May 16, 2013

Seniors Facing Changes

The home improvement project has been a bit delayed. Life interferes. You know how that goes. But part of the life interfering is helping my Grandparents move out of their current apartment in their retirement community into an assisted-living facility next door. Not only is the new place a bit smaller but they need more room for my Grandfather to get around with his new walker. Until now he hasn't even used a cane. Not that he didn't need the cane; he was just a little too vain before to use it. He's 94. I love that he didn't want to look old at 94. That is fight.

As I share some of the challenges I've faced with my grandparents and their slightly hordy-ish behaviors they have, I find many other friends have had the same experience. It seems to be common with the WWII/Depression generation. So I'll share some of the strategies that I have found that work for us. Everyone is going to have a different experience so tread carefully if you try one of mine.

I don't move a lot things. My Grandfather's vision is terrible and both his and my Grandmother's memory is fragile. They get in the habit of having something somewhere and I don't mess with it. Even it it means they keep their bottle of aspirin in the middle of the kitchen counter. They need to be able to access things and it just makes their life easier if I leave everything right where they are keeping it. So surfaces are going to stay junky and that is OK. When I move them, I'm going to take a picture of their surfaces and recreate those surfaces at the new place. Nightstands, bathroom counters, etc. We'll also move the drawers over as is so those contents and locations won't change at all.

Tackle clear-out projects a little at a time. My Grandmother's closet is so chock-a-block full of clothes she can't put anything away anymore. However, I can see a lot of the clothing is covered in dust so I know she isn't wearing them. Suggesting that we clean out her closet was overwhelming so I made an event out of it. I talked about it a lot ahead of time and told her how we wouldn't throw anything away if we didn't have to. We would donate to a women's group that provides nice clothing to women entering the workforce for the first time and need a nice new suit. My Grandma truly does have some beautiful and expensive clothing so this made her happy that someone else would value her beautiful things. I also told Grandma that we would only do this for an hour and then we would go out to lunch somewhere fun. She really looked forward to that so she had some incentive to agree.

My Mom and I showed up that day and we sat around chatting and drinking coffee. After a good visit, I brought Grandma into her bedroom with my Mom. I had Grandma sit down near the bed so she was comfortable. I had Mom on the other side of the bed and she was in charge of folding the clothing. I went into the closet and pulled out an armload from the furthest corner and stacked it on the bed. I did a couple of arm loads which started to alarm Grandma so I stopped after just a couple. It made a huge stack. We then went through each piece one-by-one. Anything that fit that she wanted and would still wear we put back in the closet. Even if it was dusty. We would ooh and ahh over how cute it was, she would admit that she had completely forgotten about it, we would joke that this was like shopping and I put it back where she could access it. She has already worn several of these pieces because she knows she has them again. Anything that did not fit or that she could not wear (she doesn't wear skirts anymore) went in the donation pile. There were a LOT of shirts that had coffee dribbles down the front of them. It made both my mom and I say we were going to check our own shirts immediately for the same thing. So easy to forget you dribbled a little and put something back in the closet because you think it is clean. There were a few times when I was pulling out the 8th white golf shirt. When we had this piece of clothing surplus, I pulled out all the white golf shirts and let her see them all together. I asked her to pick out the ones she wanted to keep. She actually kept fewer than I thought she would. We donated the rest. Seeing the shirts together in front of her helped her see how many there were. If I had just told her there were eight it wouldn't have been as meaningful to her and she would have tried to keep them all. Visual demonstrations go a long way.

It almost felt like a shopping trip and Grandma had a lot of fun. We finished up in an hour and then went to lunch. Grandma is already asking when we'll do it again. It will take about four of these afternoons but she is in control of the project and it will be easier on all of us.

Sometimes you just have to do things when they aren't looking. This is going to be the most controversial strategy and I'd be very careful with this. The last thing I want to do is take away my grandparents' dignity. But sometimes you have to do things for their own safety and well-being. I'm very close to my grandparents so I have a really good idea of what they need and are using. When I saw my Grandfather's bedroom and bathroom I knew I would have to do as much as possible when he wasn't around. It is so easy for this to happen to any of us when we live somewhere for a long time but he has gotten himself into a situation where his environment really isn't safe or livable for him so we know we are going to have to take a hit and make him grumpy about some of what we do. I just can't have him living in unsafe surroundings though. I've begun very quietly and small scale. I took a couple garbage bags full out of his bathroom. He has stacks of things he is saving for some reason. Empty yogurt containers, empty toilet paper rolls, dozens of those scoops from laundry detergent, etc. Anything that was technically garbage got thrown away that day. I didn't say anything to anyone. He will notice that it is gone but he may not say anything. He may have intended for it to go to recycling but just never got it there.

Another day I scooped up all the glass jars he had saved. Grandma did see me that time and tried to tell me they used them. In truth they were covered in thick dust and one even had a dead moth in it. I showed her the one with the dead moth and she agreed that they may not use them as often as she thought.

Let them have their way. If they want that junky old bookcase with plastic plant containers in their living room; I let them have it. If it isn't creating an unsafe place for them to live, it is their choice how they live. They get to be the decorators of their home. Just like I prefer to live the way I want. Letting them make these decisions goes a long way when I need to get rid of the 40 empty egg cartons stacked in the bathroom where the new shower chair needs to go. They trust that what I'm doing is actually something that needs to go.

Discuss things with them. I find that they will often help make the tough decisions if you just talk to them and are honest about how you feel, what you fear, and what you want for them. My grandparents are smart cookies. When given time to think through a situation or problem; when given materials in writing so they have time to read and process them; they will be the best judges of what works for them. It comes down to time. Give them days/weeks to process this themselves. If the situation isn't immediately unsafe, you have the luxury of some time. Give it to them.

These strategies are so personal and everyone is going to have different situations and people they are working with that I can't begin to say this is a guide. We did ask them if they would prefer to go somewhere fun for the weekend they move and when they come back they just go to the new place. They loved that plan so clearly they trust us. We did have to promise my Grandfather that what wouldn't fit in his new home would be boxed up and go to their vacation home where he can go through the boxes one at a time to evaluate the contents. He will never get around to doing that but that's OK.

I don't get to have a lot more time with my grandparents and I just want to make sure we spend more time enjoying each other than wrestling over keeping the broken TV from the 70s. There is plenty of time to get rid of it later.

March 06, 2013

Phase 1 in Home Improvement

I've been avoiding a big project at my house. It is something I know I have needed to do but it just seemed so overwhelming that I have been pretending it isn't there.

My house is FULL of crap.

There. I said it. I desperately need to de-clutter in a big way. I can't believe I avoided this so long. When I was living at my grandparent's cabin a few years ago, I felt smothered in STUFF. We've had that cabin for over 40 years so it has accumulated an enormous amount of stuff from various family members. While I was there I couldn't stand that every closet overflowed with old junk to the point that I couldn't even use one. Every cupboard was packed to the gills with things so old I was afraid to eat or use them (including an old baby bottle for the baby that had recently turned 40!). Every space was jam packed with something that wasn't even useful or beautiful and anything useful was impossible to access. It just made me crazy.

A few times I snapped and cleaned out a closet or two and even tackled a bookshelf with 10 year old AAA maps. This wasn't a popular move with the grandparents who see nothing wrong with their cabin. I did this almost 8 years ago and still, anytime they can't find something now, they decide I must have gotten rid of it.

From what I gather talking to other people about their grandparents or parents (those that went through WWII and the Depression) have a deep love for their things and won't throw anything out. They did without for so long they just can't get rid of anything they have now. This means I lived with empty jars, coffee cans, broken TVs, bags, etc.

Living with this kind of clutter kind of scarred me for life. I have a horror of the overflowing now. Which is why I can't believe I've gotten cluttered myself now. It happens so quickly and easily, doesn't it?

So I have declared this the "Summer of De-cluttering" (kind of like the Summer of George but better and longer since I'm actually starting this in the Spring). I'm going to tackle each closet, drawer, surface, and corner that has "stuff." My goal is to get rid of at least 50% of everything. In some cases that percentage should be even higher. The de-cluttering measurement is, "If my house burned down in a fire, would I miss this?" If not, then it is a good candidate for being ousted.

The project commenced this weekend. Start where the problem is the most annoying, right? So I started in my bedroom. I have a pretty good size closet and I have plenty of drawer space but everything has overflowed to surfaces in the room. This sets my teeth on edge and really means that what should be my comforting personal space is an area I don't even like to walk into.

Exhibit A: The top of my dresser. I'm so embarrassed to even show this to you. Notice Scarlet Kitty is present and ready to help. Also, I can't close one of the drawers because it is so full, a t-shirt has fallen behind the drawer. I have to take it out and dig down back there to retrieve it.

But I can't put any of this away. I also have overflow on the chair next to the dresser where I "store" all my workout clothes and under the cat's table (yes, she has her own table for her food and water so the dogs can't get into it) where I've been storing dog rugs and blankets. Not only do I hate all these but they are right at the door so they are the first thing you see when you walk in. Ugh. (For the record, I'm hoping to replace the carpet this year. They aren't actually as bad as they look in this picture but they are that awful champagne color that shows EVERYTHING.)

(Do you see the two eyes looking in from the hallway? It isn't a monster. It is Oscar watching all the fun.)

This is the offending closet. It is so full it is impossible to do much more than stuff things in there and hope they stay. The dog bed in front isn't helping much because it is hard to get to the closet but I haven't figured out a solution for that yet. Even when I move the bed a dog sleeps there because it is the side of the bed I sleep on. The dirty clothes basket looks awful too. I was hopeful I would find space in the closet for it too. I had a lot of hopes riding on this project.

The first step was just pulling everything out. Because I've been dreading the scale of this project I kind of had to put myself at a point of no return so I pulled things out quick and piled them up on the bed. Now I would have no where to sleep unless I finished this project. I've also started some piles with the easy decisions. It boils down to: what gets thrown away, what is getting donated and what is kept.

Some decisions were not easy. Brand new items I had either never used or only used once or twice in over 5 years had to go. My book bag I used all through college had to go because the plastic lining is starting to crumble. That was kind of tough but I haven't used it since school (17 years ago!). I was just keeping it for sentimental reasons. But I was brutal and I would say I eliminated 3/4 of my shoes and purses.

Here is the pile of shoes and purses before I went through them. That shoe holder extends the entire length of the closet. I was hoping I could get rid of some of the holder after I weeded through the shoes. I don't even know why I would have this many shoes since I'm really not a shoe person. I wear the same pair of clogs almost every day.

Here is the closet now it is empty (the little things you see on the racks are the lavender and cedar sachets to deter moths). I have to say I was more than a little horrified how GROSS the empty closet was. It was dirty. It was so dusty and around the shoe holder were gross cobwebs. I did managed to get rid of nearly half of the shoe rack by the way. So before I could do anything else I had to actually clean the closet. Vacuum, dust, etc. My allergies took such a hit that I'll wear a mask for the next closet project.

Here is Scarlet Kitty helping. (Her doggie brother helped by chewing up a kleenex box in the office.) Notice the door jamb? That is actually part of the driver for the big clean out project. The house has some aging issues that are mainly cosmetic such as this dinged up, outdated door jamb. I want to do a bunch of painting this summer (when it is nice and dry in Oregon) but part of making that happen is just getting rid of stuff so I can put things away and maneuver furniture around the room to get to walls, ceilings, window trim, etc. Also notice the floor. I hate that floor. It is really cheap looking in person, doesn't match anything, and whoever did the trim did a TERRIBLE job. It will be a big expense because I actually just want to put new flooring through the entire house but I've started my little savings plan and it would be great if it can be my big, expensive project this year. I should be able to swing one a year.

The smudge in the picture is probably dust from everything I had put in the air when I disturbed the items in my closet!

And here is the finished product! There are a big bunch of hangers right in the middle that are empty. I should have taken them out when I took the picture to emphasize the improvement but I was absolutely beat and filthy by the end. I got rid of over 50% of the clothes easily.

This is everything that went (with the exception of all the shoes and purses which had already been hauled out of the room). The stuff at the foot of the bed is garbage (I got rid of all wire and cheap plastic hangers) and the stuff on the bed will be donated to Goodwill. Three garbage bags full. Good stuff too. Items that still have the tags on them, some nice jackets that I just had to admit to myself were too big for me. There were a lot of things that I actually really liked but if they didn't fit well, if they weren't flattering and if I wasn't wearing them, they went. I actually found a lot of clothes that had been hidden that I had forgotten about so I feel like I went shopping for new stuff!

All of the workout clothes are easily stored on the shelf and where I was able to remove the shoe rack I now have the dog rugs and blankets neatly stacked.

This was step 1 in the Great Home Makeover. It took me about 2-3 hours and I really think moving that fast actually made it easier to make decisions about what to get rid of and what to keep. I've even gone back a couple of times and decided there are a few more items that should have gone in the first round. I'm a de-cluttering fool now. The next step for my bedroom are the drawers. This won't be nearly as big a project so I'm not afraid of it.

Scarlet Kitty was very pleased with the empty basket. You know you have done a good job when you get a cat's stamp of approval.