Helping someone you care about when they don’t want help is complex. When do you honor their wishes, and when do you superimpose your own beliefs out of a conviction that your instincts are correct? Several years ago, my husband and I faced this question with my mother-in-law. It was among the hardest and most important things we’ve ever done.
It’s hard to say when dependence becomes an addiction, when an aversion to going outside becomes a phobia, when a person moves from set in her ways to obstinate and rigid. Looking back, none of us recalled a particular date. We remembered instead a period of time over which a person we loved and enjoyed became increasingly inflexible, bitter and withdrawn. When, we wondered, did we let go of the woman we had known, and allow this stranger to take her place? When did we begin accepting this diminished version of my mother-in-law, as the real thing?
For several years after her husband died, my mother-in-law — we called her Bubbie — did quite well. She frequently ate at restaurants, went to movies, shopped at malls and enjoyed her family. She had a full and happy life.
We’re not sure when, and we don’t know why, but over a period of years things started to change. Everything became “too much” for Bubbie. She stopped going out, preferring to stay home. She stopped having meals with us; we ate either too early or too late. She became increasingly critical and withdrawn, opting to spend time by herself. Most of the time, she watched television and slept.
“You’re depressed,” we suggested. My mother-in-law insisted this wasn’t the case and rejected our recommendation of an antidepressant. “It will interfere with my other medications,” she said. We arranged an appointment with a social worker who did home visits; she cancelled it. “I’m not depressed,” she maintained. “I’m anxious.” She asked her doctor for Valium, a drug she had used on occasion when she was younger, and he agreed to prescribe it.
Soon everything made Bubbie anxious, and Valium became her method of choice to “get through the day.” We argued that her use was excessive. “My doctor prescribes it,” she said. Her physician was well regarded in the community, had a large geriatric practice and was Medical Director of a local nursing home. We contacted the doctor and shared our concerns about Bubbie and her Valium. “She’s set in her ways and will not change,” he told us. “Besides, the pills are only 2 milligrams.” “But she takes them all day long,” we countered. He seemed disinterested. We looked for another doctor and made an appointment. Bubbie refused to go.
It was a construction project that finally brought the situation to a head. Since Bubbie spent so much time in her bedroom, we offered to build a small sitting room adjacent to it and create a little suite. She wanted no part of it. “My life is awful and having an apartment won’t make it better. Besides, the dust and noise from the construction will make me ill.”
Against her wishes, we persevered and construction began. Within two days, Bubbie’s blood pressure was dangerously elevated and she was hospitalized. She called us with a request, “Bring me 30 Valium, a pad of paper and the phone number of Dr. Kavorkian.” We called her doctor. “She is going to commit suicide,” we stated. “We want her off Valium.” “She’ll never accept going off Valium,” he insisted. He was right. She didn’t accept it. We did it anyway.
That evening, my husband “fired” her doctor and “hired” another one. The new physician agreed that Valium was a depressant and that Bubbie was abusing it. The next day, she was taken off Valium and put on Zoloft.
Bubbie was furious. She was a mentally competent adult, and we were treating her like a child. We were forcing her to accept an apartment she didn’t want, and taking away Valium — the one thing that had consistently given her solace and reduced her anxiety. Why couldn’t we leave her alone?
Tough love is a concept normally applied to the actions of parents toward children, not children toward parents. But perhaps this norm needs to change. As children, we are taught to honor our parents, but is acquiescing to an aging parent’s wishes always honoring them? How do you balance love and respect with risk and responsibility?
My husband and I felt that we WERE honoring Bubbie when we took steps to end her Valium addiction. It wasn’t an easy decision. In order to do what we believed to be right, my husband caused his mother pain and incurred her wrath. It took tremendous love and courage.
The days immediately after her discharge were scary. Bubbie seemed subdued, but disoriented. What had we done? we worried. She had been miserable, true, but she certainly had not been confused or disoriented. But soon the confusion lifted, and what emerged was a Bubbie we hardly knew.
Over the next ten years, Bubbie spent what she described as “the best years of her life.” She read three to four books weekly, became an expert at card games on the computer and received dozens of emails weekly from friends and family. She knitted sweaters for living and yet-to-be-conceived great-grandchildren (“I may not be alive when they are born and why shouldn’t they have sweaters too?”) She was interested in everyone, and she was, above all, a terrific listener. Her wisdom and warmth made her a beacon for all around her.
Ironically, Bubbie seemed to remember little about her Valium-addicted days. “I wasn’t very happy then, was I?” We’re glad that her memory of that time was hazy. Her new self was so much more… well, the real Bubbie.
Bubbie lived for ten more years after her withdrawal from Valium. She took a small dosage of Zoloft daily, and although she had occasional periods of anxiety, she never asked her new doctor for Valium. She told us often that she had a wonderful life and that she felt fortunate to be alive.
My husband and I often think back to that horrendous week when, against her will, Bubbie was taken off Valium. We wonder what would have happened if we hadn’t been willing to do “tough love” for Bubbie.
Father’s Day is coming up. I don’t know what to get for Dad. He has lost so much of his memory. At times, he doesn’t even know me. Why bother?
Dad isn’t the same person he used to be. Sometimes he thinks I am his younger brother, Bill, who died in Korea. It hurts.
For the most part, Mom now takes care of the house. She says she wants to do it while she can. Fortunately, Dad is still mostly able to care for himself. My sister found someone to do their yard work, and she takes them to their doctor visits.
I help by paying their bills. I stay with Dad for a couple of hours every week, so Mom can get out of the house. We just sit, and he talks about things that happened 70 years ago. I want to go out for dinner or a game or something, but he just wants to stay in.
Two years ago, the neighbors called me because his driving was so unsafe. I eventually had to get him to stop driving. Mom and my sister agreed that it was the right thing to do, but I felt awful.
I feel like a mean child.
Oh my. Don’t you see it? You are giving him the best Father’s Day gift of all. You and your sister have his back.
Let’s consider the letter you would have written ten years ago, if you had known the future.
For Father’s Day, Sis and I want you to know that we’ll always be there for you and for Mom. And we’ll do it together.
When the day comes that you no longer can drive safely, we’ll make sure that you won’t hurt yourself or anyone else. We’ll be strong when you can’t be.
Your bills will still be paid on time and that your finances will be well protected.
I’ll listen to your stories knowing that it gives you comfort to relive memories. Don’t worry that you’ll repeat yourself or that you won’t remember things anymore. It’s OK. I’ll be there for you.
Sometimes you tell me that I remind you of Uncle Bill. He’s obviously somebody you miss. I’m glad you see him in me.
As your energy runs down, I’ll keep in mind that just being there means so much. Even if you don’t remember me, I’ll make sure you feel my love through companionship, a touch, my time.
Dad, we’ll stand by you. You can lean on us. We’ll be there for you and Mom, always. You will never have to worry about what happens when you are unable to take care of things yourself. We’ve got your back.
I’ll make mistakes. I’ll be impatient. But I’ll do my best.
And Dad, as you are reaching the end of your journey through life, we’ll still be there and do our best to make sure you aren’t alone.
Dad I love you, and I want you know that we’ve got your back. Happy Father’s Day.”
Jean Long Manteufel, senior move manager and CEO of Long’s Senior Transitions in Appleton, WI writes a column on the first Sunday of each month about life changes associated with aging. She can be reached at 920/734-3260 Jean@TransitionsWithJean.com
“Bill, there is something wrong with the fan,” I said to my husband, in another room. He walked into the kitchen, tried the cooking spray, and said, “There is nothing wrong with the PAM.” Life has been interesting since we started mishearing.
Mishearing is not the same as not hearing. When we don’t hear a word clearly, we usually fill in the void with words that make sense given the context. Sometimes, we hear part of the word, but not enough to make out the actual meaning. As people age, consonants are harder to hear than vowels. The problem is, consonants are much more important to speech intelligibility than vowels.
Mishearing is different. When we mishear, we are confident we heard what was said. Sometimes we construct elaborate thought processes around what we think we heard, thought processes that happen in a nanosecond. For example, you ask someone what he does for a living, and he responds, “I work with diabetic Jews.”
“Wow,” you think. “There is a business that works just with diabetic Jews? How are Jewish diabetics different from other diabetics? Is it something genetic? Do cultural differences make compliance more difficult?”
“Yes” he continues. “People with diabetes often have poor circulation and need special shoes.” And that is when you realize that he said diabetic SHOES, not diabetic JEWS.
Mishearings aren’t restricted to older adults, but hearing loss increases as we age, so the likelihood of not hearing consonants properly and replacing them with other consonants is higher as we get older, so we do mishear more often as we age. This gives rise to numerous jokes about mishearing, almost always associated with being elderly. Two classics come to mind:
Three old men were going for a walk. The first says, “It’s windy today.”
The second one says, “No, it’s Thursday.”
The third one says, “So am I. Let’s go for a beer.”
An elderly man was telling his neighbor, “I just bought a new hearing aid. It cost me $4000 dollars, but it’s state-of-the-art. It’s perfect.”
“Really?” said the neighbor. “What kind is it?”
What I don’t like about these jokes is that they suggest that mishearing is unique to older adults, and they make the subject look stupid. They use humor to perpetuate stereotypes and are ageist.
Mishearings can occur at any age. Scores of videos document kids mishearing the words to the pledge of allegiance:
“I plejjer legions to the flag of the United States of America, and tunary public, for witches hands, one nation, on a God, invisible, with liver trees and Justin’s for all.”
Although these mishearings may be predictors of later reading and processing issues, the videos make the children appear cute, not stupid.
The most memorable skits about mishearing are from a woman in her thirties — Gilda Radnor— in her iconic role as Miss Emily Litella. Ms Litella isn’t stupid. She is just plain funny.
In 1985, when my husband and I renovated our home, my mother-in-law offered us $200 to buy a radar range — which is what microwaves used to
be called. We had never owned a microwave and were certain we didn’t want one. “Surely, she will give us $200 toward anything,” I said to my husband.
I was wrong. The offer was a microwave or nothing. So that is how I got my first microwave.
I’ve been thinking a lot about gifts with strings. Gifts we “give” to someone else,
but with conditions attached. I remember a client. who had a Henredon burled mahogany highboy that wouldn’t fit in her new home. She offered it to her kids and was delighted when her daughter wanted it as a bureau for her granddaughter.
A few months later, my client visited her daughter and went to her granddaughter’s room to look at the highboy. And there it was — painted blue. At first, she was aghast. And then she realized, she had to “zip it.” She had given the highboy away.
My 95-year old aunt, on the other hand, plans to retain control of her gifts. Married three times, she has a lot of diamond rings. Two decades ago, she told me that she didn’t plan to leave the rings to me. “You have boys,” she said, “and when they grow up, they may find a girl and want to get married, and they may need a ring. But they may get divorced and then the ring would leave the family, so I am giving the rings to Miriam (my niece, then 7 years old). I have not had the heart to tell my aunt that Miriam, now 28, is seeing someone seriously. She may get married and I think she wants children. One of them might be a boy, and when he grows up he might meet a girl and want to get married, so he might need a ring…”. My aunt plans to hold on to those rings in this life and the next.
I understand the pull, the desire to control things we have given away, I really do.
I can identify with the giftor, but I also identify with the giftee. Forty years ago my grandmother gave me a set of etched stemware— service for 12 with five glasses per place setting. I believed I would never use them, and sold them at auction for $150. My grandmother was furious. I did not enjoy being reprimanded for doing what I wanted with a gift I had been given. I’ve remembered that feeling when
I give things to my own children.
It was a good lesson. Once you give something away, you do not control it anymore.
When someone asks my husband how long he’s been married, he says, “Thirty years… 26 of the happiest years of my life.” He’s right, of course. Some years were better than others. Stock prices, interest rates and real estate values have periods of highs and lows. I think long time marriages are like that, too.
Since Valentine’s Day is approaching, I’ve been thinking about relationships. I was single until I was 32 — probably ten years more than my grandmother hoped for. I struggled through my twenties, trying to find my way in life and relationships. If I were to send a Valentine’s Day message to my younger self, I think I would say, “One day, someone will walk into your life and make you see why it never worked out with anyone else,” because that is what happened. one day, I did find someone wonderful, who loved me more than I could image.
Like stocks and real estate, marriages have cycles. perhaps a second Valetine’s Day message should be, “One of the hardest decisions you will ever face in life is choosing whether to walk away or try harder.” I’ve always chosen to try harder. Just because something is hard doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.
My new relation ship guru is Carl Reiner. When asked what kept his marriage of 65 years to Estelle Reiner alive, he answered,
“When asked this question, my wife used to say, ‘Marry someone who can stand you.’ And that’s absolutely true! There are many, many reasons to break up but if you can stand the worst of what they do, why break up? You’re only going to get someone who will annoy you in another way, so whatever little annoyances there are, you can stand that. Estelle and I were able to stand each other very, very well”.
Perhaps that is my conclusion about relationships on this Valentine’s Day. If you’re lucky, you’ll find someone terrific, someone who brings out the best in you. It won’t always be easy, but lots of things that are hard are worth doing. With longevity comes perspective. You will always find ways to annoy one another, and there will be ups and downs, but in the big scheme of things, they are not important. My husband and me? Like the Reiners, we stand each other very, very well.
What if you knew something about yourself, something that had been part
of you for years, even decades, and suddenly, that thing changed? Did you decide to be different, or did it just happen? Are you happy with the change? I am asking these questions because I went from someone who never wore hats to a confirmed hat wearer, and I am trying
to understand why.
I have never worn hats, not in winter,
not in summer. I am categorically not a hat person. Yet this year, I changed.
I began wearing hats in cold weather,
and now I marvel at how exquisite it feels to have a warm head. It’s unsettling to discover you are different from who you thought you were. I am wondering what other truths that I know about myself might change as well.
Since my business is helping people downsize and move, I work with individuals who, like myself, know what they like and don’t like. Many are moving to retirement communities, but some do not, often because they see themselves as not “that kind of person.” They think they are not the kind of person who would enjoy living in an apartment or a community. Sometimes “that kind of person” refers to things they cannot live without, for example, a garden or a formal dining room. Sometimes it refers to perceptions of community living — “I need privacy, and I won’t have privacy in that kind of setting.”
I am not comparing wearing hats to life decisions like moving to a retirement community, but it does make me wonder if what we “know” about ourselves is really true. I now love something I thought I hated.
It makes me wonder what other things I might like if I were open to change.
It makes me wonder what things my clients might like if they were more open to change as well.
When my husband was growing up, his family had a series of songbirds, canaries and parakeets, each of whom was named Pookie. So it seemed only natural that the green-and-yellow parakeet we acquired would be dubbed Pookie as well.
Pookie didn’t strike me as a very exciting pet. He didn’t sing, he didn’t talk, he didn’t do much of anything. That is, except when my mother-in-law, Bubbie, would visit. Having nurtured the entire Pookie dynasty, Bubbie knew ways of talking to birds that were foreign to me. Her voice assumed a certain inflection, she would give Pookie her undivided attention, and five minutes later, he was singing and chirping away.
“Why don’t you keep Pookie?” we asked.
“I don’t want a bird,” she replied. “Too much trouble, too much responsibility. No way.”
One day, our cat made a leap for Pookie’s cage. Although the bird miraculously escaped, its near-fatal adventure inspired us. We would be visiting friends, we told Bubbie. Could she keep Pookie overnight until we returned and could rehang the cage?
Bubbie sensed a plot, but reluctantly agreed. “Okay,” she said, “but pick him up the second you get home.” We delivered the bird to her apartment. She was so busy talking to Pookie, she didn’t notice when we left. We called the next morning to schedule the pick up. “Let’s negotiate,” she said. “Pookie stays here.”
So began the friendship of Pookie and Bubbie. Certainly, the relationship was good for Pookie; he chirped and sang constantly, played with toys and occasionally even talked. But it was clear that Pookie gave more than he received. According to my mother-in-law, he was “the smartest bird” that ever lived. He made her laugh. He provided company. He was a friend, and perhaps most important, Pookie needed her.
Like many people of her generation, my mother-in-law had a hard life. She began working as a young girl and cared for brothers and sisters. As a married woman, she and her husband operated a small restaurant and lived above it in a tiny apartment in which they raised their family and several generations of Pookies. A good listener, Bubbie’s counsel was sought by friends and family. She was needed; she played a vital role in many lives.
At 85, however, my mother-in-law was a widow and no longer worked. Her children and grandchildren were grown and self-sufficient. Few people depended on her for nurturing or advice. Instead, she depended on others. Pookie made a difference in her life. Each morning, she got up to change Pookie’s water, replenish his food, adjust his toys, and of course, talk to him. Twice monthly, she went to Petco to buy supplies. She cleaned Pookie’s cage. In short, Pookie depended on Bubbie.
Then, Bubbie fell and broke her hip. Someone had to care for Pookie until Bubbie returned from rehab. Our daughter bravely volunteered. Two days later, she called and said, “Pookie is lying at the bottom of the cage with his feet in the air.” There was a collective groan. Caring for Pookie was motivation for Bubbie to get well. His death would make her sad, and we were certain she would refuse to get another bird.
I am the first to admit that I am not a bird person. To me, a bird is a bird. So I took the still-warm Pookie in his crate and headed to our local Petco. The manager saw me, crate and dead bird in hand, and assumed I was there to complain. “You don’t understand,” I explained, and told him the whole saga: how important Pookie was to Bubbie, how she had broken her hip and the bird had died, how caring for Pookie was the reason Bubbie needed to get well, and how we needed a bird that looked just like Pookie.
We searched the parakeet cage, which housed dozens of birds, but none of them looked remotely like Pookie. “How much time do we have before she gets out of rehab?” asked the manager. “About a month,” I said. “I have seven stores in my territory,” he continued. “I will check every one for a parakeet that looks like Pookie.” Using his cell phone to capture Pookie’s coloring, he gave me his phone number, work schedule and email address. I left the store astonished, grateful and committed to shopping at Petco for the rest of my life.
I called the manager two weeks later. He had been to four stores with no luck. “Don’t worry,” he assured me. “I still have three stores to go.” Meanwhile, Bubbie was making great progress in rehab. “I saw Pookie the other day,” my son told his grandmother. “He misses you terribly and is not like himself. In fact, he’s like a whole new bird.”
A month after entering rehab, with almost no advance warning, Bubbie was discharged. Panicked, I called Petco and asked for the manager. “He’s on vacation for two weeks,” I was informed. “Oh no,” I groaned. “He was getting me a bird.” “Are you looking for Pookie Novack?” the clerk asked. I rushed to the store. In the back was a very thin, very quiet, but definitely Pookie-ish parakeet. “Thank you God,” I said, and the new Pookie and I went home.
The next day, Bubbie returned to her apartment. Leaning on her walker, she smiled as she settled into her recliner. She looked at her small sitting room, her family pictures, and at her bird. “Pookie,” she said, “I am so glad to see you.” We had passed the first test!
We called the next day. “How is Pookie?” we asked. “He’s a little thin,” she replied. “He must have been traumatized by the change. But he’s coming around. He hasn’t stopped singing.”
As the months passed, it became clear we had pulled off the switch of the century. We were grateful to everyone who helped in our conspiracy of love, but especially to the employees of Petco, who understood the power of pets in the lives of older adults and the importance of being needed.
My mother-in-law read the New York Times Book Review, did crossword puzzles and was addicted to her computer. Not too much got past her. “Do you think she doesn’t know it’s a different bird?” friends asked. “If she does,” I replied, “she doesn’t care; she is busy loving this bird.”
“It’s the weirdest thing,” Bubbie said one day. “Pookie plays with toys he never played with before.” No doubt about it; Pookie was one happy bird.
Bubbie passed away five years ago, in her sleep, with a crossword puzzle on her lap. We found Pookie a new home, but he died within a few days. We think he is sitting on Bubbie’s shoulder.
Happy Holidays from your friends at Moving Solutions!
Yesterday, a friend reminded me about a conversation we had a few weeks earlier that I had forgotten. “I’m beginning to worry about you,” she said.
Then I began to worry about me. Was this an indication of something serious?
I began checking for other signs of forgetfulness. Nothing stuck out. I handle a million details with my business, and remember most of them. So how to explain my “losing” that conversation until she reminded me of it? I think I figured it out. I see it every night. I sit on the sofa with my iPad, my husband tells me something, and then asks, “Are you paying attention?” “Yes,” I answer, and I am telling the truth. I am paying attention — just not to him. I am fully engrossed in what I am reading on my iPad. My hearing is normal. My memory is ok. It’s my ability to multitask that is shot.
I hear what my husband tells me, but when I am multitasking, I just don’t take it in. These days, it seems I need to focus more on what I am doing, and have fewer distractions. Perhaps I was focusing on something else when my friend called a few weeks ago. I decide that is what it is, and feel relieved. I am no longer worried about me, but I know that something has changed.
I think about a quote I read by a man diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease: ” I say something and they blame it on the Alzheimer’s. Someone else says the same thing, and no one notices.” I get it. If someone young forgets a conversation, we assume they weren’t paying attention, but when you reach a certain age and you forget something, then people “begin to worry about you,” and you begin to worry about yourself as well.
For now I’ve concluded that my memory is ok, and that I need to concentrate more and have fewer distractions. I can live with that, but it is food for thought. We take an act, like forgetting (I prefer the term misremembering), and make assumptions based on a person’s age. Sounds like ageism to me. What makes it so sinister is that we not only make assumptions about others, we make assumptions about ourselves, too. I rant about ageism in print and in the media, but ageism is much closer to home. I might do better fighting ageism outside if I had better control of the ageism in myself.
I have to make a confession. This has been the hardest post for me to write. I have sat down, time and again to put the words together and they just wouldn’t come. It has taken me weeks of prayer, of introspection and a swift kick in the butt to finally get this done. I guess the kick dislodged the words, so here we go…
I use a cane. (Even typing that statement pulled at my heart.) Please understand that I have been fighting this inevitability for several years. I would rather rely on my husband, children and friends to prop me up, and yes, sometimes pick me up, as long as I did not have to use a cane.
I understand the benefits of using the device in my mind, and over the years, I have had many conversations with friends and clients convincing them to use their canes. But when it came down to me getting one – oh boy – all of that good sense just went to the wayside.
To me, the cane represented weakness, old age, and an inability to care for my family. Therefore when necessity prevailed and the need for the cane became apparent, it felt like accepting this device would also mean that I had to accept being weak, losing my vitality and not being able to do the thing I love the most- caring for my family. I really felt that using the cane would change people’s view of me from a fortress of strength and stability to a pile of dust, and I was not ready to accept that reality shift.
I needed some serious reinforcements to support me in this decision. My husband, who also happens to be my best friend, went with me to pick it out. After trying out several models I found one that suited me. It was young looking, sparkly and had a comfort grip handle. I used it to get to the car, where I proceeded to break down and cry. Partially because it was so much easier for me to get from the sidewalk to the car and I had less pain. Admitting that seemed like I was choosing my comfort over my family.
We went to Sam’s Club to pick up a few things, and my husband asked me if I wanted to “take ‘er for a spin” inside Sam’s. I couldn’t do it. So he graciously went in, while I stayed in the car and watched the people go by (yes, and to cry some more). To get my mind off of my “problem” I went on Facebook to see what was going on in other people’s lives. As I was looking down at my phone, a hand appeared through the window and a giant box of my favorite chocolates appeared, quickly followed by a kiss on the cheek. He went back into the store and shopped, leaving me time to dry my tears and think.
In my heart, I went back to holding my children’s hands when they were little to keep them safe. I realized that now that they are adults, we were still holding hands but they were doing it to keep ME safe. I also realized that my stubbornness in using the cane was keeping me dependent upon them and others, that in reality, they had slowly become my guardians and caregivers and that I was not really caring for their emotional health with my choice. By the time my husband had returned I had decided that I was going to try to make peace with this.
When we got home I decided to use my cane to walk to the door. My son saw me walking towards the house, he ran and opened the door, and said “Hey Mom, looking good!” (I cannot describe how good that felt.) When my daughters came to visit, they both ribbed me horribly (in my family that is a sign of acceptance and love), and I could sense the feeling of relief that came to them seeing me walk steadier (the jokes about no longer looking like a drunken sailor were also an indicator).
That night, when we sat down to read the bible and pray together, I asked them how they felt about my new accessory. They all agreed that they loved it because, it gave me freedom, and they would worry less about me because I had my “personal assistant” and that I could go back to being Mom again. Amazing how our own visions of ourselves can be so far off from what others really perceive.
I named my cane Whizzy- for two reasons. First it is because I can now “whiz” around from one place to another, without waiting for someone to steady me, and second as a reminder that “Wisdom is proved righteous by its works.” (Matthew 11:19) Every time I pick Whizzy up, I am reminded that it was the wisest choice, and that by using her, I am providing proof of Godly wisdom to myself and others – especially my children.
The response and support have been overwhelmingly positive. There are some who look at me with that look of: “why her?” The real question is: ”Why not me?” I deserve to be able to feel safe and secure, to reduce my physical pain, to not have to rely on people to keep me on my feet, (literally) and to have to dignity of being able to overcome my negative thinking and experience the emotional, physical and psychological freedom that comes with my lovely red cane – Whizzy.
It is unmistakably comforting to curl up in a thick chair with a tattered copy of a book you love, listening to the rain while you let yourself get carried away by the words on the page. I know – I used to hoard books. Don’t let the title “minimalist” scare you off – I have a love of books that dates back to my years toddling around with Dr. Seuss, a love that was handed down from my mother.
Until just a few years ago, books were stacked everywhere in my home. My two huge book cases were double-stacked with volumes ranging from children’s fiction to college text books, and piles had formed next to couches and the bed, not to mention on any available surface. I could not imagine my life without these friends surrounding me – the very thought of letting go of just one was enough to send me hurling at my shelves, attempting to wrap my arms around every book I owned in protection.
Today, I am the proud owner of approximately 20 books – six of which are craft books. To move from one extreme to the other took some serious work, and was not an overnight process. It started with the realization that I was not so much attached to the stories and words themselves, but the physical books sitting on the shelves. Once I had that realization, I began to let go of some of my books, and moved slowly towards a more minimalist reading collection.
The best way for any book-collector to tackle their bookshelves is by looking at one book at a time. When we look at the whole expanse of our book collection, it can be hard to imagine ever letting a single book go, but in reality there are volumes hiding on those shelves that we truly don’t need or want. Taking time to pull a book down off the shelf and truly look at it as an individual item will help you decide for that book alone if staying on your shelves is the best option.
Here are a few suggestions to help even the biggest bibliophile relieve your sagging shelves of stress:
1. Write It Down. Sometimes, it’s the way a book made us feel, our connection to the story or a character that keeps us from letting go of the book itself. Take some time to write down those feelings, those connections. Maybe you’ll keep these notes on your computer or in a notebook, or maybe you’ll begin a blog for them. Once you get those emotions and thoughts out, it can be easier to pass the book on to someone else who you think would love the story as much as you did.
Tiny Action: Grab a notebook and start writing down your thoughts about each book as you take it off your shelves. If you can’t think of anything to say, you probably won’t miss the book if it weren’t there anymore.
2. Divide. Get ruthless with your “yet to read” pile. My rule of thumb is simple: If it hasn’t been read in six months, it probably won’t ever be read. I went so far as to test this theory myself as I found books on my shelves I hadn’t yet read, but couldn’t yet bear to let go. I dedicated a shelf to “need to read” books, and noted the date. Any books that started out on that shelf on that date but were still there six months later I purged – I had discovered I truly had no desire to read them!
Tiny Action: Let go of any book you haven’t read yet that has been on your shelves for more than six months. Afraid you’ll want to read it someday? Make a note of it in your notebook – title, author, ISBN number even – so you can find it at the library if you truly want to read it later.
3. One of the best ways to make use of your book collection is to share it with others! As you look at books, anytime you find yourself thinking “So and so would LOVE this book!” write that name down on a sticky note, stick it on the front cover, and set the book aside. After you’ve got 20 or so books in a pile, begin handing them out – drive to friends’ houses and drop them off, or put them in the mail (book rate shipping is SUPER cheap).
Tiny Action: Pick five books off your shelves that you’d love to share with someone else, and then send them off to their new homes. Today.
4. Set aside one shelf of your book case as your “desert island” shelf. Most book lovers have books they know they will never let go of, no matter what. I call these “desert island” books – they are the books I’d want with me if I were stranded on a desert island, that I could read over and over again for the rest of my life. As you come across these books in your collection, add them to your shelf. Not only is it comforting to see those books being saved as you pare down others, you now have a physical boundary – you can have no more “desert island” books than will fit in this one space, so you are forced to think analytically about your collection.
Tiny Action: Clear off one shelf to keep as your “desert island” shelf. It can only hold one row of books – no double stacks or piles!
5. Organize your non-fiction books by topic. I found when I began to organize my non-fiction books by topic, I had overlaps in some subjects. For me, the largest overlaps came in religious studies (my major in college). As I saw where I’d doubled up on topic, it was easier to let go of a few books.
Tiny Action: Organize your books by topic and author. Begin to pare down where you see overlaps.
6. Look for multiple copies, and get rid of them. You may laugh, thinking you would NEVER buy a multiple of a book, but trust me when I say I’ve found multiple copies of books on the shelves of almost every sentimental bibliophile I’ve met. Once you have more than a shelf or two of books (not a book CASE or two, a SHELF or two!), the chances of your remembering what books you own dwindles. Even if you love the book, there is never a need to own more than one copy of it!
Tiny Action: Every time you notice a multiple of a book, immediately give one copy away.
While going through this process, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
Take breaks. When I first began paring down my books, I would get dizzy after 15 minutes!
Take five minutes to step away anytime you begin to feel overwhelmed – this is a new experience for your body, and it takes some getting used to!
Stay hydrated. I found I would get drained and tired as I went through my books – keeping a glass of water next to me helped keep me alert and focused.
Set a timer. Sort through your books for no more than 30 minutes the first go-round or you will find yourself getting frustrated and overwhelmed.
Honor your emotions. Your sentimental attachment to your books is not something to feel ashamed of or sad about. Acknowledging your emotions as you sort through your books can be the first step in helping you move past that attachment and towards a more minimalist reading habit.
And above all, remember this: you did not acquire those books overnight, so you will not release your attachment to them quickly either. By spending a few minutes a week and by letting go of a few books at a time, you will find your feelings shifting towards the stories and the moment rather than the books themselves.