Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Public Service Announcement

A brief digression today. I had lunch with my mother and we were talking about her volunteer work. She works with a group that places alarm systems into the houses and apartments of elderly people who want to be able to alert someone if they get hurt or sick. You know, “I’ve fallen and I can get up!” Only reputable. Anyway, she was telling me about her most recent client. And, as she often does, she was shuddering at the multiple piles of objects, thingies, whatsies and overall crap this person had all over their apartment.

“This woman was bedridden,” my mother said, grabbing a spear of asparagus, “If she hits the alarm, I don’t think an EMT stretcher could get around all her stuff and into her bedroom to get her.”

This wasn’t the first time I had heard a story like this from her. She swears that at the end of every shift, she comes home and gets rid of a couple of objects. Another year of this, she’ll be down to a fork and a flashlight. I skipped over discussing her potentially monastic life and asked the larger question.

“What percent of the people you see have this much stuff?”

She thought. She chewed. She swallowed.

“That bad? Maybe only ten percent. But I’d say seventy percent of the elderly people have too much stuff in their house.”

I gestured with a breadstick. “Define ‘Too much’.”

Too much is a loaded term. One person’s “Cozy” is another person’s “So…many…pillows. Can’t…breathe…”

“Too much is when you aren’t stable when you walk and there isn’t a single clear space on a tabletop where you could put your hand to balance if you had to. Too much is stacks of mail left next to the stove. Too much is having a vision problem and the floor strewn with small objects. These people maybe won’t die directly from too much stuff, but they’ll end up in the hospital from a run-in with their stuff.”

“Seventy percent?”


I felt contrary, so I played Devil’s Advocate. “Is it possible that the population needing alarm systems is already more fragile than the regular elderly population and therefore isn’t as on top of cleaning? That the average older person’s house isn’t quite so cluttered?”

My mom shrugged.

“Probably. But I’ll tell you that at least half of my friends could do with holding a really big garage sale.”

The population is aging. I know very few people who don’t have a relative over the age of seventy they aren’t helping in some way or another. Maybe you don’t get over to their place a lot, or maybe you do but you’ve developed a blind spot to the clutter. Maybe the clutter makes you nuts but who needs the drama of that conversation? I sympathize, but it has to be done. I asked my mother what I should tell my readers if I wrote about this and this is what she said:

Tell them to look around the older person’s house and try to imagine coming through with a stretcher. Tell them that when I volunteer in the ER, I help people fill out their forms when they arrive and that nearly every fall an elderly person takes in their house was avoidable. Tell them that the “Grandma, let’s pack away some of your stuff” conversation is less awkward than the “Grandma, your broken hip means we need to sell the house” conversation. Oh, and tell them to get those small area rugs off the floor. I can’t believe how many of those I see in old people’s houses.

Consider yourself told.


Blogger Unknown said...

Hoarding isn't just a problem for the elderly. My 16 year old son has OCD and is a hoarder and we have a home health aid paid for by the Dept of Mental Health that comes just to help him declutter because he cannot throw ANYTHING out without someone sitting on him and helping him out.

10:38 AM  
Blogger Antique Mommy said...

Ye speak the truth. And it's our fault. Every gift-giving holiday we give them more Ronco chatche crap because we can't think of anything else to give because they have everything and they have to put it somewhere because we gave it to them. Add to the equation that they are of the Depression generation that never throws away anything, not even a piece of used tin foil or an empty mayonnaise jar.

My parent's house (shudder)....

10:44 AM  
Blogger Diane Kristine Wild said...

Great PSA. In my previous job I worked on a falls prevention campaign and the scariest stat was that falls are the leading cause of injury and 6th leading cause of death in the elderly. (http://www.healthlinkbc.ca/healthfiles/hfile78.stm)

10:47 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

So funny, Quinn, because I am just back from tiding up Nana's house...especially tricky because she suffers from Alzheimer's..I had be delicate about reducing her clutter as these are were touchstones, her tangible memories. But her safety had to come first. Like a lot of people of her generation Nana had a lot of tchotchke strewn about her bedroom.They could have easily fallen and become tripping hazards. My daughter came up with a cute solution and that was to make Nana a memory box. So we went down to the Dollar store and picked up a few clear plastic shoe boxes to keep her things in.Nana seemed delighted with them, but that's today..tomorrow this might frustrate her and she'll take everything out of the box again.
Making sure her house is safe and "Grannyproof" is an ongoing process.
Thank you for posting this.
Peace - Rene

11:27 AM  
Blogger OHN said...

Ok...I know you are all looking at me right now. (hangs head in guilty shame).

Ironically I was talking to by SIL last week about how we accumulate SO MUCH STUFF and she said she looked around the house, and pretended she was dead and her kids were rifling through everything. She said that 80% of everything she had, would at that point in time, end up in a garage sale or landfill.....she started donating stuff the next day.

11:32 AM  
Blogger Jan said...

I onced worked an estate sale/auction and spent the entire day bringing things out of the house...and I was part of a crew of 10. I don't think it is necessarily "hoarding", it is just a lifetime of gifts and collections and it can be overwhelming to start getting rid of it. Also, Antique Mommy is right...when they say they don't want anything, we should believe them!

My wise mother is removing one small box from her house every week. The deal is, I can go through it and take anything I want, but then I take it away for her. It is a relief for both of us!

11:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, you are so right, but too late
for my uncle...He tripped over a
cord in the bedroom, hit his head on the bed, waited hours until someone came to visit him, he is now is a nursing home, we don't know for how long...Why didn't I
or someone else realize what a death trap his house had become?
I looked around my house this morning, and realised that I have
a lot of stuff, that I don't use,
don't need and is now going to a
thrift shop....thanks for reminding

4:30 PM  
Anonymous FurBabyMom said...

Quinn, your mother is so very right in her advice "tell them to get those small area rugs off the floor." My mother slipped on one of those rugs two years ago when visiting a friend in Florida. Her friend had one of those small rugs in front of the kitchen sink. My mom was helping prepare dinner, and she says the next thing she knew she was flat on her back on the tile kitchen floor in severe pain. It turned out she fractured a vertebrae in her spine and needed surgery to repair the fracture. She still suffers daily back pain as a result of that fall, and her stamina has been dramatically reduced as well. It breaks my heart that she has gone through this, and I shudder to think that the fall could have been life threatening had she hit her head.

Thank you Quinn (and thanks to your mom as well) for putting out the warning...you never know whose mobility or life you may potentially have saved by bringing awareness to less obvious dangers in seniors' homes.


6:03 PM  
Blogger Sara J. Henry said...

My sister told my mother she couldn't buy anything new unless she got rid of two things for every new thing she wanted - amazingly, it worked.

Me, I've convinced her not to stand on chairs to reach into her closet (never mind the threat I used) and to keep one hand on the rail when going up and down stairs. So far, so good. (She's 83.)

Don't forget about installing grab bars in bath and shower as well ...

8:27 PM  
Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann said...

Well written post - also, very pragmatic and important.

10:41 PM  
Blogger rachaelgking said...

A very important heads up- and one I never would have thought of. I'll check out my grandparents' room next time I'm there. Thanks.

11:07 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I forwarded this to my Mom- not that she's elderly quite yet.... not that she will EVER admit being elderly.
Chris in NY

12:29 PM  
Blogger Narya said...

My parents ended up cleaning out the houses of BOTH sets of grandparents, so my mom went on a get-rid-of-stuff kick, because she didn't want me and bro to have to do that. They moved to a smaller house, which meant getting rid of things, too. There are still some boxes of stuff, but they're stashed in the ceiling space over the garage and not in the way.

And I am very, very grateful for that; Mom is 75, Dad is nearly 80, and they both have health issues.

5:46 PM  
Blogger Judy said...

So true.

We had just set my dad up with an alarm system. Wish we had done it earlier.

Even though he was SO extremely short of breath between his hospital stays this summer and had 'visiting nurses' caring for him, his bed was ALWAYS made, his dishes ALWAYS done immediately following a meal, and he left no piles of anything laying around. He did all of this himself.

I am not going to tell you ANYTHING about how I have been surviving this summer, but to say it involves very little neatness and order.

Thanks for the warning. I'll be sure to keep a clear path for the EMTs.

8:03 PM  
Blogger Felicia said...

Your mom rocks!

I used to save a lot of crap but found that it feels so liberating to look around your house and have it slowly get emptier. I gave away half my shoe collection last year, and I surprisingly don't miss it.

All the work I put into decrappifying the closets really makes me think hard about discretionary purchases, and now that I'm unemployed that's a doubly good thing.

My one weakness, though, is books. I have lots of them, and keep buying more. I wish I could blame people like Quinn for being enablers, in that they write such funny books and I can't wait to read 'em. But then again, I do pass the library a half dozen times a week...for shame!

8:24 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

Wow, very well said. Glad I found your blog, Quinn. I'll just say this once and be done with it, for fear of coming off as the uber-dork...Goodbye Girl is among my all time favorite flicks. Seriously. Favorite Lucy line? "I'll. Bet."


4:48 PM  
Blogger Kathryn said...

Wow. Timing. I am helping my mother with the necessary culling before/during/after her move to an Assisted Living facility. (By the way, I detest this with all my heart, but it was all her decision, and it is the right one.) My mother has never been the "keep it forever no matter" sort of person, but even the day to day stuff is somewhat daunting. She chose to move to a two bedroom duplex from the family home eleven years ago. That was tough. From just over 5,000 square feet to her doll house, as she likes to call it. Family pieces from the 18th century. Furniture, china, silver. Everything. Art. All needed to be culled for that move. Now, this. God love her, it is awful. I am an only child. Himself and I have three children, and all have homes of their own. So they will take things. The family archives will take things. I can't get another piece of furniture in our home. Himself and I are in our late 50's. It is just hard, no matter how much you have planned for this. Mother and I were talking today about silly old things. We were wondering about whether anyone in fifty years will understand the joy and wonder I felt at age seven when I learned that my dresser had been made in the seventeen hundreds from cherry wood cut from the family farm? That dresser will go to a Grandgirlie, aged 8.

Oh, and the word of the day to post is quite relevant. "calim"

I am calm. Okay, a huge lie, but it looks good!

9:35 PM  
Blogger Dee at Pedestrian Palate said...

This is humorously written, but very true. My mother in law has an immaculate home with nothing on the floor, yet she managed to trip over a skinny little phone wire and bang into her tv cabinet breaking her wrist and raising a prize-fight worthy shiner on her eye. She has since been outfitted with one of those alarms you mention and a cordless phone.

P.S. - I read your interview over at NGIP. Great stuff. You two seem to share an offbeat sense of humor that worked nicely. Can't wait to check out your book.

3:48 AM  
Blogger Vodka Mom said...

I am sending this to my sister.

right now.

6:39 AM  
Blogger SavtaDotty said...

I've been working on this de-cluttering project for a few years now. It helps to ask dear ones to give you only "consumables" as gifts: flowers, chocolates, wine, soaps, cologne. I could start a scarf shop with the ones I never bought and I never wear.

Also, get your family and friends to give you donations to your favorite charity in your name: it's the thought that counts.

11:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a little late to this post, but what I do for my older aunts
is give them an I.O.U. for 3 lunches during the year, nothing
fancy,but a chance for them to get
out, see other people, talk to me
and not have another "thing" that
they don't know what to do with..
Also postage stamps, and an assortment to cards, birthdays,
aniversary etc..they can keep in
touch with their friends..

3:41 PM  

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