Making It

TRANSITION MAGICIANS: Danielle Sharkowicz, left, and Elizabeth Striano help ease seniors' moves from one home to another.
TRANSITION MAGICIANS: Danielle Sharkowicz, left, and Elizabeth Striano help ease seniors' moves from one home to another. (D.A. Peterson)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, March 22, 2009

Elizabeth Striano and Danielle Sharkowicz, who met when they were both at turning points in their lives, have formed a company to help senior citizens negotiate their own transitions.

The two Lorton residents became neighbors in October 2007, when Danielle, an engineer living in North Carolina and working for a digital optics firm, moved to Elizabeth's street as the result of her husband's job switch.

Elizabeth, who has been in the area since 1995, had recently quit her job as director of communications for a nonprofit because she wanted a change. The neighbors, each of whom has two children, hit it off immediately and became the kind of friends who meet for coffee and finish each other's sentences. "We just clicked, not to sound corny or anything," says Elizabeth.

As they tried to help each other plan their next steps, they came up with the idea of assisting seniors who are moving. They were familiar with the need for such services because Elizabeth's husband works at a senior community and Danielle had helped her in-laws move out of their house of 35 years. "I had seen the garage full of stuff; I had seen the dumpster out back; I had seen the estate sale," she says.

Danielle researched data on potential clients. "I came back to the next coffee session and said, 'Wow, it's huge,' " she says of the group sometimes called the "silver tsunami." The partners also consulted with the National Association of Senior Move Managers and professional organizing associations.

Elizabeth and Danielle opened Better Senior Living in January 2008. "We didn't know we were starting in the midst of a recession," Elizabeth says wryly. "If we can make it in this market ... " Danielle finishes the thought for her: "... then we really do have something." They began soliciting business through mass mailings to Northern Virginia neighborhoods with large numbers of seniors. They help clients sort through a lifetime of belongings, arrange moves with vetted moving companies and supervise the packing. They also handle organizing and personal shopping. They charge by the project. The fee for downsizing, for example, ranges from $1,000 to $2,500; the fee for managing a move runs from $300 to $800.

For a local move, the partners sometimes will unpack (which is a separate fee), with the help of an on-call cadre of college students and stay-at-home moms. When the clients arrive, "Everything is put away for them, and it's home," says Elizabeth. "That's our signature, I guess, but it's a long day."

"We simply could not have gotten along without them," says Shirley Lotz, who moved with her husband, Herb Bartlett, from a single-family home to a two-bedroom apartment in a retirement community. "When they finished on the day we moved in, everything was unpacked and in order."

By the end of their first full year of business, Elizabeth and Danielle had sales of $35,000, with a net income of $17,500. They are hoping for $100,000 in gross revenue this calendar year: January alone brought them $10,000 in business.

Both enjoy how the flexibility of the business allows them to spend more time with their children. And each appreciates different aspects of the job. "She loves the history of it; she eats that stuff up," Elizabeth says of Danielle. "For me, I like to make it lighthearted, a little fun."

The job can be like a treasure hunt: They've come across beloved belongings once thought lost, old love letters, a ticket to Eisenhower's inauguration. They've also found sexy undergarments. Observes Danielle: "Eighty-five-year-olds still know how to have a good time in the bedroom."

Have you found a creative new way to make a living? E-mail

© 2009 The Washington Post Company