7 Things to Do When You're Mostly Housebound Due to Illness

Due to chronic pain and illness, I’ve had over 16 years to adjust to being mostly housebound. Here are seven ideas for living a purposeful and fulfilling life even if you’re stuck at home.

1. Bring the outdoors indoors.

I’ve found that the best way to do this is to grow plants indoors. You could start a little herb garden. It won’t take up much space and, if you don’t have natural sunlight coming in, you can put the plants under a bright lamp for a few hours a day.

A couple of years ago, I started growing bonsai after my daughter’s family gave me a cute little juniper tree for my birthday. At first, I thought the juniper would be all I could handle, but they also gave me a book full of beautiful photos of trees, some of which could be grown indoors. (Many people don’t realize that growing bonsai indoors is a relatively new phenomenon; if you saw a bonsai when you were visiting someone, he or she most likely brought it in from the outdoors temporarily so that you could enjoy it.)



I love growing trees in my bedroom. I’d never imagined I could do this before. Currently, I have five trees: a jade, an umbrella tree (also known as  a schefflera), a flowering mimosa and two different species of ficus. The umbrella tree and one of the ficus have multiple trunks, so each of them looks like a little forest. (Unfortunately, the juniper died because I wasn’t yet skilled enough at handling the extra care it required since it’s really an outdoor tree.)

Growing bonsai can be expensive, but there are ways to get around that. For example, you’re supposed to buy a “root hook,” which is a tool to comb out the roots in preparation for pruning them back when they get impacted. Instead of a root hook, I use a kitchen fork (a nice online tip).

You can also buy fancy water meters that tell you the precise water content of the soil, so you know when to water them. Instead, I push my finger down into the soil about a quarter of an inch to see if it’s dry and needs water (another online tip). This works fine!

In addition, you can buy expensive books on caring for bonsai but, as you can tell from the two paragraphs above, everything you need to know can be found on the internet for free. Just Google “bonsai” and then add words for whatever you need to know: watering, fertilizing, pruning, etc.

And as for buying them? To my surprise, there are inexpensive and moderately-priced plants on the web, including Amazon.

Growing these bonsai has done more for me than just “bringing the outdoors indoors” because I’ve also had to learn a new skill. And, except for that juniper, so far, the trees are thriving.

2. Undertake a modest beautification project.

A few years ago, I took up doing jigsaw puzzles all the time. I started doing this because I was at a low point in my chronic illness and, to be honest, in addition to keeping up this writing, sitting in bed and putting puzzles together was all I could handle.

Jigsaw puzzles can be expensive if you get high quality ones, so what I did was buy ones with beautiful paintings on them (especially from the impressionists) and then, after a few weeks, take one apart and do it over again.

After puzzles are completed, many people spray them with fixative and put them up on the wall. I couldn’t do that because I was taking them apart and doing them over. So, instead, I displayed them after they were done by putting them down on any empty surface I could find – a dresser, a table in the living room, even the back of the toilet. Some are still there and they look great!

So, that’s one idea. Here’s another. You could take a small space and fix it up so it looks particularly nice. The other day, I realized one corner of the living room had become a depository for stuff, some of which we hadn’t used for years. It only took me 10 minutes clean out that corner and wipe the dust away. Then I put a statue we had of Kuan Yin in its place. Declutter and beautification at the same time!

3. Take up an art or craft.

I’ve experimented with many arts and crafts since becoming mostly housebound. Some are beyond my energetic abilities. One example of that is when I tried fabric painting. My idea was to use non-toxic dyes like Dyna-Flo and create designs on silk scarves I could then give away to people. Unfortunately, the set-up and the clean-up alone used up all my energy, so those materials were soon boxed up and taken to our local SPCA store.

What can I do? I can crochet and I can sew. (I can’t knit because of arthritis in my fingers.) I’m also trying watercolor; instead of standing or sitting at an easel, I recline in a lounger and bring the paper close to me. I’ll see how that goes. One advantage of watercolor (or drawing) over something like oils or acrylics is that the set-up and clean-up are relatively easy.

And I can also write from my bed…usually in small spurts of time. You might try writing poetry or keeping a diary. It can be so satisfying to get your thoughts down on paper and then read them over and make them more articulate and expressive.

4. Discover the world of podcasts.

I had no idea this was such a resource until a friend suggested I listen to one about an eccentric living in the southern U.S. It was riveting. You can find podcasts on every imaginable subject. What amazes me about the ones that follow a person’s life is that, no matter how ordinary people appear to be, everyone is interesting and unique in some way.

5. Keep your brain sharp with puzzles or by studying something new.

I’ve mentioned jigsaw puzzles. You might like crossword puzzles or Sudoku. As for studying something new, think about what you’d like to understand or appreciate better. It could be an historical era or it could be learning a new cooking technique. Your new endeavor might only involve studying or it might be practical and require you to do stuff (like cook!).

Set a time each day to study, but be flexible. If you don’t feel well enough one day, skip studying or practicing. The time you devote to it shouldn’t be longer than you can handle – even 10 or 15 minutes will do. You can study from books or the internet. I’ve discovered that when I find a book I like at Amazon, it’s usually available from the Amazon Marketplace at a price that’s less than the $3.99 it costs to have it shipped! Barnes & Noble has the same service I think.

Also, you can learn an amazing array of new skills from podcasts and from YouTube. (I use YouTube a lot and only wish I didn’t have to wait through the ads that seem to be showing up more frequently these days; I can pay to get them to go away, but I don’t want to spend money on that.)

In addition, many classes are available on the web for free. Try sites such as Khan Academy or Coursera.

6. Foster at least one email relationship, where you write back and forth, conversationally, as if you were friends meeting over coffee or tea.

This has made such a difference in my life. Since becoming chronically ill in 2001, I’ve had two such friends. Unfortunately, one of them died, but we were friends until the end even though she lived on the other side of the world from me – I’m in California and she was in the Blue Mountains, outside of Sydney, Australia.

In addition to sharing the details of our lives, including our fears about her condition, we had so much fun together. We’d play a silly game called Fishdom on our computers and then send each other screenshots of the fancy aquariums we were building. We did this even when she was unable, toward the end, to get out of bed at all. It made us laugh.

Today, I have a close close friend who lives across the country from me. We write to each other every other day or so. We share our lives: how we feel, what we’re up to, what’s going on in our families. It’s as if we’re sitting in the same room together. Her friendship enriches my life tremendously.

You may not think there’s such a person in your life. I encourage you to try to find one (it might be a family member). If you look, you may just stumble on the right person to get really close to. I did – twice.

7. Work on feeling happy for those you care about who are out there in the world doing fun things.

I’ve found this to be helpful when I’m acutely and painfully aware that I’m missing out on something special. About a year and a half ago, all of my family and a few close friends gathered in Reno, Nevada for its annual rib fest over the Labor Day Weekend. It’s rare even for my immediate family to be all together at once, so this was truly special (even though I was missing from the count). It’s not easy to be housebound when those you love are not just gathering together but have made plans for fun things to do.

I could feel the blues descending on me, and so I worked on imagining the fun they were having. I made it as vivid as I could. Eventually, because I love them and want them to have a good time, I was happy for them…and that made me feel good. The sadness never went away, but I’ve learned I can be “happy-sad” at the same time.


In the comments section, I hope you’ll share what you’ve found to do at home that’s fulfilling.

Toni Bernhard was a law professor at the University of California – Davis. She is the author of “How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers,” “How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow,” and “How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide.” She can be found online at her self-titled site, Toni Bernhard.

This post originally appeared on Psychology Today.

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