Keeping a home clean can be a challenge under normal circumstances. Trying to do it when you also have chronic physical health issues is even more demanding.
I have been living for over a decade with two autoimmune conditions that affect my energy and mobility. Given the nature of my work, I spent years pushing myself to keep up with my past cleaning standards, even though sometimes it meant I felt worse for days. To break the over-exertion/over-exhaustion cycle, I needed a sustainable approach to cleaning house with chronic illness. Now, I want to share what I’ve learned with you.
It can feel like you’re letting loved ones down when illness keeps you from being as active or able-bodied as someone in perfect health. Some disabled people respond by overcompensating to show their condition isn’t getting the better of them. Others wait until their symptoms aren’t as bad, then push themselves to catch-up or get ahead on tasks. The result is usually the same either way: you pay for it by feeling worse for days, sometimes longer.
Use a Different Standard
So why do we overcompensate, even though it makes us feel worse? The answer involves our beliefs about what a home should like, or what being a good parent, partner, or spouse involves. Whether you’re basing those beliefs on an imaginary 1950s housewife, or the public personas of social media “cleaning influencers,” they’re still fictional. Neither makes space for health limitations, because neither allows anything less than perfection. If you have health issues and are trying to keep your home as clean as a fictional ideal, you’re punishing yourself for your condition. That’s as unfair as it sounds.
Adapt Cleaning Routines to Suit You
Maybe you’ve tried using cleaning checklists and routines that left you exhausted. Even non-disabled people experience this. It happens because people treat checklists like assignments, but they’re not. A routine is a sequence for cleaning the room efficiently. A checklist lays out the steps of the sequence. Labels like daily, weekly, or monthly help people prioritize tasks—they aren’t laws.
Adapt cleaning routines to match the time and energy you have, instead of treating them as a one-size-fits-all approach. If you only do a few things, they still count. When you are ready, continue from where you left off and once you’ve finished the list, you’ve finished the room. There are no deadlines, so don’t hold yourself to an imaginary one.
Evaluate Your Energy Daily
Avoid scheduling cleaning for specific days if your illness means your pain, energy, or mobility fluctuates from one day to the next. You’ll get angry with yourself if you can’t stick with the plan, or you may ignore what your body is telling you and push through it. Neither is helpful in managing your home. Instead, check in with your body and mind every morning. Are you feeling energetic? In pain? Foggy? Do a self-assessment before making a cleaning plan for the day. Then, learn how to triage household tasks so you know which to prioritize.
Triage IS PRIORITIZING
The concept of triage started with battlefield medicine, where the lack of resources requires scheduling treatment based on need and the likelihood of success. Applied to cleaning your home, it means tending the most important areas first.
The first place to clean is where you—the chronically ill person doing the cleaning—will relax once you’re done. Making sure this spot is ready ensures you’ll be able to rest once you’re done, so you’ll regain your energy and strength faster, too. (I explain this approach further in this YouTube video.) After that, clean the food preparation surfaces and bathroom surfaces. These have a direct impact on health, and will develop harmful germs if neglected. Whether you continue to clean is up to you, but make that decision based on your health and energy level after tending those three spots.
Have High and Low Energy Lists
No two people’s experience of chronic illness are the same. What may seem taxing for one person may seem easier for another. Even then, someone’s symptoms on Monday may be entirely different from Tuesday. That’s why it’s so important to remain flexible about cleaning your home when you have health limitations.
Having lists of tasks you can handle on high and low energy days lets you match activities to energy levels, so you can end the day feeling productive without all the pressure. On high energy days, knock out what you can but pace yourself. On low energy days, have a list of things to do if you want to still feel productive.
Low Energy Tasks
Don’t expect much out of yourself when you wake up mentally or physically exhausted. There’s nothing wrong with taking the day off and resting. Protecting your health is always the highest priority. If you’re determined to be productive, do the home triage, then stick with low-energy tasks.
Low energy tasks are activities that don’t require physical strength or stamina, but also don’t require mental clarity—like remembering sequences or steps—since mental exhaustion often accompanies physical pain. What feels low energy for one person may feel high energy for another. So, listen to your body and decide what doesn’t require much strength or stamina out of you.
- Wipe kitchen counters
- Rinse the sink and spray with a disinfectant
- Load dishes if you’re able
- Use a disinfecting wipe on bathroom faucets
- Use a disinfecting wipe on the toilet seat
- Make your bed, even if it’s just pulling up the covers
- Carry any bedside dishes to the kitchen
- Other activities you have the energy to do while seated
High energy tasks are those which require more physical effort or stamina. They may also involve remembering specific sequences or timings. If you wake feeling strong and full of pep, do your home triage, then choose a few high energy activities or a room to clean. Don’t work with a result in mind, or you may push yourself too hard trying to reach it. Instead, check in with your body, then stop when your energy wanes. Stop before you run out of energy—not once you’re already exhausted—and you’ll recover more quickly.
- Scrub kitchen countertops and the backsplash
- Clean appliances
- Wipe cabinet fronts and handles
- Clean and disinfect bathroom sinks and faucets
- Clean and disinfect the tub, shower, and toilet
- Change beds
- Polish mirrors
- Dust and polish furniture
- Sweep or vacuum and mop floors
- Empty and clean trash cans
You Do Not Have to Earn Rest
It is absolutely okay to do nothing. You don’t need permission and you don’t have to earn it. This is true for anyone of any ability. There is so much pressure these days to maximize productivity and “hustle.” It’s toxic. Rest is not a reward that anyone has to earn by ticking boxes on a checklist, and that is doubly true for someone experiencing chronic health issues. Your home is not you. Clean or messy, organized or cluttered, your home is not you. Take care of you first, because you are what matters.
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