the furniture that wouldn’t fit in the apartment and that no one else wanted.

Then came the final step. We arranged for Mom and John to spend the weekend at a second home my mother owned (the following year I would have to sell that one, too). I snuck into the house on my own to spend 48 hours grappling with the decisions Mischa could not make: those boxes marked HEAVY.

I assume she chose the word because it was in keeping with a move and wouldn’t provoke questions, but I marveled at its layers of meaning. These are the things that are too heavy with emotion for me to handle, Mischa was telling me. And maybe even: I know it’s heavy you have to sneak into your mother’s house this way. She had distilled the work and the heartache.

I found my father’s letters from the 1950s and my mother’s journals from the 1970s. I found medical records from the traumatic brain injury my twin brother suffered when we were 10. I found awards and accolades from my mother’s distinguished career as an environmental lawyer. I found hundreds of old slides from family vacations, but no slide viewer with which to examine them.

Box by box, I went through it all. I bundled up family memorabilia to send to relatives. I kept a pile of papers for my brother. I held the slides up to a desk lamp and threw out umpteen shots of sailboats at anchor in picturesque harbors, taken during sailing trips long before digital cameras made it easy to delete as you went. I laughed when I found a photograph of my great-great-grandmother looking large and stolid. A note on the back read, “Grandma Friedel: She had a beautiful complexion.” Written by my great-aunt Kay, it seemed to be intended to preempt judgment. Finally, on Sunday evening, I drafted a long memo to Mischa with my final round of instructions and loaded up my car. (Yes, a few of the HEAVY boxes migrated to my basement in Brooklyn. I swear I will not leave them to be sorted out by anyone but me.) Then I drove home to my husband, who had stayed there with our kids and met me with a glass of wine and a shoulder to cry on.

When Mom and John moved into the apartment, I spent the first night with them. Mischa and Kelly had already filled the kitchen cupboards and clothes closets. Other than a run to Bed Bath & Beyond for new bathmats, it was done. The next morning, I made them breakfast and Mom and I admired the view. Then we picked out some notes on the grand piano Mom had been determined to bring with her and that Mischa had figured out how to fit into the living room.

Lydia Denworth is a contributing editor at Scientific American and the author of three books of popular science. Her latest, Friendship: The Evolution, Biology and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond, is out now. She lives in Brooklyn, which she loves in part for how much it reminds her of growing up in Center City Philadelphia.