Medicine Cabinet Antiquity Challenge

“Mrs. Smith, these frozen chicken breasts are from 2006. That’s pretty old.
Do you want us to throw them out?”

“No, I sauté them with a little butter, salt and pepper and they taste just fine.”
“But they must be bad for you.”
“I’m 92, they can’t be that bad.”

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I think about this conversation each time I explore our chest freezer and find items that resemble fossils. For most of us, it’s not just our freezers that have expired items, our pantries do too. So do our refrigerators, bathrooms and medicine cabinets.  For example, I recently found a jar of Henry and David Apple and Vidalia Onion relish. I remember tasting it in the store. It was delicious. Of course, the expiration date on the jar says 2007. While I am somewhat adventurous, that is too old even for me.

Most spices have a shelf life of up to 5 years. Some containers are marked with expiration dates, and most spice companies have guidelines on their websites as to how long the spice is good. Remember the little tin cans from McCormicks? If you have any, throw them out. With the exception of black pepper, McCormicks hasn’t made spices in tin cans since the 1990s. So what’s the harm of using expired spices? They probably won’t make you sick, but they won’t have much flavor either, or the flavor may have changed, so adding more may actually ruin your food. Some people believe that putting spices in your garden protect flowers from bugs and deer, so if putting them in the trash doesn’t sit well with you, you can always use them as a gardening aid.

I learned the perils of expired cosmetics the hard way. I was attending a wedding and decided to wear makeup, which I don’t often do. I guess “often” is not the right word, since years can go by between my makeup applications. At any rate, I applied the makeup, thought I looked pretty good, and then my eyes began killing me. “Wow, I really must be getting dry eye,” I thought, and made an appointment with my ophthalmologist. I explained what happened. “Your eyes are fine,” she said. “How old are the cosmetics?” Hummm. I wore eye makeup daily in my prior career before starting Moving Solutions, and I left in 1994…of course, the makeup wasn’t necessarily new when I left…so, say 15-18 years old, I told the doctor. “You can’t wear 15 year old cosmetics,” she said. “They develop bacteria.” Well, duh…I guess I should have known that. I went online and most sites recommend that once you open that blush, bronzer, concealer, eye shadow, eyeliner, foundation, lip liner, lipstick, mascara or other cosmetics product, you should only keep it for about three months. Even when products don’t become harmful, they can change smell, color and texture.  So into the trash went my decade-old cosmetics. I have a much smaller, new supply now, which I still wear infrequently.

Continuing on my expiration mission, I went to our medicine cabinet. Out went the Pepto Bismol, the bottom of which had solidified. Out went 6 bottles of nose spray, most over 3 years old, and dozens of unidentifiable cold pills that had been removed from their packages. These were joined by jars of left over antibiotics (with 2 or 3 capsules left because I had started to feel better). I assembled our collection of antibiotic ointments, and got rid of any that were more than 2 years old. I found 9 containers of sun block, most over 3 years old, and added them to the trash. I discovered 5 large unopened boxes of Q-tips. I expect that these have a long shelf-life, so we probably have a lifetime supply. Out went 3 jars of decade-old Vaseline, 11 partially used chapsticks, a dozen nail polishes (most solidified), 4 ancient body lotions, 3 huge extra firm hold hair sprays (do I even remember using hair spray?), 4 huge round hairbrushes (way too large for the short hair I’ve had short for over a decade), two curling irons, perfumes  (definitely can’t remember the last time I wore perfume), 4 tubes of muscle rub (now there is something I do use regularly) that were completely used up, and a heating pad whose cover had a disgusting growth on it. I found three hair dryers—good thing — I was thinking I needed to buy a new one, 9 unopened dental flosses (do they expire too??) and 6 brand new toothbrushes, so I parted with my old one (wonder how long I have been using that), so now there are just 5 new ones.

The ironic thing is, I would not have guessed that we had that much. It occupied a relatively small space; I am not even sure how it all fit. But my new medicine cabinet is a thing of beauty. Everything is organized in small white plastic baskets and three tiered shelves so there is clear visibility, and I know where everything is. When my husband asked where we now keep antibiotic ointment, I proudly told him, “in the white basket, third shelf down, in a small box holding 4 tubes of ointments”. He was impressed, and so was I. Being uncluttered, being in control, feels good.

So perhaps you are saying to yourself, “No way do I have that much stuff hanging around in my pantry or medicine closet.” Go ahead, empty your pantry and medicine cabinets and see. I challenge you.

In Defense of Plan B

In popular language, ‘Plan B’ is used to mean a reserved, secondary plan, in case a first plan (typically ‘Plan A’) fails. In short, Plan B is second best. I think Plan B gets a bad rap; there is a lot to be said for Plan B.

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Take the client whose house sells more quickly than expected, and who needs to live in temporary housing for several weeks or months until the new apartment is available. The client groans at the thought of moving twice — Plan B — until I remind her that having your home sell for a price you want, not going through weeks of living in a home while keeping it “market ready,” and not having the anxiety of waiting and wondering if the house will sell… is actually a good problem to have. The ironic thing is that when these clients finally move into their permanent home, having spent weeks or months with things in storage, they invariably decide they did just fine with a lot less around them, and when things come out of storage, most end up parting with things they had previously thought “essential.”

Conventional wisdom is that it is best to sort through and dispose of everything not going with you before you move. But take the husband who announces, “I’ve been caregiving for my wife 24/7 for five years, and I am used up.” He is being clear that he is maxed out, so the solution for him is Plan B — a “new home” or “stays here” move plan that minimizes his pre-move involvement.  After the move, when his wife is being cared for by others, he can return to the house, better equipped physically and emotionally to make plans for items not taken.

Or take the couple, both very frail, who qualify – just barely – for independent living. It’s clear to everyone involved that they will soon need much more support, and that it might be easier for them to move once—directly into assisted living. Except the move to independent living is the move they are willing to make at this time, so Plan B, which will ultimately require another move, is the plan that gets them out of their three-story house.

As Senior Move Managers, it’s common for us to visit homes that have piles of paper in every room: mail, insurance forms, receipts, paid and unpaid bills, lists and notes, investment records, coupons…you name it. Rather than move piles that should be shredded or disposed of, it makes sense to urge the client to sort through the papers, right? Wrong. If the client could stand sorting through and organizing papers, she wouldn’t have piles of paper everywhere. Instead of asking her to do what is clearly a struggle for her, let’s develop Plan B — a move plan that enables her to be successful with things she doesn’t mind doing. The Senior Move Manager packs all her papers into boxes so later, when the stress of moving is over, she’ll be better positioned to tackle tasks that are a challenge.

The proverb “Perfect is the enemy of good,” attributed to Voltaire, is one of my favorite sayings. It reminds me of the Pareto principle, or 80-20 rule— that it commonly takes 20% of the time to complete 80% of the task, while the last 20% takes 80% of the effort. It’s not that achieving perfection is impossible, it’s that the increased effort often results in diminishing returns as further activity becomes increasingly inefficient. This principle speaks to the client who “must” recycle and dispose of everything properly, as well as to the Senior Move Manager who is adamant that every carton be unpacked and put away.

So Plan B is my plan of choice. Not because it is lesser or easier. Plan B is where wisdom meets reality and comes up with a solution.