Organizing to De-Stress a Major Illness

Hand coordination ,Multiracial hands holding each other in unity

Don’t be afraid to ask for help!

The idea of organizing to de-stress a major illness applies to any prolonged medical condition that results in decreased energy and mobility.  The premise is this:  The more organized you are, and the simpler your household processes, the less you will worry about things getting done, freeing you to focus your energy on getting well.

This article started out as a workshop for the New Mexico Cancer Center. I have left the NM- and cancer-related links intact for those who need them, but most of the resources listed are nation-wide and not illness-specific.  The information was intended for individual patients and survivors, but the image of interlocked hands made me realize it would be equally helpful to caregivers.

Organizing Your Medical Records

You will need a way to keep all your medical records together, and organized, so you can find what you are looking for.  You will want to take pertinent records with you to medical appointments (information that is currently needed or asked for repeatedly), but you don’t want to have to lug everything with you each time you go.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Create a Control Binder.  Get a 3 ring binder, hole punch, tabs, business card holder pages, and a plastic pouch for pens.  Create sections for symptoms, contacts, medical history, appointments, treatment plan, billing (paid & pending), general info about illness, doctors, chaplain, resources, medications past & present.  Add inspiring cover art.
  • Use an accordion file or file cabinet for overflow paperwork (don’t need to take to appointments, but can’t toss yet either), depending on how much you have, or think you will have.
  • Order a free Livestrong Guidebook (Planner + Journal) from the Livestrong Foundation.
  • LIPA (Legal, Insurance, and Paperwork Assistance) is a program provided by the Cancer Services of New Mexico , along with a free
    13-pocket Cancer Treatment Organizer.
  • The CareBinders electronic record keeping system isn’t cheap, but it’s very comprehensive, and may be perfect for your needs.

Organizing Your Support System

People with support systems are healthier and recover more easily from illness than those without them.  Not everyone has a support system (a network of family, friends, neighbors, loved ones, and professionals), but hopefully you do, and this is the time to take advantage of it!  It can be uncomfortable to ask for help, but there are many free online tools available to make it easier for everyone involved.

  • Ask a trusted friend or relative to be your spokesperson (a strong, objective person to speak on your behalf).  This person can accompany you to medical appointments and keep others, with a need to know, apprised of your condition.
  • You, or your spokesperson, can use online tools such as Lotsa Helping Hands, Care Calendar, and/or Meal Train to let friends know what you need help with and schedule it.
  • GiveForward or GoFundMe will help you collect money, if needed.
  • Caring Bridge is a free web service that connects people experiencing a health challenge with their family and friends. It allows you (or your spokesperson) to provide medical updates once without having to explain everything over and over to each individual person who cares about you, which can be exhausting. If you are computer savvy, you can also use WordPress or another blogging tool for updates.
  • Facebook and other social media sites can help you stay in touch with friends at your leisure, and help you feel less isolated, especially when you aren’t up to receiving visitors.  Consider using this more for entertainment and social interaction rather than for serious medical updates unless, you want to be repeating yourself and reminded of your illness whenever you log on.
  • Additional Resources:  Manage Your Chronic Disease (MyCD) Program; New Mexico Cancer CenterPeople Living Through Cancer; Stand Up to Cancer

Organizing Your Home

A clutter-free home is much easier to maintain, and is less stressful to be confined to, than a cluttered one.  The more clutter-free and organized your living space is, and the more simplified your systems are, the easier it will be for you to physically get around the house and to keep your household functioning smoothly.  Here are some key areas and options for you to consider:

  • Your needs may range from a big decluttering project, warranting help from a professional organizer, to a maintenance-only plan that you can perform yourself in 15 minutes a day.  Clutter Diet is an affordable online clutter coaching program, and Fly Lady is a free one.  (Related Org4life blog posts: Six Organizing Systems Everyone Needs, and How to Create More S.P.A.C.E. in Your Life)
  • Manage incoming mail and paper using an Action File.  (Related Org4life blog post: Mystery Piles and Action Files)
  • Housekeeping can be included in your own daily routine, or provided by your support system.  You might even qualify for the Cleaning For a Reason program, which provides free house cleaning for cancer patients. (Note: This program might be available in your area, and you may indeed qualify, but please be aware that your local program might also be overloaded with requests. It’s worth asking, though.)
  • If you cannot provide your own meals, ask your support system for help.  Lotsa Helping Hands, Care Calendar, and/or Meal Train make it easier. Options for help with planning your own meals include Saving Dinner and The Six O’Clock Scramble.  Some communities (here’s a list) have places where you can go to prepare a meal without all the shopping, chopping and clean up.
  • Simplify your systems.  Do you really need lots of decorative pillows on your bed? Sure it looks nice, but consider the effort it takes to make your bed each day.  Do you  need to sort your laundry into so many different categories? How about just lights and darks, at least for now? How else can you simplify?
  • Family planning and scheduling aids include Cozi (free family calendar, shopping, grocery and to do lists, family journal, etc.), and Google Calendar, which allows calendar sharing.
  • Keep medications and medical supplies organized, handy, easy to use, and visible so you know what you’ve got on hand, what you need to take, and what you’ve already taken.  Make use of daily & weekly pill dispensers and other similar aids.

Organizing Your Self

It takes a positive mindset to overcome a severe or lengthy illness.  Do whatever you can to free yourself of mental clutter, and reserve your strength for building up your health and positive energy.  Here are some ideas:

  • Don’t try to remember everything!  And don’t make yourself have to get up and find a pen and paper every time you want to write something down.  Keep a little notebook handy in your pocket (or hung around your neck) to jot down reminders of calls you need to make, grocery list items, questions for doctors, etc.
  • Create and use Checklists to make your Morning Routine, Evening Routine, and Doctor Visits easier.  Keep them in your Control Binder. (Related Org4life blog posts: Make Your Own Checklists!, Keep Your Checklists Handy)
  • Give yourself a break! This is not the time to be beating yourself up for all the things you are not doing.  You don’t feel well, and you’re tired all the time. What you should be doing is recuperating!
  • Give yourself permission not to do so much by literally making a list of “back-burner” activities.  These are projects you will do, or resume doing, in the future…that is, if you still want to when your energy returns. 
  • Surround yourself with positive people, thoughts, books, films, and images. You don’t have the time and energy for negativity. A colleague with cancer has started a Pinterest board where she pins positive images and quotes that she finds for herself.
  • Don’t forget to be grateful.  Gratitude can be a huge happiness booster and stress reliever!  Start a gratitude journal.  Google it — there are apps for that these days!

 Here’s to a (relatively) stress-free illness, and to your full and speedy recovery!

Copyright 2011-2015 by Hazel Thornton, Organized For Life.
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  1. This is a fantastic compilation of resources! It can be so hard for patients and their family members to find the supports they need, but you’ve done a great job of finding what’s available and organizing the information.

  2. I agree–you’ve done an amazing job of collecting all those resources. I especially appreciate you mentioning the “don’t beat yourself up” piece. Even when feeling a little off, it’s easy to do that for those of us A-types.

    Thanks for a new resource. I will use it.

  3. […] This post was inspired by Albuquerque professional organizer Hazel Thornton’s blog article Organizing to De-Stress a Major Illness. With her permission I have put my own spin on her original content, which can be viewed here. […]

  4. Hazel, I love the idea of “back-burner” activities. It can apply to those recovering from an illness or anyone feeling the overwhelmed by all of their commitments. Great post.

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