Many of us have had to clean out the living space of someone who has died or who is moving to a nursing home or assisted living facility. I have been involved in that task several times and I know it affects my view of how I want my own living space to be when my children inherit that task. Bill and I don’t want our children to have a huge burden when it comes to disposing of our possessions some day. I have heard many stories from others about what they had to deal with in that final “housecleaning.” A few of us might be rich enough to delegate the entire task to hired hands but most of us have to deal, at least to some degree, with the task ourselves. Some of the stories I have heard about this experience have been thought provoking and have given me some ideas for making the task easier. I am going to explain my reasons for arriving at these ideas but the characters in the “case histories” I cite will remain anonymous. After all, these stories are about friends or relations with whom I do want to remain on good terms.
Case History Number One: Perhaps the most alarming case I remember involved a wonderful couple who decided to begin downsizing many years before they actually gave up their home to move in with a caregiver. They wanted to be fair to their surviving children and ensure that each of them received some treasured keepsakes. That was a noble idea that turned, in my opinion, into a complete catastrophe in the execution stage. Here is my first tip on this subject: if one or more of your children have a hoarding disorder, do not invite your heirs to a get together where they place name stickers on the items they want to receive when you are gone. If you choose to ignore my warning, at least provide lots of stickers and retreat to a safe location before you turn the heirs loose to tag their potential bequests. The running of the bulls in Pamplona was tame compared to the stampede that ensued when this couple’s descendants were invited to move about the home placing their stickers. A compulsive hoarding disorder causes its victims to desire to own every single available item. Not a single piece of furniture, decorative item, or personal possession in the entire house was left untagged when the dust had settled.
Here are some additional tips for people who still choose to issue this type of invitation to their progeny: have referees available to settle any disputes; use name tags with strong adhesive so they can’t be ripped off by competing heirs; provide a first-aid kit for the injured; provide grief counselors for the participants who don’t suffer from a hoarding disorder and were thus too slow to successfully tag anything. It wasn’t as though this particular couple had priceless possessions worth fighting to own. I saw the merchandise before the free-for-all began and there wasn’t a single item there I felt the desire to take home with me, not that I could have in any case since I was not one of the surviving descendants. The possessions were lovely but, by middle age, most of us have developed strong preferences for what we want our own homes to look like and we are already considering the fact that we will need to downsize some time in the near future. To a person with a hoarding disorder, these facts make no difference in the desire to possess all he or she sees. Continue reading
The list of items that have gone missing in my household right now is a few pages long. It includes things like the following:
- The booklet that came with my current home phone that will hopefully remind me of how to dial in and collect phone messages that went to the voicemail box that only operates when a call comes in while I’m on the line with someone already. (As opposed to the voice mail that records messages when I’m either not home or just not in the mood to answer the phone.)
- The booklet that came with my iPhone that will explain how to use all those wonderful features that I haven’t figured out yet (this is a very large booklet: perhaps I should have called it a book). Yes, Siri, I know you are there waiting to answer my questions and I’ll talk to you as soon as I figure out how to do it.
- The great little pan I bought because it would be perfect for cooking meat loaf for two. I’m pretty certain it is on one of the upper shelves in my kitchen: the ones that a person who is 5 feet-2 inches tall and whose available kitchen space consists of cupboards that average 6 feet-4 inches in height never sees.
- The instructions for where to call if I need to make use of the cremation services Bill and I purchased more than ten years ago. After all, who knows when they might be needed?
- The Christmas wrapping paper that was such a bargain right after the holiday last year: I’d better hurry on this one as the paper is in danger of being wasted (again) if I don’t find it soon.
- The container of vinegar that I was going to use to keep the appliances sparkling clean. You’d think this one would be highly visible since it was the giant, economy size. I’m fairly certain it is hiding under one of the sinks I was planning to rinse with it.
- The batteries for my computer mouse that I desperately needed yesterday when I had to switch to using the laptop’s built-in thingy, which I hate.
- The contact cement that is going to help me stick back the piece of backsplash tile that has come loose again for the umpteenth time.
Dealing with the Cycle of Life in the Physical Universe
Recently, my husband, Bill, and I spent an hour with his doctor talking about whether the time had come to consider hospice care for him. It is hard to explain the effect it had on us to catalog the many ways in which his body has entered the cycle of life where decay starts to take center stage. My husband participated in this discussion of the abilities he has lost, the bodily functions that are becoming difficult to control, the ways in which his brain can no longer keep up with the demands of living. It was a brutal but necessary discussion and it could have been held without Bill in the room but he chose to take part in it. Bill has an extraordinary ability to confront the parts of life that most of us avert our eyes to avoid seeing. But the time spent in that room did take a heavy toll on both of us and, after the discussion was over and the decisions had been made, we needed to find a way to return to a place where we could find some sense of fulfillment and peace in our lives. This story is about how we managed to do that in spite of the harsh realities we are facing.
My husband and I love to have philosophical discussions about why we are on Planet Earth at this time; what the purpose of our journey here is; whether we cease to exist or live on as spirits when our bodies die; and why this place, in so many ways, is a violent, unforgiving planet. I believe, for example, that love and compassion are extremely important qualities to focus on developing and yet, the needs of this body of mine dictate that I regularly have to eat other species to help my own body survive. (Yes, as the accompanying photo shows, I include vegetables as a species: just because I can’t hear a tomato scream when I eat it doesn’t mean it is happy to be served for lunch.)
All those nature shows on television are wonderful until they get to the scene where the lions start chowing down on Bambi or the industrious ant colony gets crushed under a falling rock. Then the true nature of the planet and its inhabitants becomes apparent: it is often a cold, seemingly cruel, and painful place to live. It is hard to reconcile stories about the loving God who cares for every living thing and stories about the vengeful God who appears to smite folks regularly. Especially if I, or a person I love, seem to be the person being smitten. Add that confusion to the fact that some days I feel like the rock (intentionally or unintentionally) and other days I feel like the ant (this last statement is probably influenced by the invasion of ants we had in our kitchen recently and the harsh but effective way I dealt with the problem).
The vast majority of the population gets tremendous fulfillment through music: some by writing it; some by playing it; some by listening to it. When other pleasures in life may become more difficult to access as our bodies age, music often remains a great source of pleasure although we may have to make modifications in the way we enjoy it. According to a good friend of ours, Karen Skipper, owner of Orange Coast Music Therapy (http://www.orangecoastmusictherapy.com) and a Neurologic Music Therapy Fellow, music can be used to provide great pleasure for all people and also to help people who have had strokes, traumatic brain injuries, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease, Cerebral Palsy, Alzheimer’s disease, Autism, and other neurological diseases affecting cognition, movement, and communication such as Multiple Sclerosis and Muscular Dystrophy. Music can promote wellness, manage stress, alleviate pain, express feelings, enhance memory, improve communication and just plain be lots of fun. Karen has been known to work with patients who are completely unresponsive and, within an hour or two, have them singing along as she plays her guitar. If music can do all that for an unresponsive person, it might be able to pull the rest of us out of a funk, add pleasure to our day, and help us make the final fifteen percent of our lives more fulfilling.
I have first-hand experience of how music can help relieve pain. I decided to learn to rollerblade a few years ago. I assumed it would be quite similar to roller-skating as I had done it in my youth. I was wrong. It is far more like ice-skating. Within minutes of strapping on the skates and taking off across the park, my ankles were wobbling and my insteps were burning. I kept at it for a few weeks thinking I would build up strength and the pain would diminish. It didn’t: if anything it got worse. I was also a great deal clumsier than I had been as a teenager when we would skate for hours to music at the roller rink. Then one day, I took my headphones and Walkman with me (Judging by the Walkman, this was clearly more than a few years ago, probably more like twenty years ago). When I put it on and started playing Bob Seger’s “Give Me That Old Time Rock and Roll,” suddenly I not only became less clumsy but the pain was reduced. When the song ended, the discomfort returned. I eventually developed a whole play list of music with a strong rhythm and a rousing melody and the pain diminished so much I began to enjoy skating. If I were to follow the lead of the woman in the photograph, I bet I could still manage to roller blade. At 72, I would definitely want to use a walker as she is doing as a safety measure. Continue reading