Dear Older Self,
You are probably moving more slowly these days. As your energy wanes and your mobility is challenged, the basic tasks of daily living may take a lot of your energy.
This will not surprise you. You have watched this happen to elderly friends and family members.You have seen how this can sometimes cause important tasks to be neglected and begin to pile up.
The to-do lists would grow. Cleaning, paying bills, responding to emails, letters and phone calls can become difficult to manage. Rooms and drawers probably need cleaning out. Stuff may need to be sorted and either put in the trash or given away. Even important papers that need your attention may be gathering dust.
Okay. I can feel the panic growing as I write. It feels rather overwhelming just to imagine this.
I know that as your to-do list grows increasingly unmanageable, anxiety will probably escalate. Along with the anxiety there will probably be a sense of urgency. This urgency is partly a recognition that your time on earth is limited and partly a desire to take care of matters so that you don’t leave a mess for others to clean up.
It will be easy for this growing list and your waning energy to cast a shadow of despair over you. It may feel like too much to even think about. It may create the same kind of anxiety I started to feel writing about this just now. And the anxiety may add to your feelings of being overwhelmed, helpless and hopeless.
So, dear older self, let me suggest a few first steps. Yep. Take some slow, easy breaths. Quiet yourself and your mind. Ask for God’s help. “Help me!” is a perfect prayer for occasions like this. You can be polite and add ‘please’ but it is not a requirement.
Secondly, try to remember the times you have sorted and cleaned up after the death of loved ones. You finished up the things they could not get done while they were alive. You were happy to do this. You did not experience it as a burden. Nothing bad happened because some things were left undone. So try to remember that whatever gets done is great but whatever does not get done is not a problem.
If you are having trouble asking for help you, make a list of the kinds of help you need. Let your helpers know about the list. Be respectful of their time and energy. Express your genuine gratitude for whatever they can do. Finally, do what you can—one small project at a time.
Remember your elderly friend who decided that she would make a to-do list and then to do one project each day? She broke the projects down into smaller projects-within-projects when this was necessary to keep the goals realistic. She might write a few notes to people as one day’s project. Or dust one room. Or sort through one drawer.
Another elderly friend had many boxes of things that needed to be sorted. So she made a plan to go through one box a day. If any box was too much for a day’s project, she would come back to it the following day.
Both of these elderly friends would work on their project-for-the-day for a while and then rest for awhile. They would then come back to it for awhile and rest again. They paid attention to both their need to stay active and their need to rest. They could have pushed themselves to finish each task without taking a break but they had learned that this kind of pressure leads to exhaustion and discouragement. If they worked too hard it left them feeling less hopeful about their ability to do these projects at all.
Doing a project a day will help you move through your to-do list. But you have seen that it can do so much more than this. You witnessed how this process decreased your elderly friends’ sense of being paralyzed emotionally, how it decreased the feelings of being overwhelmed, how it kept them engaged, how it increased their morale and sense of accomplishment.
There will be projects that you cannot complete without help. This might include projects that require getting into spaces that are now too low or too high for you to access. It would be a good idea to divide your list of things that need to be done into projects you can attempt by yourself and projects that can only be done with help. If you break the list into small tasks that will only take a small amount of someone else’s time you might be more likely to ask for help and others might be more likely to find time in their busy schedules to help you.
When you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by a mounting list of things that need to be done, breathe, pray and make a list. Begin to take on one realistic project a day. Ask for the help you need. Express your gratitude for help given.
Let go of being overwhelmed. Take on a project a day. Let this be a part of your celebration of the gift of each day of life.
This meditation is taken from Notes to Our Older Selves: Suggestions for Aging With Grace by Juanita Ryan and Mary Rae. You can get a copy at Amazon.com