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Ahem…about Your “Stuff”…

Monday, July 7th, 2014

It’s time to admit something important. At some point, someone is going to have to deal with your “stuff”. We don’t seem to be aware of this as we keep adding belongings.  Clutter is just a fact of life, right?

We keep stuff for all kinds of reasons–  “I might need it…”  “It was Grandma’s…” “I might decide to go back into that line of work…”  But the ongoing accumulation of “things” is a slow motion disaster.  A few weeks ago, a woman in Connecticut was killed when the floor of her house collapsed—because of the weight of the stuff she had on it.  They didn’t find her until two days later; the volume was so massive that it looked like the floor was still there when the police checked initially.

That’s an extreme case, but we’re all affected by “stuff.” If you haven’t had to deal with someone else’s after they’ve died, count yourself lucky. If you have, you know what I’m talking about. But here’s the deal. If you can’t face dealing with it, how can someone else—who knows a whole lot less about it–manage to do it after you’re gone?

My family just went through this. Six siblings plus a dear and unflinching sister-in-law hauled load after load out of my youngest brother’s 900-square-foot home for five full days. We got rid of over 100 cubic yards of “stuff.” Don’t naively assume it was just a case of walking it to the dumpster again and again either. Landfills have rules these days. You must dispose of electronics, assorted batteries, fluorescent light bulbs, oil-based paint, other hazardous materials, etc. in very specific ways—or face a fine. There’s a whole different routine for latex paint. Plus, if those doing the disposing have half a conscience about environmental stewardship, there will be trips to the local food bank, Goodwill or a similar second-hand store, and perhaps the local Habitat for Humanity ReStore to donate appropriate “stuff.” And there will be lots of trips to the recycle center.

Accumulated “stuff” is not the benign, minor flaw we want to believe it is. Letting stuff you don’t need, don’t use, and don’t care about pile up, leaves less space, resources, and time for what could bring you joy now. Holding onto too many things from the past means you don’t have faith in the present–or the future. It’s also a waste of money if you’re insuring, maintaining, paying for space to keep, and otherwise lavishing resources on all that “stuff.”

My loved one didn’t set out to leave a huge mess for the rest of us to clean up. He felt he needed everything he acquired. That’s how we usually amass stuff…a teeny bit at a time, time after time. But “stuff” doesn’t go away on its own. Somebody is going to have to deal with it eventually.

All six of us siblings came home vowing “I’m not going to do that to anybody!” so I’ve been thinking a lot about what I can do make getting rid of my “stuff” less of a burden when I depart. Everyone’s list will be unique, but here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
1. Clean out the file drawers! Going through files is huge time sink for next of kin and I can find most of what I’m keeping online if I do need it.
2. Make sure my kids really want what I’m keeping for them.
3. Whenever I learn someone needs what I’ve discovered I have (and don’t need), give it to them.
4. Mark the contents of boxes I do keep. Include a “Get rid of after ___” date to avoid going through boxes again myself when I can.
5. Donate to the food bank from my pantry. (This gets food I bought for a unique reason and then didn’t use onto someone’s plate rather than sitting on my pantry shelf until it expires.)
6. Dispose of the old paint immediately when I repaint. (But do keep the new paint for repairs.)
7. Be honest with stuff I get as gifts. If I’m not going to use it, return it, donate it, or regift it.
8. Remove anything I haven’t worn in the last year from my closet. Donate what I’m willing to part with. Put the rest in a separate stack. If I don’t wear it in another 12 months, donate it then.
9. Go through my bookshelves quarterly. Pass on anything I don’t expect to read again.
10. Leave notes for my loved ones about what’s what and how to get rid of it.
I want to do this right. From what I’ve seen lately, it’s a really good way to say “I love you.”

This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of Barbara Morris’s online newsletter Put Old on Hold.
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Mary Lloyd is a writer and speaker and author of Supercharged Retirement: Ditch the Rocking Chair, Trash the Remote, and Do What You Love. Her first novel, Widow Boy, will be out Sept 15. For more, see her website.

How Do I Know?

Friday, June 27th, 2014

This post is mostly an e-mail from my sister Kathryn Winz, retired professor and part-time caregiver to two beautiful special needs grandsons.  It grew out of a conversation we’d had the week prior about how to know when you are no longer able to do what you’ve been doing effectively.  She did such an eloquent job of bringing an even larger issue to light–that sometimes the pros who are supposed to be telling you how don’t know themselves–that I asked her permission to use her words.

You remember how worried I was, when we talked last, about installing a deadbolt lock keyed from the inside, to keep Ezra from running away in the middle of the night? I installed the lock, even though there is a chance of a medical emergency in which I won’t be able to open it.  A week later Kelly told me this while she was cutting my hair: her Uncle Jimmy, who is 42 and has Down syndrome, needs another hip surgery because he has a difficult time getting up and down stairs. He and his 85-year-old mom live alone in the big old family farmhouse, where the only bathroom is upstairs. Isn’t your family worried? I asked. They have always been this way, and they’re fine, Kelly said.

Well, I don’t think they are fine. Nobody manages forever in such a difficult situation. So I scheduled an appointment at my local counseling center to talk about how to recognize signs that age has started impinging on one’s abilities.  I asked if they had an expert on the problems of aging, and the receptionist assured me that they did.

I met lovely, fragile Gloria in the waiting room. Her long silk skirt billowed a little in the air conditioning. She looked carefully around the empty space (it was late in the day – the receptionist had gone home), going down the short flight of stairs to look near the front door. She came back toward me and said, “You must be Kathryn.”

Her office would have pleased Bilbo Baggins, or Merlin. Things were arranged four-deep on every surface. Pictures of adorable children and grandchildren, toys that I believe belonged to the kids back in the 1970s. Mementos of travel. Diplomas from everywhere, including Masters and Johnson. I was looking at a rich, full life, I knew. I tried the leather chair, and sank so far I knew I would have trouble getting out at the end of the hour.  So I moved to the couch, and sank again.

I told my story. “Don’t borrow worry,” Gloria said. “Do you have your grandsons living with you?” No, they visit every weekend, I told her, again.

“How old do you think I am?” Mid-fifties, I answered. ” I’m seventy three,” she said. “I don’t worry.”

“Your daughter must really need help,” she said after fifteen minutes of somewhat inane conversation. “Are you able to help her at all?” Yes, I said, the boys often stay overnight with me. But I don’t know how I will be able to tell if that is not safe anymore.  “Don’t borrow worry”, she responded.  I wondered if in her intro she just picked an age one year older than the client in front of her.  Maybe she didn’t even know how old she was.

I remembered my colleague who in the final years of teaching his crime lab course made his students fingerprint each other for an hour every class for the whole semester. That’s all, just taking fingerprints, even after the messy process of inking had become obsolete.  He doesn’t even recognize his children any more.

And then there was another friend and long time prof who infuriated the dean because he could talk for an hour about anything, but when the hour was done, you couldn’t pull out a single point that he had made.

How will I know? How can I tell when I am no longer making sense and providing for others safely?  When someone grabs me by my spindly shoulders and says, “Get it together!” I guess.  Or maybe I won’t know, and there will be a disaster.  I won’t borrow worry.

But this is a legitimate worry and an issue worthy of a good plan.  So what do you do?  How do you know?  She and I had another exchange of e-mail where we took it beyond “asking a professional” (who might be beyond that needed awareness personally).  Professional counseling is good for many things, but for this, you need people who have known you for some time and care about you.  People who can say, “Your driving is deteriorating.”  Or “Do you realize you’ve said that three times since I stopped by to visit?”

This is the work of the courageous and the members of that advisory council need to be carefully chosen.  We need to find them and sincerely ask for their help before it starts to become a concern.  This isn’t a way of giving someone else the authority to limit our lives.  It’s the most effective means we have of accurately seeing reality if our own grasp of it starts to loosen.

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Kathryn Winz is retired and is a delightfully diverse fiber artist.  Mary Lloyd is a writer and speaker and author of Supercharged Retirement:  Ditch the Rocking Chair, Trash the Remote, and Do What You Love.  For more see Mary’s website.

What Can I Do About Mental Illness?

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

My youngest brother died a month ago. It was sudden. It was a shock.  But it was somewhat expected.   He hadn’t even made it to 60, but his body was giving up on him.    His mental health was declining even more rapidly.  That was an “elephant in the living room” though.  He’s been mentally ill since grade school but he did not—and would not—acknowledge that.  We all danced around it in trying to relate to and help him—with varying degrees of success and compassion.

Along with the grief and sadness of losing him, I am feeling relief.  He lived on the very edge of our common reality, and that made him vulnerable to every well-muscled redneck with a dislike of “weirdos.”  Now that he’s passed, I can let go of the worry and helplessness of not being able to protect him from 2000 miles away.

But I’m also relieved that I don’t have to try to communicate with him anymore.  It was very hard work.  That relief brings regret—I wish I had done more to make sure he knew I loved him, even if his replies sometimes came in such word blizzards that I couldn’t take them in.

My brother “made it home” without getting beaten up.  He also didn’t hurt someone else—a consequence of mental illness that we are seeing more and more.  The killing rampage at UC-Santa Barbara is just the latest example of how much is wrong for so many.  Why are disenfranchised, angry men (yes, virtually all of the rampages have been instigated by men) deciding the “solution” to their own demons and nightmares is in killing other people?

I can grasp that my brother’s disconcerting behavior was because of illness, and that it wasn’t’ something he chose.  It wasn’t something he could change.  But that didn’t solve the problem.  The illness itself made the likelihood of him agreeing to the help he needed unlikely.  The mentally ill 20-year old who went berserk on the UC-Santa Barbara campus had parents who were desperately trying to get him help.  It wasn’t enough.  What do we do with this problem?  How do we stem this epidemic?

What can I do?  What can any of us do that might make a difference?

Trying to get these individuals to change to what’s more familiar and comfortable to the rest of us does not work.  That’s like expecting a person without legs to grow them because you bought them a new pair of socks.  Getting them to take medications for illness they don’t even think they have is a hard sell.  Plus how much are the meds contributing to the situation?  Side effects can take years to manifest and what’s good for one body might not work in the next one—or the 100,000th one.

Is there a way to mitigate this that starts before the alienation becomes extreme?  Can we do anything to keep this deep, painful version of aloneness from developing?  One idea keeps coming back to me.  Perhaps part of this deluge of horrible personal atrocity starts with a lack of connection that each of us really could be doing something about with very little risk to ourselves.

What would happen if we all tried to be friendlier—even to the kid who’s looking at his shoes the entire time you talk to him?

What would happen if I smiled at strangers?  Would it help if I gave a friendly nod to people who don’t seem to be “like me”?  What would happen if we projected an attitude of acceptance in casual encounters?  Like saying “Hello” or “Hihowareya?” or “Howzitgoin?” to those we pass.  And waving to neighbors.   Maybe offering a simple kindness like letting that meek person with two items who’s behind us at the checkout go first.    Would this start to change if we were all a little warmer automatically?

This year’s commencement speaker at the University of Texas was Admiral William H. McRaven, Commander of Special Operations and a highly decorated Navy SEAL.   As part of his comments, he talked about the compounding effects of what you do to help other people.  His point: if each member of that graduating class did something to improve as few as 10 other people’s lives, they really could “change the world” over generations.  (Check out the whole speech, about 20 minutes long.)

Maybe simply noticing the people who are “not like us” and being friendly is where we need to start with changing this.  We’ll only find out if we try it.

This article originally appeared in the June 2014 edition of Barbara Morris’s online newsletter Put Old on Hold.
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Mary Lloyd is a speaker and writer and author of Supercharged Retirement:  Ditch the Rocking Chair, Trash the Remote, and Do What You Love.  For more, see her website.

Savoring Summer

Monday, June 2nd, 2014

I just caught myself doing the unthinkable–worrying that summer is going to be over before it’s even started! Time for me to refocus on how to savor the pluses of the moment instead of worrying about what’s likely to come after them.

I live in the Pacific Northwest–with some of the best summer weather you will ever find anywhere. In addition, because of where we sit on the globe, we get really long summer days (balanced, of course, by really short winter days, but we don’t need to get into that right now).  We do have rainy days and cool weather as part of the overall summer pattern, but summer here is largely a matter of moderately warm, mostly dry, and more often than not sunny.

The last few days of May were a delightful hint of what my particular environment will be like for coming months–sunny with highs in the mid- to high 70’s.  As I looked out at all the gorgeous green and listened to the bird song, I caught myself in a disconcertingly negative thought though.  In 20 days, we will begin the progression of shorter days again.  Once summer starts, we’re marching toward winter.

Oh come on!

There is always a progression going on.  Sometimes we know what the next thing is going to be (drizzly gray days that go dark at 5:00).  Sometimes we just project what we’re afraid it’s going to be (boring, scary, not-fun, demanding…whatever).  The point is the same regardless:  When you fail to notice the good stuff going on right now and focus instead on worrying about something less positive that’s on the way, you are squandering your life.

Most of us learn to worry before we even make it to high school.  Noticing that something might go wrong is useful–it gives you a heads-up so you can do what’s needed to make it go right instead.  But not noticing that things are going right at this very moment makes you miss the real sweetness of life–the delight of really living those moments where “all’s right with the world.”  That is a tragic waste.

The sun is shining.  The sky is blue.  The birds are singing.  I’m on it.  I’ll worry about winter later.

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Mary Lloyd is a writer and speaker and author of Supercharged Retirement: Ditch the Rocking Chair, Trash the Remote, and Do What You Love.  For more, see her website.

Grieving by Peeling Onions

Monday, May 26th, 2014

Sometimes you have to peel onions–not to make stew, to make sense of what’s just happened.

Last week, my youngest brother died unexpexctedly. It was a massive coronary event and we’ve been assured he didn’t suffer. But he only got half of the “Live long; die fast” mantra to work. He wasn’t even 60 yet.

Shock comes first. Deep sadness quickly after. Then a whole bunch of stuff that you never expected that feels an awful lot like peeling onions. When your family dynamics get adjusted, lots of stuff bubbles up through the new cracks.

I am part of a fiercely loyal family with seven kids. We take care of each other, whether it was running for help when a neighborhood bully was hurting a sibling at the playground or anteing up to cover expenses for someone who truly needed an assist. That doesn’t mean the relationships have all been smooth as gourmet ice cream. That was particularly true of this brother since he had both physical and mental health challenges of significant proportions.

So in addition to the sadness of losing a family member, there are assorted versions of relief, some of which don’t feel very noble.  I am relieved that he won’t have to go into assisted living.  We weren’t even sure we could find a place that would accept someone with as many challenges as he had.  I am relieved that he got “home safe.”  He lived life differently than most and that made him vulnerable to physical attack from someone bigger and afraid of those differences.  But I am also relieved that I don’t have to worry about what he will need next.  That’s the not-so-noble one.  They are all part of peeling the onion.

What I definitely did not expect was the flood of memories that have come that have nothing directly to do with this brother.  He wasn’t even in the band.  But in talking with one of my other brothers, the memory of a band director who died in my junior year of high school returned.  My brother worshipped him and still does.  I thought his death was a miracle.  Much as I didn’t have the words then–and was way too naïve to use my brain to figure it out–I knew the man was grooming me.  Now we call those people sexual predators and they go to jail.  When I was in Catholic high school?  Not gonna happen.  But then he died and I was safe.  Why is my other brother’s death making me experience all that again?

There are other traumas, experienced long ago and buried that are bubbling back up now, too.  I was not ready for that, but I need to let it happen.  Perhaps my outer shell is more easily cracked because of the primary loss.  Perhaps it’s just time.

I want to honor my brother for who he was–and he was a rarity.  He was amazing with his grasp of physics and mathematics.  The web of fantasy he constructed inside our reality was in a class by itself.  He was not a “regular guy” but he was, even with the distortions his mental illness caused, a good person.

He is giving me something in death that I could never had gotten out of conversation with him.  His death has presented the chance to peel another onion–to go deeper into who I am because of what I have already experienced.

I will miss him–do miss him.  And I will keep on peeling onions.  I promise.

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Mary Lloyd is an author and speaker.  For more, see her website.

Are Cookies Wrong?

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

I owe my older son three batches of homemade cookies. It’s the remaining part of a gift certificate for “one six-month taster membership with Pacific NW Experimental Cookie Labs.”  I gave it to him for Christmas.  Pacific NW Experimental Cookie Labs is just me having fun in my kitchen, and this gig has been fun for both me and this son.  (And that doesn’t even count the Guinness Brownies we tried on St. Patrick’s Day).

But I’ve been reading The Abascal Way, a book that explains why what– and how–we eat as a culture is all wrong, and what makes more sense.  Cookies are definitely not part of what makes more sense.   So I’m having second thoughts about saying “I love you” to my son with refined sugar, refined flour, and bad fat.

I’ve given cookies as a demonstration of love ever since I was old enough to make them.  Both my sons, my step grandson, and each of my life partners have gotten full batches of their own favorites many times.  I even managed to ship a batch to Australia that were still edible when they arrived.  I’m a good Cookie Mom.

I do put thought into making them more nutritionally commendable.  Whole wheat flour works–sometimes.  Dried cherries—high in nutrients—taste pretty good.  Really dark chocolate is “healthy.”  The molasses cookies I made with oat bran in them when my sons were teens were favorites for a few years.  (Alas, Abascal doesn’t consider oat bran particularly healthy…) The guys in my life have been okay with me sneaking “good for you stuff” in their goodies over the years.

But this book made me look at this fun part of my life through a stronger lens.  Am I harming my sons—and all of my loved ones—with these nutritionally derelict professions of love?  No matter how much good stuff you cram into them, if you want a cookie that tastes like a cookie (rather than cardboard), you need to use significant amounts of refined sugar, refined flour, and bad fat.

I’ve focused on keeping my kids healthy since they were born.  Have I been wrong with the cookie thing all these years?  Or does the plus of being a tasty “I love you” offset the negative that they’re made with “inflammatory foods?”

This dilemma isn’t just about cookies.  Am I being loving when I serve red meat to guests?  Am I doing the right thing when bringing gourmet macaroni and cheese to a potluck?  Where does “smart eating” intersect with “having fun together?”  It’s just not the same when a group of friends sits down to brown rice, steamed veggies, and ice water.

There are a lot of “shoulds” in this nutrition thing.  How many of them are legitimate? How many of them are essential at all times?  How many of them are too much?

The first piece of the answer lies in giving up the General Manager of the Universe title (one more time).  The only thing I control is whether to create and give the cookies.  The recipients are adults–they decide what to do with them.

When my kids were little, they didn’t get cookies whenever they wanted them.  They had to eat balanced meals and cookies were a treat in addition to those.  They grew up to be both wise about their nutrition and good cooks.  They don’t exist solely on cookies when I give them.  For all I know, they may be choosing to throw most of them away (but I doubt it).

Abascal adds a bit of advice that helps.  She recommends that when you give yourself a treat made of “bad stuff,” you promise yourself to eat some vegetables soon.  It doesn’t have to be in the next fifteen seconds, but sometime that day, eat a few extra antioxidants.  Progress!

I don’t have a lot of traditions with my kids.  I did that on purpose because there were too many when I was a new mother and it was an incredible source of stress for my young family.  But cookies are one of our traditions.

So, after much thought and a bit of angst, I’ve decided there will be more cookies from the Pacific NW Experimental Cookie Labs.  I might try to make some with brown rice flour.  Or they may arrive with a bouquet of curly kale.  If I give them, they will be tasty though—and they will say “I love you” as always.

This article originally appeared in the May 2014 edition of Barbara Morris’s online newsletter Put Old on Hold.
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Mary Lloyd is a speaker and writer and author of Supercharged Retirement:  Ditch the Rocking Chair, Trash the Remote, and Do What You Love.  For more, see her website.

What Do I Want to Do Next?

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

“What do I want to do next?” We all need to ask ourselves that question on a regular basis. Not so much as we work through the tasks on that pesky To Do list as to keep the sense of adventure in our lives.

What do I want to do next?  Next year?  Next as a focus for learning something?  Next as a way to “give back?”

Asking that question can seem kind of pointless when you are stuck in the daily grind of work, kids’ needs, and then more work.  It still needs to be asked then–as a way to visualize the “brass ring” of getting beyond the hectic schedules and overwork that modern culture expects of us during our career years.

Maybe we don’t ask that key question very often when we’re younger, but after retirement, asking that question becomes critical.  Otherwise you end up in a boring rut of “same old same old.”

When I left the corporate world, my answer to “What do I want to do next?” was easy–write novels.  I set about learning how to do that with the same intensity I’d used to succeed in business.  It didn’t work out the same way though.  Other things came along that deserved my attention.  I had time, and I willingly gave it.  A month wandering around Florida in January makes perfect sense for a resident of Colorado.  Helping sort my deceased brother-in-law’s household so his only brother (my then husband) could get it on the market?  Of course I will do that.  A world cruise?  Of course!

When I finally got back to writing with any kind of regularity, I decided that what I really needed to write was screenplays.  So I took a year-long course online with UCLA.  I do love screenplays.  You have to tell the story in images.  What you write is just the blueprint; a whole team has to use that to actually create the desired product–a movie.  I love teamwork.  This was my last best thing to do.

Then reality intervened again.  You know those complaints about Hollywood ignoring screenwriters over 30?  They’re real.  I was furious after one particularly blatant ageist encounter.  Then “What do I want to do next” was answered with Change this attitude!  After I calmed down, I could see that the Hollywood attitude toward older people wasn’t the most important thing to change.  The important change was with the older people themselves.  So I worked on what eventually became Supercharged Retirement.  And I pushed myself to get it out there as fast as I could rather than writing it and then putting it in a drawer.  (Which is a lot easier, trust me.)

When that book came out, there wasn’t much about how to get the stuff other than money figured out for when you retire.   What I had to offer did make a difference.  I went back to using other skills I’d developed in the workforce to do seminars and promote the book.  Now there are a lot more resources for people to use and that’s good.  For them and for me.  With plenty available, I can look around for “What do I want to do next?” again.

This time, the answer is a rerun.  I want to write novels.

So I am going back to following that bliss.  I think.  The retirement stuff is still important and there are still issues and insights that need to be explored and explained though.  So I’m going to do both.

How this is going to work is anyone’s guess.  I just know it’s time to try.  Stay tuned.

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Mary Lloyd is a writer and speaker and author of Supercharged Retirement:  Ditch the Rocking Chair, Trash the Remote, and Do What You Love.  Her first novel Widow Boy will be out Sept. 15, 2014.  For more, see her website.

What Do You Bother With?

Thursday, April 24th, 2014

Figuring out a Purpose (capital P) is daunting at any stage of life. It’s a key piece of getting retirement right, but that capital P generates a massive amount of angst.  Purpose is supposed to be a “big deal.”  We want to “make a difference” and “give back” and maybe even “leave something for posterity.” All that’s fine if you can pull it off. But often, you can’t. I can’t. We can’t.

Then what?

Well, maybe it’s time to let go of the ego trip of the big deal “Purpose” and go with what you can find that you think is worth bothering with right now.  Sometimes, that’s definitely not a big deal.

I just got in from a walk.  It’s after dinner, and usually by then, the walk has either happened or it isn’t going to happen.  Tonight I walked.  Why?  Partly because the sun came out.  But more so because I worked in the garden today.  My back needs a walk every day to stay happy.  And the days it needs it most are the ones where I give it a workout in other ways–especially playing in the dirt.  So I walked.  Not because I’m trying to set a good example for others.  Not because I am committed to good health for all.  I walked because if I don’t, my back hurts.  It’s not Purpose, but there is purpose in doing it.

It’s nice when you have a sweet, juicy Purpose in front of you.  It’s exciting to know you’re involved in something bigger than yourself.  Making a contribution is the magic potion of self-worth.  But those big deal opportunities don’t come everyday.  But we still need a sense of purpose–a sense of worth–every day.

Think of these “bothers” as mini-purposes–something to give you a sense of direction while you are waiting for the big expedition to start–whatever it is.  Life coaches suggest that you do something toward achieving your heart’s desire every day.  That’s something worth bothering about.  But so is keeping the relationships you cherish in good repair.  So is taking care of yourself–body, mind, and spirit.  So is cleaning the garage if it’s making you (or your partner) crazy when you need to find stuff in there.  These purposes aren’t the epic endeavors we’re taught to look for, but they are better than nothing.  They are a place to start.

If you can’t see your Purpose right now, settle for doing whatever you can see that seems worth doing.  That action may help define your grander direction outright.  It may just be setting the stage for something else that does.  Choosing things to “bother with” everyday does help you zoom in on Purpose.  The things you make the effort to do over the days and weeks and months create a map of what’s important to you and where your interests lie.

So if you’re stuck on this Purpose thing, give yourself a time out and just find something to bother with for now.  If you keep committing to something day after day, your Purpose may well become evident in the pattern you create.

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Mary Lloyd is a writer and speaker and author of Supercharged Retirement:  Ditch the Rocking Chair, Trash the Remote, and Do What You Love.  For more, see her website.

Give a Caregiver a Hug

Monday, April 14th, 2014

Adult caregiving hijacks your life. None of us agree to do it because it sounds like fun. But when a loved one needs it, we step up.  Ongoing, it’s a daunting job; at times, it’s downright harrowing.  Once you are in the middle of it, reality warps.

An article published by the American Medical Association reported, “One of society’s greatest assets is the many family members who provide care to ill or disabled relatives.”  One study estimated there were over 15 million American adults serving as unpaid caregivers—in 1998.  And yet, the needs of those doing it remain unnoticed.

Last week in a single four-hour stretch, I spoke with three different women friends, each up to their ears in challenges related to caregiving for aging loved ones.  Each had taken on the caregiving role in addition to the ample responsibilities they still held as professionals.

The first was weathering a major health scare with the man in her life. She had taken him in when he got sick and then became his advocate through all the tests and procedures.  She was struggling to find the right boundaries in what she did for him.

The second needed to find a way to convince her parents to let the housekeepers, who were provided as part of their assisted living rent, into the apartment to clean.  Her folks said there was no need.  But she could smell their unit when she got off the elevator.  She’d been cleaning every time she visited and worrying in the interim that they might get evicted.

The third has been spending her own money for a caregiver for her husband, so she can continue to work as a college professor.  He has a non-Alzheimer’s version of dementia.  She has power of attorney and pays his bills.   His funds could easily cover the cost of the caregiver, but she thought she had to pay for it herself because he would have refused to let her spend money for that if he could still think.  Reality tilts in odd ways when you’ve been a caregiver for long enough.

It’s easy to think it would be different if you had to do it.  That you would draw clear boundaries and insist things be done your way.  But that’s the cruelest part of the caregiver role.  When it gets intense, you don’t realize the boundaries are out of whack or that what you’re doing doesn’t make good sense in the broader scheme.

It’s a lot like the classic experiment with frogs.  They did a study where researchers put a frog in hot water.  It jumped out to safety immediately.  But if the water was cool when the frog was put in and was heated gradually, the frog kept swimming until the water was so hot the frog died.

We do the frog-in-slowly-warmed-water thing as caregivers.  As the disease progresses beyond what we can really handle, we just keep going.  Our own lives evaporate.  We think we are doing fine when we’re not.

Three years ago, I became caregiver to my boyfriend when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  Every day there was a new problem, and always one with which I had zero experience.  With each new side effect, I had to figure out something new that was needed to keep him safe and, hopefully, comfortable.  The volume of work was massive, and the possibility I might hurt him by not doing the right thing was terrifying.  Yet when friends asked me how I was doing, I’d say “Fine.”  I wasn’t being a stoic angel of mercy.  I was too worn out emotionally to find more honest words.

In an ideal world, unpaid caregivers would have mandatory breaks.  No one’s going to legislate that.  So it’s up to the rest of us to make a difference.  If you know someone who’s caregiving, do what you can to provide support.  A hug is a good start.  But then offer to do something specific.

I am all too guilty of saying “Call if you need anything” and leaving it at that.  For a long-term caregiver, there’s not enough mental juice available to convert those words to something useful.  “Would you like me to clean the kitchen?”  Or “Why don’t I sit with Aunt Irma for the afternoon so you can get away?” works better.

Caregiving is hard duty.  If we all remember this and offer support in all the ways we can, we can keep each other from ending up in need of care ourselves because we carried too big a load alone.

This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Barbara Morris’s online newsletter Put Old on Hold.
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Mary Lloyd is a speaker and writer and author of Supercharged Retirement:  Ditch the Rocking Chair, Trash the Remote, and Do What You Love.  For more, see her website.

Solving the Symptom

Saturday, April 5th, 2014

For the past 10 days, I’ve been getting bids for dealing with water in my crawlspace. It’s been a great refresher course in the difference between solving a problem and treating a symptom.

To be sure, I don’t like having standing water under the house. But if I want to solve this for good, I need to think in terms of what put it there instead of just how to get it out. I can get it out on my own–a submersible pump and then the Shop Vac (both borrowed from my older son) are all I needed.  I got th water all out myself a week ago.

But after getting it “squeegee dry” on a Saturday evening, it was already starting to come back in the next morning. That’s when I started asking for bids.

I’ve had four different outfits look at it. Two had variations of the same approach in mind–because they were selling the same patented system (which I did not know when I asked them both to bid). That system is great at solving the symptom–water in the crawlspace–or more often, in someone’s basement. It just collects it and pumps it back out automatically, using a largely inconspicuous collection system.  It even has a double back up on the sump pump to be sure it keeps pumping under all circumstances.

My landscape guy suggested there’s enough slope on the lot that we can channel the water to a corner of the crawl (which has a concrete floor) via grooves and get it out with just a gravity drain. That’s lots cheaper and would probably be just as effective–at solving the symptom.

Day before yesterday, a general contractor I’ve used for remodel projects took a look at it. He really looked at it.  He checked where the drainage from the underground downspout system was coming out.  He looked at the outlet for the surface drainage.  He dug down on the lowest corner of the house to see what was actually going on at the foundation/footing contact.  Then he suggested a cost-effective way to solve the problem.  

The problem in this case is that water is using the foundation of my house as the easiest way downhill when it rains.  I need to create an easier way for it to go–and make the route next to the house harder.  It looks like we can do that for less than what the guys with the razzle dazzle system would charge.

What I do or don’t do with my water issue isn’t the point here.  How often do we “solve the symptom” when we think we’re really solving the problem?  The doctor says your blood pressure is high.  He recommends taking medication for that.  Symptom solved.  But what’s causing the high blood pressure?  Stress?  And undetected underlying medical condition?  You can help yourself better if you know and deal with that.

Same idea in a financial context:  You don’t have enough money at the end of the month to make the mortgage payment.  So you change that payment to earlier in the month.  The symptom is no longer creating discomfort but the problem remains–you’re living hand to mouth.  Why wasn’t there enough money at the end of the month?  Are you spending more than you realize?  Is someone who has access to your funds using them for a drug or gambling addiction?  Is your lifestyle more than you can afford?  Is someone just plain stealing from you?  You won’t discover these things if you just deal with the symptom and move on.

As a nation, we’ve become focused on eliminating symptoms instead of solving problems.  We vote to extend unemployment benefits rather than getting on with the reforms that are needed to get the economy humming on a stronger note.  We make laws about carrying guns and then leave the epidemic of mental health problems unaddressed.

As individuals, we can choose better every day.  Let’s solve problems.  That eliminates the pesky symptom but goes a whole lot farther toward keeping things on the right track over time.

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Mary Lloyd is a writer and speaker and author of Supercharged Retirement:  Ditch the Rocking Chair, Trash the Remote, and Do What You Love.  For more, please see her website.