by Susan McCarthy
If you’re now responsible for emptying your parent’s home, your thoughts may be on countless things, the last being self-care. However, taking care of yourself will help you deal with the emotional and physical strains during this time.
When my at-the-time boyfriend (and now husband) and I looked for an apartment together, we wanted one that would be close to our aging parents. We lucked out, finding a townhouse apartment nearly equidistant between our parents’ homes.
And then my mother passed a month after we moved in. Since I drove past the family home both on my way to the park where I walked and when I went to work, I was frequently checking in on my father. And then, when he moved into assisted living with Lewy Body dementia, I was checking in on his cats (until we moved them in with him).
Then, without really planning it, on my drive to the park where I’d take my morning walk, I’d decide to swing into the house to do a bit of decluttering. “Just a few minutes,” I’d tell myself. Until I found myself sorting through things for five or so hours.
I did this morning after morning, each time convincing myself that I’d stop at my parents’ house for a few minutes and then continue to the park to take a walk. Yes, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and again and expecting different results. And yet, I did.
So, I’d get to the house before eating breakfast and work in the stuffy house, climbing up and down the ladder to the attic, and hauling down boxes of stuff. I’d end up sweating and streaked with dirt, dust, and mold.
I’d take sips of water here and there, but I was probably dehydrated.
There was so much to do, and I kept pushing myself to do a bit more. I’d be exhausted physically and wrung out emotionally by the time I got back to my apartment.
I’d shower and inhale too much food at lunch, I was done and overdone. I’d sit on the couch and do what I came to call “comfort crocheting,” making simple hats and scarves that didn’t require too much thought.
Then there were phone calls to make in regard to my father, checking in on him at the assisted living, taking him to doctor appointments, and trying to keep up with my job. My thoughts spun at night. I ran on sugar and caffeine and told myself that this was all temporary. If you couldn’t already tell, I wasn’t taking care of myself.
Make Room for Basic Care
Life settled after several months. I’d cleaned out most of the house, leaving my brother to handle tools and things that I figured he was better suited to deal with. I still had plenty of things connected with my dad to keep me busy and now I was dealing with weight gain, lack of energy, and a lengthy personal to-do list of neglected tasks.
In retrospect, putting everything else ahead of some of my basic needs was not good (understatement). And right now, you might be in a position where you’re thinking, “just get through this stuff and then I can take a break.”
But if you have kids and/or a demanding job, allowing your parent’s estate to take over your life might not be an option. However, if you’re thinking about what needs to get done, guess what, you’ll still feel stressed – even if you aren’t sorting the contents of the house and garage.
So, start off with basic care. This isn’t about treating yourself to a pedicure or going out for a nice meal. This is about get-me-through-the-day type of care. Basic self-care isn’t pampering. It’s about allowing the well to fill so you have something to draw on that isn’t just the muck that has settled to the bottom of the well.
Get the Sleep that You Need to Think Clearly
Sleep however long you need to sleep. This isn’t about lounging in bed or trying to hit ‘x’ hours of sleep and being frustrated if you don’t. You may sleep more than usual or less. If you’re tired, sleep. You may think that sleep is getting in the way of getting things done, particularly if you live out of state and know you only have so much time to work on the house.
Sleep will help to rejuvenate you and can help you work more clearly the next day – it’s not wasted time.
Keep Your Body Hydrated and Fueled
Next, make certain that you are drinking enough water. This will help you feel more energized physically and keep your thoughts lubricated. And along with hydration, make healthy food choices. I’m not saying that a treat to reward yourself is off-limits, but as someone who relaxed with yarn and handfuls of peanut M&Ms, I can say this wasn’t helpful. Watch the caffeine if you know it affects your sleep.
Fruits and veggies provide more fluids for your body. I know munching on an apple or carrot sticks isn’t ideal when you’re handling things that can be dusty or mildewed, so add those foods when you aren’t working at the house. If your digestive system is anything like mine, any change can create (ah hem) discomfort and fluids and fiber can save you from bodily distractions.
Also, if you’ve been sitting for a while, get up and move around, even if just for one minute every hour.
Rejuvenate Your Mind and Spirit
Clearing out a parent’s home is mentally and emotionally draining. Whether your relationship with them was loving or fraught with tension, sorting through their belongings is stressful.
Give yourself small breaks. If you’re in a suburban or rural area, go outside to feel the sun and fresh air, even if just for five minutes. Hey, you’ll need to take out the trash or load your car with bags for the local donation center, so take a moment for a few deep breaths.
And whether you are indoors or outside, take time to slow your breathing, even for three slow, deep breaths. If you already meditate, try to keep with this practice, even if you need to do so for fewer minutes that usual.
A friend who taught yoga kept trying to encourage me to meditate, but this wasn’t a habit, and trying to sit still felt more stressful. Did I need to relax? Yes. Was that the time to try and develop a meditation practice? No.
At a minimum, take 30 seconds for three deep breaths throughout the day. You don’t even have to go outside or move from where you’re working. If you don’t want to close your eyes, don’t. Focus on those three breaths and then continue with what you’re doing.
Those three mindful breaths can slow your heart and calm your thoughts. And it won’t feel as if you’re wasting time.
Simple Self-Care when Emptying a Parent’s House
It’s all too easy to think that pushing ourselves a bit more will help speed up what is an overwhelming project. However, when you don’t take care of yourself, it can mean that tasks will end up taking even longer as you drain yourself mentally and physically.
Basic self-care doesn’t have to take a lot of time. In fact, the most time-consuming task is sleep…don’t cut into this time. Other activities to fit into your day:
These simple self-care tasks can support you while making decisions about everything in your parent’s home, hauling boxes and bags, climbing stairs, as well as bending and reaching while you clear out the house.
Hi, I'm Susan
Emptying my parents' overpacked 800-square-foot house left me popping handfuls of peanut M&Ms and doing a WHOLE lot of comfort-crocheting. The experience of sorting through mom and dad's stuff also encouraged me to become a professional organizer...so now I can offer techniques that work much better than chocolate.