Monday, June 24, 2013

Sudden Moves: How To Clear The Decks In An Emergency

Photo courtesy Flickr

I’ve been talking with caregivers about how best to make their job easier. One recurring topic has been the trouble clutter brings to an urgent situation. I like this. I can’t do much medically except wash my hands, but I can wrangle a tablescape with the best of them.

A cancer patient “in intermission” agreed wholeheartedly that his course of treatment would have been much easier had his living quarters been set up to support disability. He’s no hoarder, and he managed much of his caregiving on his own. The mere question of what would have been helpful turned his voice grey.

Here’s the short version of how to set up to make life easy under the best as well as the worst circumstances: keep things where you use them first. Set up so you don’t have to stretch, stoop, or lean to grab something that you want. When you finish using something, leave it ready to use again. Keep the things you use often front and center. If a storage space fills up, displace the things at the back. Move seldom-used items ever closer to the exit. 

I’ve heard quite a few stories from caregivers and patients about the grief of clutter. I think it’s important to respect the boundaries of a person who has already been assaulted and invaded by an illness. The following procedures worked with my young child even before he could talk: throw nothing away without written permission of the owner, no matter how old she is. Making a mark makes a difference. Stow discards in transparent plastic bags to prevent inadvertent donations. Store excess in bins and review the contents every quarter until they have “cooled off” enough to be unwanted, i.e. ready to be shared with others.

If I suddenly had to sort and clear someone else’s inventory, this is what I’d do:
buy a sheaf of self-adhesive labels from an office supply. Add a bold marker and two colors of the largest brightly colored stick-on dots (I use green and red, for go and stay.)

I’d photograph each room as I found it, recording each layer of stuff (or horizon, as the archaeologists call it) as I worked my way through a space,
separating obvious waste paper and recycling into transparent bags. I’d
label and photograph the bags, ask the owner to initial the label as OK to discard, and I’d set the bags close to the exit with green dots on them, to make it easy for helpers to know how to handle the bundles. I’d post a boldly written sign by the exit so helpers would know what to do. If the owner couldn’t supervise, I’d store anything that wouldn’t rot. I learned this caution from military movers, who could and did move everything including the contents of the garbage can during Viet Nam. I’d do the really hard work-making decisions-and ask other people to do the physical work. 

I’d clear a room and set it up for easy caregiving. This is as valid for healthy, active people as it is for someone who is ill. Working with someone else’s possessions, I’d sweep things into stacking flap-lid storage bins of a size to handle safely, all of one size. As I filled a bin, I’d photograph the contents layer by layer, numbering the bin and numbering the photo file. It would not be necessary to sort most things. I’d store the bins on an epoxy-coated or chrome-plated wire storage rack, the kind developed for the food industry and sold at a national big box storage specialty outlet. I’d buy heavy-duty wheels for the rack and park it out of the way in habitable space so the contents wouldn’t deteriorate.  A flap bin can be padlocked or zip-tied shut. Store papers in a conventional or fireproof filing cabinet.

The storage gear ain’t cheap, but it’s a labor cost with decent resale value. I find it helpful to think of the work areas in the house as keyboards. The many little changes outlined above will transform a demanding household into an effective support space that can be maintained with minimum effort by people unfamiliar with the specifics of the place. This efficiency is independent of architecture, income, or style. Once the crisis has passed, all involved can sort through the stuff with a new sense of priorities, knowing that no energy has been wasted on the inevitable soap opera that accompanies possessions.

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