Old People’s Cupboards

‘We don’t want our cupboards to be like old people’s cupboards,’ declared a friend of mine, the other day.   I instantly visualised what she meant as I and my brother had, at the end of each of my parents’ lives, got to grips with their cupboards.  They were both pack rats extraordinaire, their cupboards stuffed with ancient and, to our eyes, many useless things. 

My friend and her partner are in their late 60s and thinking about their end of lives.  They’re in a kind of preparing-for-it way that will give their children least practical difficulty in managing their (the parents) eventual end.

They’ve taken several steps like getting Power of Attorney, writing wills, leaving medical instructions, sorting out finances, and so on.   These are the kind of things covered by standard ‘end of life planning’ checklists available from Age UK, Marie Curie, and others. 

However, these checklists don’t cover cupboards, shelves, and other storage spaces!  Maybe that’s an omission and they should, because when someone dies there is the practical question of ‘How do I deal with their stuff’.  The question also arises if you are helping an older person downsize from the place they’ve lived in for years to a smaller place or care home.  Older people may have a lot of stuff, accumulated over years, and it may be in lots of different places – house, car, garage, storage unit, caravan … Take a look at George Carlin’s spiel on ‘Stuff’ and you’ll get the idea on what you might be dealing with.

Focusing on cupboards, there are lots of them, even in a small place with what seems like little storage – bathroom cupboards, kitchen cupboards, bedroom wardrobes, airing cupboards, understairs cupboards, living room cupboards …

If my mother and father are anything to go by, encouraging someone else to clear their cupboards and get rid of stuff, in my experience, leads to resistance.   Or maybe I just don’t frame the encouragement in the right way.    

It was from my helping them clear cupboards that I noticed the five types of things that people have in their cupboards:

First things that may come in useful someday – stashes of silver foil, bits of string, elastic bands, miscellaneous screws, buttons, paper bags, and such like.

Second, things that have sentimental currency – a lucky charm, a birthday card from someone special (I still have the card my dad sent me on my tenth birthday which was 60 years ago), the outfit worn to some significant event. 

Third, more perishable things that are half finished – tins of dried up shoe polish, a jar of bay leaves past the sell by date, the medication for a long cured ailment. 

Fourth, things that have been useful but have been superseded by an updated version – a reel to reel tape recorder, a Sinclair ZX 81 computer, a heavy rubber torch with batteries (seal perished on this one).

Fifth, things which are useful and usable and you buy more of ‘just in case’ you run out at the critical moment.  We were amused to discover my father’s supply of a large stash of brandy – several boxes of 12 bottles each – in the boot of his car.   And his ‘two of everything’ mentality – I guess in case he lost the one in use. 

I also noticed that old people’s cupboards (i.e. my parents’) were a mass of unsorted, random items, tossed in higgledy-piggledy.   There was no clear organisation of like objects e.g. socks or toiletries. There were no cupboard organisers to help either. 

I’m rather hard on all of this disorganised hoarding, accumulating and pack-ratting.  My ideal (unachievable) is to be able to live with a bowl and a spoon and nothing more than a small suitcase of stuff.  I have a monthly ritual of discarding 9 items.  It’s a ritual that started a few years ago with a feng shui challenge of discarding 27 items for 9 days, which I found alarmingly easy and taught me how much I’d accumulated.   I then adapted it to the nine items per month I do now. Although I still haven’t ditched the birthday card mentioned earlier, but that may come as over the last few years I’ve discarded a lot, and it’s getting harder to keep on doing it, but I’m still managing.

I’ve been helped by Marie Kondo’s book The Life Changing Habit of Tidying,  which I know annoys a lot of people.  But I’ve adopted several of her tips – I like the sock one.   And I’m constantly telling myself ‘don’t put it down put it away’, as I hate spending ages looking for something I know is somewhere in the house.

My mother thought all this was dotty and couldn’t see why I was obsessed with tidying and getting rid of stuff.    Now I think about it, I’ve realised three things:

First, her attitude was understandable.  She came from an era – the 1920s depression – and an early life of extreme poverty when anything might have a value and could ‘come in useful’.  That almost scavenger or re-use mindset is not to be scoffed at.  We’re all getting closer to it again – I just read an article about the huge growth in the reselling of second-hand clothing, and look at the advent of apps link Olio, Freecycle, and Vinted.

Second, although she, and my father, had what could be called ‘old people’s cupboards’ (as they were both over 80), actually the label doesn’t really work.  It is not only old people who have disorganised, cluttered, untidy cupboards, full of stuff they could easily discard without discomfort.  People of any age can have them.  

Third, you can’t encourage people out of the habit of ‘old people’s cupboards’.  Whatever their age – they have to make the choice to de-clutter and organise.   What looked like useless stuff to me, might hold a precious memory for my mother.  I’m learning to suspend judgement on another person’s hold/discard choices. (This frequently comes into play when I think my grandchild’s toy is long outgrown and ripe to be passed on and they don”t).

Although I want to have the minimum of stuff for my children to dispose of when I die, they might miss out on the type of conversations that my brother and I had such fun with as we sorted through our parents’ stuff.  We found things like the embroidered tray cloth used in our first family home (I think I’d embroidered it in my school needlework class), the letters we’d sent during our travelling teens, and my mother’s jumbo bag full of single gloves.

Do you think ‘old people’s cupboards’ are something to avoid?  Do you think ‘old people’s cupboards’ are specifically different from younger people’s cupboards?  Let me know.   

My (daily) road trip

WordPress’s #Bloganuary activity, is sending a daily suggestion on blog topics.  I was taken by the question, ‘What road trip would you love to take?’ as the topic they sent the other day.

What is a ‘road trip’?  There’s a Trip Advisor forum discussion on what it is which is fun to read.  Generally, people think it’s a fairly leisurely journey to a specific destination, where you’re not traveling as fast as possible but taking in sights, sounds and experiences along the way. 

Typically, films involving ‘road trips’ imply that the journeys are long – all the way across the US, or from Lands End to John O’Groats, but the Trip Advisor discussion members don’t go along with that.  In answer to the question ‘how long it a road trip?’, the favoured type of reply is ‘how long is a piece of string?’ That’s my idea of a good answer.  You’ll see why in a moment.

The blog post ‘The Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Planning a Road Trip’, subtitled ‘Everything you need to plan, prep and enjoy an adventure along highways and byways’,  lists 7 actions to take to ensure a good road trip.

That’s a perfect set for me to follow, as pretty much each day I am taking the road trip I love to take.  I walk from my house to my grandchildren’s school, pick them up there, and we go back to my house.   It’s about 1.25 km each way.  Here’s how the 7 points work for us.

Plan our route:  Outbound from my house I have to decide whether to go straight to the school, or via any errands on the way – supermarket, post office, or library are the usual choices.  There’s a mobile library on the route on Fridays which I often use.   Then depending on pick up time, I have to decide which school entrance to use – front, back or side.  The gates are locked in school hours, and opened depending on which age-group of children are being collected.  If I get the gate wrong and arrived at the locked one, I have to hurtle round to the next gate.

The way back offers several options:

  • via construction site – the children love chatting to the traffic marshals there.  They (traffic marshalls) have taught the children thumbs up, fist bumps and how to salute
  • via swings
  • via good pedestrian crossing (longer) or take your chance in heavy traffic (shorter).  I’ve written to the council several times on the possibility of a pedestrian signal on the quicker route with no joy so far
  • via a road with wall that’s good to walk along
  • via a road with interesting parked motorbikes
  • via a road which takes you up to the chip shop

So lots of choice on the way back – which mean the way back is less planned and more 3-way negotiation in the moment.

Book ahead:  this isn’t such a big deal on my road trip most days, but sometimes involves going on a play date, or a friend’s party, or the dentist – this sort of thing has to be factored in, and means flying what’s app messages between me and mission control (their mum).   Sometimes we know in advance, the days when I can’t meet them, or their mum can’t take them, and our book-ahead with each other system creaks.  More frantic what’s apps to sort things out.

Prep your vehicle:  This is critical, one child needs a buggy (where is it?) with weather-ready accessories – cosy toes, raincover, sunshade … The other child needs a bike (where is it).  Bikes and buggy can be in one of two cars, in their house, in my house, or at the school bike/buggy park  Get it wrong and the trip flounders badly.  The buggy child is very heavy to carry, and the bike child is furious if there is no bike.

Keep snacks at the ready:  This is even more critical!  Snacks must be available the instant a child is met.  I have one in each pocket and reserves in my bag.  There are favourite snack and rejected ones – not always predictable as what was favoured one week is rejected the next.  Water too is essential.  There’s also the minefield of what is a suitable snack if a proper meal is on the horizon.  It seems that parents and grandparents have differing views on this.  The snack choices involve multiple delicate negotiation – perhaps as complex as trade deals?

Beyond snacks there’s other stuff to have at the ready – wet wipes, first aid kit, Swiss army knife – you’d be surprised how often the mini scissors are used on the daily road trip.

Plan en route entertainment:  This is not difficult – advance planning is not necessary.  The whole return route is entertaining:  slugs, spiders, snails,ants and other insects to carefully inspect, different vehicles to spot, air traffic of various types to ponder possible destinations of, different types of birds to identify ditto dogs/cats, various novelties that appear on the route to muse on e.g.  a random fridge suddenly appearing kerbside,  garden statuary to enjoy – one garden with the pig statue is much favoured.  Workers are also entertaining street surveyors, shop window cleaners, car transporter unloaders, digger drivers, bin emptiers.  We often stop and chat to them.  

Take care of yourself:  My daily road trip is a complete ‘take care of myself’ workout.  It involves anticipation – which is a known mental health boost. In my case anticipating what these small, curious people tell me about their day?  It involves joy – another health benefit, I get a thrill of pleasure as they spot me arriving and rush to join me clutching their pictures, and their news.  It involves a physical workout – nothing like the almost daily 10 minute run to get to the pick up on time, when I’ve left it my house too late to walk there in a leisurely way.   It involves mindfulness techniques – well researched as beneficial, for example, we can spend 20 minutes minutely examining the path of a worm across the pavement or a snail eating a blackberry (see image).

 … And the environment:  We each have a litter pick-up stick and some days I bring them, and on the way home we pick up the litter.  It’s a great manual dexterity exercise for the children (and me) and also a good to learn that littering is unacceptable.  They are fierce about ‘naughty dog-owners’ who don’t pick up their dog’s poo.  (We don’t pick up the poo with the litter pick-up stick).

How would you answer the question ‘What road trip would you love to take?’ Let me know.

Running:  leaving my comfort zone

The last time I left my comfort zone was this morning at 05:30.   Actually, that’s not quite true.  My alarm went off at 05:30 as usual.  And as usual, I wondered whether I had the will and motivation to act on its implied command to get out of bed and start the day.  My bed is my comfort zone.   I have great difficulty leaving it.   And yet, I do leave it pretty much every day.  When I don’t it’s because I have some ailment.  

Yet getting out of bed is not easy, I’m reminded of the essay my mother used to enjoy, written by Rose Macaulay.  It’s in her book Personal Pleasures.  The essay is in 2 parts:  Part 1 Bed, Getting Into It, and Part 2 Bed, Not Getting Out of It.   In part 2 she advises, ‘Going to bed is a nocturnal pleasure; but not getting out of it is a journal one, to be enjoyed with all the innocent ardours and relish of the day.  Slug then in sloth, and languish in delights, while the day breaks and shadows flee away.’

Mostly I allow myself a maximum of 10 minutes sloth and then force myself out of bed.  Immediately, I put on my running kit.  I put out my kit before I go to bed. It’s a repeated tip from places like Runner’s World – to put out your kit the night before and then get out of bed and put it on.    I don’t sleep in my running kit, which is what one runner suggests.

I am a morning runner.  I run as soon as I get up, almost every day.  I’m definitely not in any comfort zone as I leave the house on a dark, cold, winter morning, kitted out with flashing armbands and a high viz ‘wind stopper’.   Summer is better but there’s still that hesitation of ‘do I really want to run?’

I am not a lifelong runner.  I took it up when I was 43.   

My husband died suddenly in August – just after my 43rd birthday.   In October, that year – looking for something, other than what I was feeling – I saw a flyer on the local library’s noticeboard.  ‘Social running for women’, offered by a local running club.   With a great deal of telling myself it would be ok and I could always leave, I showed up as a total beginner and was welcomed by the group.

Over a few months I found a) I loved running, a complete surprise as I’d never run before  b) I was good at it – though that took a bit longer that the first few months. 

Now, nearly 30 years later, I’m still enjoying running, I’m still learning from running and I’m still good at it – my age graded result hovers around 83% – which more or less satisfies my competitive spirit, though I still aspire to getting to 85+%.

Once I’ve got out of the house for my daily morning run, I enter a different comfort zone.  My running comfort zone is a 6 km run at a comfortable pace, on a familiar route. I enjoy being outside moving through the air, feeling the wind, noticing small changes on the routes I run.   As I get going, I know that I do want to run:  it’s an energy boost. It’s a reflective time to think about the day ahead. It gives me a feeling of have done something before the day really begins, and I look forward to coffee and breakfast as I near home. 

On these comfort zone runs, I make the, usually unconscious, choice of doing what I think of as either an external or an internal run.   The external run is when I pay attention to the environment and notice what’s going on – trees coming into leaf, a flash of parakeets (London), some wildflowers in the pavement cracks, litter bins attacked by crows, etc.   The internal run is when I don’t pay attention to any of that sort of thing, because I’m mulling over a problem, working out how to do something, thinking about what the day might hold – all introspection and running the route on auto-pilot. 

But often I leave that type of comfort-zone run, for the discomfort zone of running training programmes.   Because I enter a lot of races, running seems to involve much getting out of my comfort zone – track training, race training over extended periods, and then the race itself.   I plan what races I am interested in for the coming year (all cancelled during 2020 and many in 2021!)  and follow a running training programme that will improve my time, help me get fitter, and build my strength and stamina. 

Even when I feel prepared, when I’m at the start with my running number pinned to my vest, I feel high anxiety.  It’s always nerve-wracking, though I’ve done it hundreds of times.  

People often ask me why I run, and am I thinking of giving up. (They don’t say ‘at your age’, but this is what I think they are sometimes getting at).  What is it that makes me continue to leave my comfort zone? 

There are so many recorded benefits of being outdoors and I feel them.  The days I don’t run I feel grouchy.  I find it an ongoing learning experience:  about running physiology – in my case, for older runners, about the technology available to support runners (not available when I started), about the wonderful and diverse community of runners – my local Park Run is a Saturday delight,  about my capacity to push myself, and about getting older and having to accept slower times than I’ve managed in the past.  

Walking is an ok substitute but not as good.  But when it’s raining (often this past December, unfortunately) I reluctantly walk instead.  I’ve learned to accept the fact that I no longer want to run in a downpour.  (Being dry is another of my comfort zones).   That works up to a point.  I’ve instituted a personal rule – if it’s not raining as I leave the house, I’ll run, even if rain is threatened.  Sometimes I get wet and sometimes the rain holds off. 

When and why do you leave your comfort zone?  Let me know.