A single photo hangs above the nightstand beside Jeanne Looper-Smith and Ross Smith’s bed, a Warhol-inspired print of a boy with a big smile and a girl with an even bigger beehive.
“That’s us, senior year, high school sweethearts from Joplin, Missouri,” says Jeanne.
She stands in the master bedroom of the couple’s 1,200-square-foot apartment at 909 Walnut in Kansas City. “Can you believe that hair?”
The hair is impressive, as is the photo, when you consider it’s one of the few things they kept from their past, which includes 40 years spent raising separate families in the ’burbs: Ross in Raytown, Jeanne outside Tampa, Fla.
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Several years ago a high school reunion brought them back together, and when it came time to discuss where to live, Jeanne had an idea.
Jeanne gestures out the windows that line the apartment, which reveal a stunning view of the sunlight-lacquered river winding its way around city landmarks. “I always loved the energy of the city.”
“But I thought, ‘Man, that’s a lot of concrete!’” Ross admits, not a surprising reaction from a country boy who rode a horse to grade school.
Eventually he agreed. Jeanne sold most of the things that filled her 3,000-square-foot home, gave sentimental items to her children, and left Florida with little more than her vintage radio collection and a dresser.
“I never feel as if we diminished our living situation in any way. What I found is, I got rid of things that weren’t significant, collections I lost my love for. It forces one to focus on what has value,” Jeanne explains.
Downsizing gave the Smiths a fresh start, and the decor of their apartment reflects that: bright colors and clean lines set against neutral walls, photographs Ross took of Jeanne’s wedding bouquet and cityscapes, Jeanne’s radio collection. They walk to their favorite restaurants and City Market in the spring, to the nail salon where the staff knows Jeanne by name. When something breaks, a maintenance team fixes it. When they travel, they lock the door and leave, worry-free.
“Retirement looks different to us than to our parents,” Jeanne says. “We’re the boomers. We pride ourselves on doing things differently. We’re doing retirement differently, too. We’re not ready for the shuffleboard court.”
In Kansas City, empty nesters have been flocking to this lock-and-go urban lifestyle for years, says Bob Frye, owner and developer of Union Hill, the 16-block neighborhood in the heart of the city that includes houses, townhomes, lofts and a growing number of retail spaces and local restaurants. Back in the 1980s, the Union Hill project was Frye’s college thesis, his vision for a hip, urban neighborhood for young professionals. Initially surprised when he continued to get calls from retirees, Frye finally had a revelation.
“Living in a quality, urban neighborhood actually appeals to a fairly broad demographic,” Frye says.
Rather than buying and maintaining a house in the suburbs and commuting 45 minutes to the city, he says city dwellers, regardless of age, are “making a conscious decision to ask: What am I doing with my time and treasure?”
This was a question Tom and Kathy Marincel asked themselves before they sold the four-bedroom Lenexa home where they had raised — and stored everything that went along with — their family since 1977.
“Some people want to stay in their house forever, and some people don’t want to be caretakers of a house forever. They want to do something different. Like us,” Kathy says of their new, 1,200-square-foot apartment in the Taylor Building on East 30th Street in Union Hill, and of the city adventures that go along with it.
They fell for high ceilings and light-reflecting wood floors, the quiet street in the midst of city bustle, the historic cemetery behind their apartment where Kathy volunteers as a master gardener.
“I do miss a few of my tools,” Tom admits, “and a yard for the dogs to run around in.”
“But we walk them more now, which is good for us, too,” Kathy adds.
If they don’t feel like walking that day, they leave the dogs at home and check the bus schedule.
“There are no buses in Lenexa. Even a taxi is hard to come by, which is another thing you have to think about as you get older: Will you have a way to get around?” Kathy says.
The pedestrian factor also appeals to Frank Watts and James Glaubitz, foodies who love walking to nearby restaurants like Barrel 31 and others on Martini Corner from their Union Hill loft.
They moved there from Liberty, where they lived in what they once thought was their 3,500-square-foot dream home. They drove 20,000 miles in a single year, commuting to the city for work and social events. They don’t miss that house or the things that filled it (except maybe the hot tub) one bit.
“I started getting rid of things and realized I didn’t need them in the first place. When you’re younger, your goal is to acquire material things. … As you get older, you want to make memories, take trips,” Watts says.
Glaubitz adds, “And you get tired of cleaning the house.”
“It took me four hours to vacuum that house. Just vacuum,” Watts admits, clearly relieved not to have to spend that amount of time vacuuming ever again.
Dan McMurtray’s decision to downsize came after a heart attack made him reconsider the 2,400-square-foot Gladstone home he shared with his partner, Joey Kraly.
“We wanted to move before we were both so decrepit or ill that it would fall on the other one or our family to (downsize or move) us,” Kraly says.
So McMurtray sold his share of a medical practice where he had worked for 32 years, Kraly sold a house full of antiques for pennies on the dollar, and the pair moved to a Union Hill loft that overlooks a park and the coffee shop they visited the day they decided to downsize.
“It was hard to let go,” McMurtray admits. “I haven’t rented anything in 40 years. Then I realized it is cheaper for me to rent. If you’re over 60, it’s like, ‘Do I want another mortgage?’ Uh, no.”
Tips for downsizing
At any age, moving can be a stressful experience. Add to that 30, 40, even 50 years of life lived and memories stored in a single home, and the transition can be overwhelming. With proper planning, it doesn’t have to be.
▪ Start early, finish happy. Jump-start a downsize by focusing on and sorting through problem areas like attics, basements and filing cabinets.
▪ Give sentimental items and heirlooms to loved ones. “I kept one or two things instead of 20, because you can’t keep everything,” says Jeanne Smith. Kathy Marincel found a way to keep some items around: “The things that were really important to me, like china I never really used but had been in the family for generations, I passed them out at a holiday dinner.”
▪ Plan out every inch. Once you find a new space, a floor plan will help you determine which pieces of furniture will fit and where. Joey Kraly and Dan McMurtray took a diagram of their unit and made paper outlines of the furniture they thought they could use. “When we were moving in, the movers thought things would not fit. But we knew they would,” Kraly says. And they did.
▪ Consider bringing in the pros. Kansas City-based professional organizer Helen Stringer of Organized by Helen uses her background in counseling to guide her clients through a downsizing transition. “I ask lots of questions that help each client make confident decisions, (because) when we are overwhelmed our brains’ ability to think reasonably is hindered, which makes it difficult to make decisions. Having an objective professional helps.”
Another fast-growing specialty, senior-move managers, also share a load of expertise and can handle everything from sorting and packing/unpacking, buffering emotional family members, even hiring the movers. Two local businesses are affiliated with the National Association of Senior Move Managers: Beautiful Spaces Senior Move Management in Topeka and Assisted Moving of Kansas City.