Cleaning, Clearing, and Organizing Despite Disabilities

Many readers mentioned how much difficulty they have clearing out, cleaning, or organizing because of one or more disabilities. There should be a book to suggest but I have not found any yet. Writing about this subject needs to be a participatory process with many people contributing ideas. I will get our discussion started but you have ideas and solutions that work for you – please share.  New ideas will be added to the website version of this article as they come in and I will send a link when new material is added. So this newsletter is not the complete story – it is just the beginning of an interactive project that belongs to all of us.

This material is divided by the body parts affected. If you have more than one condition, you may need to adapt ideas to take the limitations each creates into account. For example, conditions that cause hand pain, like repetitive strain injuries (RSI) and arthritis, may be helped by manually washing dishes in hot water, but if you also have a skin condition such as eczema, contact with hot soapy water could be a problem. Both conditions could be addressed by wearing gloves while washing dishes. Most disabled people have more than one disability so juggling like this may often be necessary. If there are other conditions you think should be included, let me know and I will work on it. Aging and life often force multiple adaptations so we should not expect that any change will be all that is needed.

Many products make living with disability easier, as surveying any activities for daily living (ADL) aids catalog will show. However, the plan here is not to talk about products but about strategies that support clearing, cleaning, and organizing so techniques for cooking or other ADL will not be covered. Although mental and emotional conditions are equally disabling, methods of dealing with these were covered in my book, “Overcome Hoarding and Transform Your Life”.
Energy limitations are part of most disabling conditions, so the ideas in this section apply for most people. Consult your doctor before implementing any suggestion which might affect your medical condition.

* Pace yourself. Identify the peaks and valleys in your energy levels and plan tasks accordingly. Do the most physically demanding tasks when your energy is highest. Also, plan your week to spread out demanding tasks over the course of the whole week, such as shopping on one day, laundry on a different day. Planning tasks so that they dovetail with each other helps too, such as changing bed linens on one day and doing laundry on the next day.

* Listen to your body. Do not try to work through pain. Find the balance between doing to much and not doing anything. Only do 70% of what you think you can do without pain. The rest can wait until the next day.

* Maintain a consistent schedule for household tasks. Remember: it is always easier to keep up than to catch up. Falling behind leads to increased energy demands, difficulty making decisions, and higher stress.

* Break tasks into small segments. For example, instead of vacuuming your entire home in one pass, vacuum one section or room, then do a task that can be done sitting down for a bit, then vacuum another area; keep going like this until you are finished. Most household tasks can easily be broken into small segments that can be done with less pain or depleted decision-making ability than doing them all at once.
* Figure out which household tasks can be done sitting down. The list is usually longer than expected. Dishes, sometimes sweeping or vacuuming, ironing (you may need a tall stool for this, but best to eliminate the need to iron), most of the prep work of cooking, mending, and repairing many items.

* Consider what you can do lying down or reclining – also likely more than you think. Clearing while lying down is more doable than cleaning as you can bring things that need to be sorted to where you rest. Also, you can dust and organize around your bed or recliner. Planning what to clear next, where to take things you are discarding, how to organize your home, and similar tasks can be done while lying down.

* Evaluate a different small section of your home each week to see what is obsolete, not-so-charming-anymore, rarely or never used, or based on assumptions or expectations that aren’t likely to happen. Instead of thinking that more items create more opportunities, realize that more items create more burdens: more work, more restricted movement, and more hazards. Clear out as much as possible to lighten the burden of things that constantly need to be dealt with. Few people become stronger or more physically capable with age and accumulations can easily pile up without regular efforts to keep belongings from exceeding our ability to control them. Clearing out clutter reduces housekeeping needs by 40%.

* Let gravity help you do as many tasks as possible. Instead of taking laundry out of the washer or dryer piece by piece, scoop them out into a laundry basket sitting directly below. Push heavy objects with your feet rather than carrying them in your arms. If you cannot easily move an object with your feet, it is too heavy to move without help. Invest in a small dolly or hand truck for moving furniture or other heavy items.

* Sort tasks you need to do by priority and shrink those at the bottom. Remember the Pareto Principle: we get 80% of our results from 20% of activity; this means that the other 80% of activity is probably not worthwhile. Read newsletters about priorities: Projects, Ambition and Streamlining, Priorities In Action. Kaiser Pain Clinic advises sorting tasks by: Necessary, Nice, and Nuts.

* Keep standard shopping lists with items you regularly buy for stores where you often shop. Check this list before you go to prevent forgetting anything and having to make an extra trip.

* Get help. Insist that people who live with you do their fair share to maintain the home. Refuse to provide housekeeping, cooking, or laundry services for anyone old enough to do these tasks for themselves.

* Adjust others expectations of you. Even if you could continue as usual despite disability or aging, you really should not – the longer you try to maintain this pretense, the more pain and increasing limitation you are likely to suffer. 

* Streamline household tasks and identify ways to make them all easier. As important as this is for anyone in our hyper-busy age, for people with disabilities it is the difference between having the energy to do things that give joy vs. having to spend all available energy on housework. Evaluate every task for how necessary it really is. Always be ready to shrink or eliminate household chores that you can drop and still have a pleasing, nurturing home. So here are so ways to shrink the effort you must expend:

- Abandon making the bed. Instead of struggling to create square corners and a smooth top, use comforters that won’t be smooth or flat no matter what you do, but look nice in a different way. To make the bed, just grab the corner and pull it in place as you get out of bed. Or stop making the bed altogether. However, clean linens are a great pleasure and essential for people with asthma or allergies.

- Quit drying dishes. Air-dried dishes are more hygienic (dish towels harbor lots of germs) and easier.

- Sort and clear out drawers, closets or other storage whenever you have to hunt for an item in them. Discard anything that has not been used in a year or won’t be used again and organize the items that will stay.

- Eliminate clothes that need ironing, dry-cleaning, or hand-washing. Consider discarding fragile items that are likely to need mending.

- Switch to simpler decorations instead of fussy ones that require intricate dusting.

- Let a robot do it! A Roomba or similar device can eliminate the need to manually vacuum.

* People with respiratory allergies and/or asthma need better protection from dust and other allergens than paper masks when cleaning or clearing. More effective masks are more expensive, but avoiding sickness is worth it. Look for a mask that specifies that it meets HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Arresting) standards.

* Dust and clean in short sessions to reduce or prevent allergy or asthma attacks. Open windows may reduce the ill effects of cleaning chemicals and perfumes that trigger attacks. Consider having someone else do tasks that raise dust if possible.

* Don’t dust things you discard. Let the person who gets it deal with dusting.

* If possible, dust things outside and keep some distance between the dust and yourself. Using a HEPA vacuum on dusty objects before applying a dust cloth may reduce the amount of dust thrown into the air. Empty the vacuum collection cup or bag outside or directly into a plastic bag that can be thrown out so that you do not breathe the dust. Wear your HEPA mask while doing these tasks.

* Scented cleaning products, especially laundry detergents and softeners, can trigger immediate reactions but may also cause allergies to become more numerous and worse. The most natural, least perfumed version of cleaning products are usually safest. Scented dryer sheets are designed to embed chemicals into your clothing and stay there despite multiple washings, which means prolonged exposure. Using a public laundry may be safest when few others are there.

* Standing on a soft rug or putting a small riser under one foot while doing dishes or other standing tasks may prevent or reduce back pain. Switching which foot is elevated may prevent causing other pain or misalignment.

* Switch between sitting and standing often throughout the day to prevent back pain. Sitting for long periods is very hard on the back. These essential breaks from sitting are a great time for short cleaning, clearing, and organizing sessions.

* Organize household tasks to avoid sudden, intense efforts. Steady, even energy outputs may be safer. Slower, but more consistent efforts are also likely to result in a cleaner house over time.

* Clear clutter in halls and walkways to prevent stumbles that cause frantic efforts to avoid a fall and result in surges in heart rate.

* Creating handholds throughout your home to grab if you feel dizzy or faint can prevent falls. Edges of furniture, an unobstructed wall, even a doorknob in a pinch, can all give opportunities to steady yourself so you do not fall. Loose objects near a potential handhold onto can create hazards. Part of why piles are so hazardous is they may prevent getting a grip on a stable object or surface.

* Skeletal conditions often create standing limitations so housework may be less painful if done sitting down. Both upright and canister vacuum cleaners can be operated from a chair using a steep angle; using an office chair with wheels can make moving around to clean different areas easier, and, difficult though it may be initially, moving the chair using your feet is great exercise.

* Washing dishes and cooking sitting down may prevent pain. A tall step- or drafting stool can help with these tasks. Opening below-sink cabinet doors allows getting closer and reduces strain on knees and back. A stool with arms may help prevent falls and a hydraulic riser (goes up and down using a paddle or button) may be easier to get in and out of.

Techniques for coping with memory issues are the same at any stage of life and are a good habit to build before they are needed.

* Write down everything. Do not expect to remember everything; as we age, new information tends to get lost amidst the volume of existing information already in our brains. A daily planner of any type helps to keep track of activities, health and symptoms, spending, contact information, and any other sort of information that you need to retain.

* Label every box and storage container. Up-to-date labels save unnecessarily having to take things in and out of storage and digging through boxes.

* Build many clues into your home environment to indicate next actions, locations for where items are or should be put, such as labels on drawers and cabinets, or item homes (also prevents putting other things in that item home).

* Memory loss makes clearing out more difficult by making it harder to remember how many of something you already have or when an item was last used (actually, this is not easy for folks who do not have memory loss). Putting labels on things with the date of last use can help keep track of this information. Every time you use a labeled item, just add the current date to the list; this will help knowing when it was last used and how often it is used.

* Use a reacher and step-stool to avoid having to lift things above your head or to take them down. Store heavy items on low shelves to prevent strain and prepare for natural disasters.

* Maintain your physical therapy (PT) exercises for your shoulders or neck to maintain function and prevent locking up. Skeletal injuries usually leave us susceptible to flare-ups or weakening of joints and progression of arthritis. Range-of-motion (ROM) exercises can be especially important for maintaining function and the ability to take care of yourself and home. Cleaning and clearing can be part of a home exercise program if you take advantage of opportunities to stretch, dance, or do aerobics (see Combining Fitness and Organizing and The Ecstasy of Exercise for how to do this) while working.

* If safe, lift or lower small items very slowly while feeling each point of the movement to prevent stressing the joint, learn spots that need to be worked on, and to know what to tell your physical therapist. (Before trying this, ask your doctor or physical therapist whether it is a good idea for you.) Small bottles of cleaning supplies and canned goods work well for this purpose and help to strengthen for other cleaning tasks.

* The gentlest cleaning products are least likely to cause skin problems. As a rule, natural products are less likely to cause problems than manufactured ones but there are many natural products that can irritate too.

* Normal housework can aggravate many skin conditions, especially eczema and allergies. Just wearing gloves to prevent contact with cleaning products may not be enough. Cotton glove liners inside latex or vinyl gloves can reduce sweating inside gloves or prevent irritation from latex gloves. Photographers cotton gloves can be gotten cheaply and in bulk (Amazon has them) and used for years. Another option is to wear gloves with heavy flocking inside that will not rub off when the gloves are used. Mr. Clean gloves work well for this purpose.

* The sense of touch is often a good guide to the presence of dirt on a surface; even small amounts of spilled material raise the surface slightly and be felt by the tips of the fingers (the most sensitive part). This method is not foolproof, but works.

* Correct lighting makes cleaning and clearing easier. Experiment to find the best type for your needs and set up your environment exactly the way you need it.

* Spread magnifiers all around your home so you can grab one easily wherever you are. Even in the kitchen, magnifiers are invaluable for reading labels, following directions and recipes, and many other purposes. Keeping a magnifier where cleaning products are stored can prevent accidents.

* Clutter is especially dangerous for visually impaired people, making navigating your home and cleaning more difficult and falls more likely. Protect yourself by clearing out clutter as quickly as it arrives.


Finding effective adaptations to cope with your constellation of disabilities will demand all the creativity you can manage, but this is so worthwhile. Make a game of finding good solutions. Charge up your brain cells while reducing hazards and making your home a welcoming and nurturing environment.


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© Gloria Valoris, 2015

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