Thursday, December 24, 2015

Holiday Expectations vs. Reality

One of the greatest causes of holiday blues is a lingering, stubborn insistence on wishing for holidays  to be as they were so many years ago.

You may think longingly of the time of dreamy innocence, of your childhood Christmases where you counted the days until Santa came, sang in the children's choir for Christmas Eve services, enjoyed the day with extended family so loved then and now so missed now.

You may think wistfully of your children's childhood holidays, the effort you took in making Christmas special for them, delighting in their excitement and innocence.

Or you may think of your first married Christmas and the joy you shared of so many firsts to come, so many plans, so many dreams.

None of us can go back and experience the holidays in quite the same way as we did as children or newlyweds or young parents. And, if you think about it, maybe you wouldn't want to.

No holidays, even those you remember so wistfully, were ever totally perfect.

Think of the time when your family was young and growing  and you were feeling torn between wanting to please parents and in-laws by showing up at their celebrations while wanting to create some family traditions of your own.

Think of the times during your childhood Christmases when fancy dresses grew scratchy, large family dinners were so very long and Santa didn't always bring you your fondest wish.

But life went on and what you choose to remember from those times are the best moments -- the excitement of the holiday, your mother's pies and cookies, the delicious feeling of being embraced by family.

Life may be very different now. You may have passed the pleasure of hosting the family holiday meal to an adult child with bittersweet feelings  -- feeling a special time in your life passing while enjoying being a guest. Or you may find yourself alone this holiday season. Maybe you recently lost a beloved parent or spouse. Maybe your kids are grown up and scattered nationwide. Maybe there has been a family rift that hasn't healed in time for the holidays.

There are so many things that can make this holiday seem less than merry if you're busy looking back.

What would happen if you let yourself simply be in the present?

Now is the time to notice the signs of the season all around you: the special music, the crispness in the air, the Christmas cards in the mailbox, the scents and sights of holiday treats, the warm wishes that surround you if you listen.

Now is the time to make or honor new traditions. Since the tragic death of her lifelong friend Jill, my friend Mary has made lunch with Jill's husband, now in failing health himself, a Christmas tradition. She visits him bearing his favorite guilty pleasure -- a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken --and they spend the afternoon together, revisiting the past, enjoying the present. My friends Bob and Dale host an "Orphans Holiday" dinner for friends who, like them, have no family nearby. Another friend Mike volunteers to bring cheer and tasty treats to homeless shelters. He says that this has become such a cherished tradition for him that he can't imagine spending the holiday any other way.

Now is the time to make this Christmas your own, to do what pleases you. Maybe you want to watch holiday videos. Or spend a day bundled in a quilt, reading a fat novel and eating leftover Chinese food right out of the container. Maybe you want to organize a special dinner with friends -- a potluck or a party at a restaurant. Maybe you want to spend this Christmas doing for others -- helping to feed the needy through your church or other charitable group or helping to distribute toys to sick or disadvantaged children. Maybe this quiet holiday season is the perfect time to give a loving little animal a forever home by adopting a cat or dog from your local shelter.

Now is the time to let modern technology link you to loved ones -- with Skype or FaceTime visits to share holiday cheer.

Now is the time to feel the inner peace of gratitude --for all blessings of your life, however small, however far away.

Warmest holiday wishes to all my friends in the blogosphere. However and wherever you're celebrating -- with a crowd or whether you're alone this holiday -- I send you my love and best wishes for a wonderful 2016!

Saturday, December 5, 2015

When a Loved One Has Habits Hazardous to Health

The email from a dear friend arrived a few days ago, filled with concern and frustration. Her significant other had just had a horrifying blood pressure event that temporarily disabled him and landed him in the local hospital ER for most of Thanksgiving Day. She said that, despite high blood pressure and diabetes, he ate all manner of junk food from pizza to bakery treats. Despite the recent scare, he seemed unconcerned about his future health and resistant to her help and suggestions.

We chatted about this online for awhile and reviewed possibilities. For a long time after our conversation, I thought about her situation and how similar it is to so many other couples I know as friends or have seen as patients.

How do you help a loved one stop self-sabotage? How do you intervene when you see someone you love mired in an unhealthy lifestyle --whether he or she is eating or drinking all the wrong things or in line to set a couch potato record? What do you do when a partner rejects your healthy suggestions either directly or through passive resistance?

State your case and then step back. Don't nag. It reinforces stubborn resistance.  Express your observations about an unhealthy habit or habits and your concern about how this might impact his or her health. Keep your tone loving, not judgmental or carping. Let your partner know that your concern comes from love, from wanting him or her to have the longest healthy life possible.

Give subtle encouragement: meals that are healthy yet delicious -- spaghetti squash or spiral veggies instead of pasta, fruit in place of pie.  There are celebration meals, of course, when only pie or cake will do. But for everyday meals, keep the sugar and carbs at a minimum and maximize your use of vegetables. If you're the usual cook in the family, that is fairly easy. If you share cooking duties with your spouse or he or she does most of the cooking, volunteer to cook more and choose healthy alternatives to your usual favorites. Make it more convenient to grab a healthy snack -- a piece of fruit, cut up vegetables with hummus or a healthy dip. Banish the old junk snacks -- the potato chips, cookies, crackers and candy -- and see how you and your spouse do without these, one day at a time.

Turn the situation around and ask for help yourself.  Instead of focusing on your partner's health challenges, share your concerns about your own health with special requests -- e.g. to eat out less and enjoy more home cooked meals, to take an evening walk together, to join a gym. Encourage your partner to try new ways of eating and exercise routines along with you -- to enjoy more time together, more healthy food adventures together and the prospect of a healthy future for both of you.

Ask how you can help.  If you want to help your loved one build a healthy lifestyle, ask him or her how you can best help. While we might assume that facts, statistics, news reports and charts as well as regular lectures and occasional nagging would be most helpful, what would feel most supportive to your loved one might be something entirely different. You won't know unless you ask. Your loved one might do better if you share your concern and then back off, supporting positive results and letting go of the need to oversee or control the outcome of his or her efforts to change. He or she might appreciate it if you keep trigger foods out of the house (it's amazing how many spouses criticize the other for eating too many sweets but keep these around for themselves because they don't have a weight problem!).

Make a gentle, but startling observation: there are some things worse than death. Some people who overeat all the wrong things and skimp on exercise get defensive when spouses tell them that they may be shortening their lives with unhealthy habits. Perhaps in denial about how fragile life and good health can become as we age, they reply with stubborn bravado that they'd rather die happy with chocolate in hand or joke that a healthy lifestyle doesn't make life longer, just seem longer. But, for many of us, the prospect of a disabling health catastrophe can be more frightening than death. To be rendered helpless by a stroke, by COPD, by heart failure or diabetic complications, to be dependent on others to perform the most routine of daily tasks from bathing to using the toilet, for example, can be torture for someone who has been proud and independent.

I see this in a friend's husband who has become an invalid via a perfect storm of ailments. He was once a powerful corporate executive who traveled the world. He ate, drank and smoked excessively and was too busy to worry much about his expanding waistline. Now his wife and a full-time attendant change his diapers, bathe him, lift him from bed to wheelchair and feed him soft foods. Not all of his disabilities are a result of his previous lifestyle, of course. Some may be genetic, some just plain bad luck. But the fact is, he has lived quite a significant portion of his later years with a very poor quality of life. He is frustrated, humiliated and profoundly sad at this turn of events.

It may help to remind your own loved one that becoming helpless with prolonged disability can make for very poor quality of life and, in many cases, this can be prevented by wise choices now.

I just got another email from my friend with the stubborn significant other. She reports that, by mutual agreement, the junk food is gone, they're walking several miles a day and vegetables are a larger part of their daily meals. She says that they're both feeling better and more optimistic about the future.

None of us can know what the future holds for us, but it makes sense to tip the balance in our favor with healthy habits now so that we and our loved ones can live fully and in good health for as long as possible.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Living With Gratitude

Lying in bed last night, listening to a steady rain pounding on our tile roof, I felt a wave of gratitude for shelter and warmth, something I never take for granted.

This is the time of year when we give thanks -- for family and friends and a wonderful holiday meal.

But, whatever our circumstances, there is so much else that can inspire gratitude.

What makes you grateful? What makes you feel blessed?

I am grateful for advancing age, even as I complain about everyday creaks and pains, even though my gait is slower and a bit unsteady, I am grateful for having lived longer already than my parents, who both died in their mid-sixties. I am glad to be old rather than young in an era that seems less kind, less socially mobile, than when I was growing up.

While the 1950's and 1960's were far from perfect, especially for people of color and women, there seemed to be more hope. We were convinced that if we worked hard, got an education and skills, we could get a good job with benefits and maybe a pension. Companies tended to keep their promises back then. We didn't hear much if anything about extended unpaid internships and legions of contract employees with no benefits and no job security. We could put ourselves through college, even a private college, with a good financial aid package and a willingness to work campus and summer jobs.

That is impossible for young people today who are emerging from college with crippling student loans and, in too many cases, lean prospects for steady work. My heart goes out to them as I think with gratitude of my own college and work experiences. Getting through school with parents unable to help me financially wasn't easy, but it was possible.

I am grateful for friends of all types and descriptions -- for those of many years like Mary Breiner, Tim Schellhardt, Jeanne Yagi and Pat Hill who feel like family to me and newer ones I'm just getting to know, for friends nearby and those at a distance, including some wonderful blogging friends I've never met face-to-face but treasure nonetheless. I feel blessed by all the friends in my life, rejoicing in the warm connection.

I am grateful for family: for my loving husband Bob Stover, by my side for 40 years now, in good times and bad, in closeness and in distance, in challenge and in growth; for my two beloved, inimitable siblings Mike and Tai and their families, my wonderful cousins. How blessed we are to have shared memories, quiet understanding and enduring love.

I am grateful for the pain and challenges of the past. I've learned so much from the love relationships that didn't work out, from some jobs that were so trying, I fought tears to and from work, from the disappointments that were inevitable -- the articles or books that didn't sell, the friendships that didn't last, the dreams that never came true. I'm convinced that I learned more, grew more, from these disappointments and setbacks than I ever did from success. I tended to accept successes -- especially early in my life -- as simply my due. The times of pain and disappointment caused me to look within, to rally resources I didn't realize I had, to find new paths and new ways of being.

I am grateful for daily companionship of pets -- from Hughey, a big white, gentle duck and my most dearly loved childhood pet, to little Ollie, my three-legged black kitten. I feel blessed by the memories of animal companions no longer with me -- cats who made such a difference in my life with Bob: our first cat Freddie, the miraculous duo Gus and Timmy, the latter of whom, with a later cat Marina, became a therapy cat and the subject of my book "Purr Therapy: What Timmy and Marina Taught Me About Life, Love and Loss." Those cats are all gone now -- Gus left us just a year ago. Each loss is unique, each cat irreplaceable. And our current four -- Maggie, Sweet Pea, Hamish and Ollie -- brighten our days with purring, cuddling, kisses and eccentricities that make us smile.

I am grateful for the blessings of my life -- a great education, having several professions I love, and a reasonable level of success. I'm not exactly famous and definitely not rich. But I feel very fortunate to have worked and still work doing what I truly enjoy. I don't take that for granted for one minute. I've had enough day jobs to know the difference between a job and a calling.

I am grateful for the culture in which I came of age: middle class, then with our family struggling financially after my father lost his job and could never get another, in an affluent community and learning to live with being different; Catholic schools in elementary and high school, complete with stodgy uniforms and strict nuns. In elementary school, our class size hovered around 60, always presided over by a nun just off the boat from Ireland, with a stout ruler and a talent for sarcasm that made any physical punishment pale in comparison. No one seemed to worry about tarnishing our self-esteem. But there were some nuns -- like Sister Rita and Sister Ramona -- who cared deeply and who made a tremendous difference in my life -- and the lives of many others. They were strict. They expected a lot. They let us know that the world didn't revolve around us. But they gave so much love and encouragement as well. They taught us to work hard, to show up, to honor our promises. And I have been grateful at many points in my life for such early expectations.

I am grateful to have lived long enough to see the technological revolution and to enjoy everything from personal computers to virtual reality, tablets and smart phones, blogging and podcasting. I think sadly how much fun and how much opportunity my parents missed by dying in 1980 or even that Aunt Molly, who died in 2004, never lived to see and experience.

I am grateful just to be...grateful for each dawning day. I've always greeted a new day with gratitude -- probably since being terrorized by the childhood prayer "Now I lay me down to sleep" with its provision for "if I should die before I wake.." But this gratitude has a keener edge, a greater depth of knowing these days.

Only a few weeks ago, my husband Bob and I were talking with our friends Joe Shea and Marsha Morello in the supermarket parking lot, laughing, teasing, making plans to get together. Now sadly, so suddenly, Joe is gone and Marsha overwhelmed, devastated, by his unexpected death. It all started with a fall in his home, a broken hip, then a stroke as he lay in the hospital. And we are left longing to help her to heal and missing him so much.

I recently spoke on the phone with Ruth Woodling, my only surviving college roommate who is an attorney in Atlanta and just had a festive birthday. The other three -- Cheryl Rennix, Lorraine Scace and Lorie Caldwell -- died many years ago in youthful midlife. Speaking with Ruth and sharing our experiences reminded me how just much the other three, all wonderful, amazing women, have missed.

And there are other friends whose health is failing, who are nearing the end of life...and, even as we watch and hope for better days and more time for them, we're increasingly aware of the fragility of all our lives.

So each day that I wake up healthy, with energy and with hope, or, someday, a day when I simply wake up, is a day to give thanks.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Two Wonderful Books For The Gift-Giving Season

It's fascinating to see how much wisdom, humor and growth can come from adversity.

We've all experienced this to varying degrees: living through something we thought was catastrophic and completely overwhelming. Now, looking back, what resonates most is the way this event, while perhaps still painful in memory, has led us onto a new life path.

As the gift-giving season approaches, I'd like to recommend a pair of books by two remarkable people -- Tom Sightings and Andrea Cleghorn. Both are wonderful writers who weathered crises in midlife and survived, even thrived, to write about their respective journeys. The results are two inspiring books both available at

You Only Retire Once by Tom Sightings is a lively, informative, truly helpful book that is also immensely entertaining. It is a collection of his best blog posts from his popular "Sightings Over Sixty" blog (Sightings Over Sixty: Think About It) Written for would-be or new retirees, it covers information you've always wanted to know -- from whether retirement is possible when you're definitely not a millionaire to making a decision about whether or not to buy long-term care insurance to some insightful pieces on emotional preparation for and adjustment to retirement. 

The inspiration for Tom's blog and this book began with a triple life challenge: his long-time marriage was ending in divorce, his kids were grown up and leaving the nest and he got laid-off from his job. He found comfort in writing -- both blogging and freelance assignments. He is now in a loving relationship and enjoys visits from his children and hers. Life, after all the initial shock and sadness, is good -- and in his inspiring book, Tom shares some valuable insights about retirement, aging and good self-care, both physically and emotionally. A businessman and a professional writer, Tom bases his material not only on his own thoughts and experiences, but also on solid research for a comprehensive guide on making the most of life beyond sixty.

You Only Retire Once  is a must-have for those on your gift list who are dreaming of or actively planning for retirement or those newly retired. And even those of us who have been retired for awhile and think we know everything there is to know about thriving in retirement can learn a lot from Tom's terrific book. It is also a great gift for those who, like me, are great fans of Tom's blog!

The Whipple Brunch by Andrea Cleghorn is fascinating mix: it is, at once, the horrifying, funny, devastating and, ultimately, uplifting story of triumph over truly challenging life events -- thanks to Andrea's amazing resilience and some help from her friends.

Andrea, a journalist and writing/life coach, spent many years as a columnist, book reviewer and travel writer for The Boston Herald. Her articles also have appeared in many national magazines. Not so incidentally, she is also a dear friend of mine, with a shared professional beginning: we both started our careers at 'TEEN Magazine in Los Angeles and, in midlife, both of us decided to take career jogs into helping professions. I went back to graduate school in clinical psychology to become a psychotherapist. Andrea returned to graduate school, getting her Master's degree in social work, and was planning a parallel new career in serving the underserved.

But then life handed her some major surprises: a painful mid-life divorce, the challenge and joys of being a single parent, a devastating fire that destroyed her beautiful 100-year-old house. She, her children and her aging mother barely escaped with their lives while their beloved labrador retriever was lost in the blaze.

And then there was her cancer diagnosis. First, it was a large tumor in her left kidney. The cancerous tumor and the kidney were removed. A few years later, the cancer recurred in her left adrenal gland. Surgery seemed to solve the problem. But nine cancer-free years later, there was another, more dire, diagnosis: the cancer was now in her only remaining kidney and had spread to her pancreas. The only real chance for her survival was a drastic, highly risky surgical procedure called the Whipple, where most of her abdominal organs would be removed and either excised or cleansed and put back together in new fashion. If a patient survives the surgery, there is a very long and hard recovery period. She refers to the Whipple procedure as "The Abdominal Extravaganza."

Andrea faced this pivotal point in her life while dealing with everyday realities familiar to all of us: grown children at a distance, an aging mother who needed her help, the need to earn an income and the blessing of some very good local friends.

The Whipple Brunch takes us on the journey with her -- through the pain, love, tears and laughter that she and her friends and family shared during that time of frightening decisions, painful recovery and re-embracing life.

Before you turn away with the understandable reaction of "Oh, no! Not another cancer memoir! So depressing..." be assured that this is not your typical cancer memoir. It's a celebration of life and of friendship -- particularly the friends who stepped up and helped her when she was truly helpless. They went to appointments with her, were there for her as she struggled to decide whether to risk the surgery, took turns sitting with her in the hospital, visited her mother in assisted living and helped make Andrea's life festive at the most unexpected times -- like throwing a wedding celebration with tiaras and cake in Andrea's hospital room while watching the televised wedding of William and Kate. Celebrations are at the heart of this book. Just before her surgery, Andrea threw a lavish brunch for her friends and called it "The Whipple Brunch." Now, nearly five years later, her friends are throwing another brunch today to celebrate her new book!

It's well worth celebrating: she has an amazing ability to find humor in some of life's most painful moments and the spirit of this book -- so filled with wit and gratitude -- is immensely uplifting.

Both of these books would make terrific gifts for special people on your list this holiday season-- or you might consider giving yourself the gift of You Only Retire Once and The Whipple Brunch.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Start of the Holiday (and Memory) Season

I felt a sudden lifting of spirits when I saw the first twinkling lights that told me that Holiday Season 2015 is officially here: the lights were strung on my neighbors Joe and Pat Cosentino's golf cart at the staging area of the Sun City Anthem Candy Caravan 2015.

2015 Halloween Candy Caravan

We started the Caravan five years ago, having come from places where kids swarmed our front porches in search of treats on Halloween night. But no kids crossed from the all ages section of our community to Sun City on Halloween night 2010. Our doorbells didn't ring. Our spirits sagged...until we decided to hop in our golf carts, bowls of candy in hand, and drive over to the all-ages part of the community in search of kids. Since then, it has become a highlight of October, a great start to the holidays. Even after Bob and I sold our golf cart to get a small second car two years ago, I have continued to participate thanks to Joe and Pat, who invite me to ride along in their golf car jumpseat to distribute Halloween treats.

This year was as festive as ever. Kids and their parents (who suddenly looked impossibly young) were out in force. We loved seeing kids in their costumes, loved their excitement, enjoyed their sweetness. While the smallest celebrants, experiencing their first Halloween or their first walking trick or treat time were especially sweet as they alternately smiled at the treats and glanced around bewildered, struggling to make sense of all these people in the streets. And there are always some standouts in our memories.

Several years ago, a little blonde girl dressed as an angel lit up as I leaned over the front seat of my golf cart to offer her some treats. She carefully selected one and then sprang into the passenger seat of the cart, kneeling to face me and planting a chocolaty kiss on my cheek. "Oh, thank you!" she said. "Thank you so very, very much!" And then she slipped down and skipped away.

This heart-warming hit with all of us this year was a little boy who tried to give us all candy after we had given him treats. "I want you to have a Happy Halloween, too," he said earnestly, extending a Twix. "I want to share."

Our hearts melted at the innocence and joy we saw on his face and the faces of so many other kids dancing around the sidewalks and streets, wishing everyone a Happy Halloween.

We were so busy enjoying the kids and giving out treats that we forgot to take pictures this year. So for 2015, the holiday spirit poster kids are my dear friend Tim Schellhardt's two young granddaughters Lucy and Leah Yarbrough, the children of Eliza and Chris Yarbrough of Craig, Colorado. Lucy, who is 18 months old, was experiencing her first ambulatory trick or treating as a duckling while Leah, 3 months old, just enjoyed all the excitement around her, smiling in her pumpkin hat.

Lucy Yarbrough

                                                      Leah Yarbrough

I couldn't help but smile, too, looking at these two beautiful little girls at the sweet beginnings of their lifetimes of holiday celebrations. It put me in memory mode -- something that happens off and on to a lot of us during the holidays. I was remembering back, through time, when my own life was new, with so much holiday excitement around me and so much to come.

I had a flood of memories about Halloweens past.

A few of them proved less than stellar -- usually times when my mother's sense of the perfect costume and mine didn't exactly coincide.

There was the Halloween when I was five, slinking disconsolately from door to door dressed as a pig and behind the horrendously hot pig mask, I was suffering my very first of many, many toothaches though I didn't dare tell my mother just yet -- because I didn't want to miss a minute of trick or treating.

Then there was the Halloween when I was nine and suddenly in the full grip of puberty, having shot up to my adult height of 5'4" that year. I self-consciously hid my face while holding out my treat bag at every door because the only costume my mother could find that would fit my new adult shape and was not a sexy French maid or Can-Can girl outfit was a giant, furry skunk ensemble. Although nobody made fun of my skunk outfit, there a few newer neighbors who didn't know me and who made comments like "Aren't you a little old to be doing this?" I realized anew the downside of looking so much older than I really was, mourning a childhood ending way ahead of schedule.

But most of my Halloweens past were great fun. Costume-wise, nothing topped my brother Mike's turn as a nun when he was ten. Several years before, my mother had made a nun's costume for me after I begged to have one like my friend Pat so that we could play "nuns in the convent" together -- rather  like other little girls played house. By the time Mike was ten and I was thirteen, the habit was long outgrown, both physically and emotionally. But I had kept it as a treasured relic of a childhood ended too soon.

Now my brother, without a Halloween costume he liked, decided to borrow my nun's attire. He made a splendid nun! The first place we hit was the local convent where the nuns -- who reviled him as an incorrigible rascal at school -- didn't recognize him and, assuming he was a girl, told him how lovely he looked as he smiled coyly and fingered his rosary beads. We barely suppressed our laughter until, ladden with homemade cookies from the delighted nuns, we were off the convent grounds.

Perhaps the greatest Halloweens of all were the earliest ones I remember  -- in the late 1940's and early 50's. Our new suburban Los Angeles neighborhood was filled with small homes built hastily for returning World War II veterans in 1946. Our neighbors were truly extended family, with sweet, loving, accepting and only occasionally contentious relationships, some of which survive to this day. On Halloween nights back then, we were happiest when our neighbor Jack took us trick or treating.

Jack was, in one sense, a typical suburban postwar husband and father. In another sense, he walked to a distinctly different drummer: he was a bartender at a nightclub with a shady reputation, was proud to be related to the famous stripper Lili St. Cyr and was a transvestite.

Halloween was his favorite day of the year. He would get all dolled up, as he used to say, and gather us together for a grand trick or treating adventure, marching proudly in his high heels down the center of the street, with us following like eager ducklings. At each home, he would greet whomever opened the door with an enthusiastic hug and kiss while we scrambled around at his feet collecting candy dropped by stunned homeowners. At the time, we thought it all was simply hilarious. Only now, looking over the pictures our father took of Jack in his Halloween finery, do we sense something different. "Jack looks very comfortable in his outfit," Mike remarked after reviewing the old pictures with me. "I suspect it was only on Halloween that he could safely take it outside. It must have been some respite from a life of quiet desperation in 1950's La Canada." And we remembered how quietly and quickly Jack and his family moved away when we were still very young.

Jack and Bill - Halloween 1949

Jack and Shel - Halloween 1949

How Halloween has changed from the days when we were young! Our favorite treats back then were homemade cookies, candy, fudge, popcorn balls and caramel apples. Some people would invite us into their homes for an impromptu fun house and buffet of goodies. Now one wouldn't dare do that and all treats are brand-named and hermitically sealed. And yet a spirit of revelry and joy prevails. One street in our all ages community had a Halloween block party with a Star Wars theme. Other homeowners sat in their driveways, around portable fire pits, watching the celebration. Costumes sparkled and glowed thanks to new technologies.

Even some new Halloween customs are an improvement on the old. My brother tells me that in Thailand, where he and his family live, Halloween is seen as a time when children can practice giving instead of getting. And so kids start out with sacks or buckets filled with candy, toys and homemade crafts to give away. He sent me pictures of his children Maggie, 6 and Henry, 3, gearing up for Halloween Thai-style -- an occasion for learning to give to others with joy.

                                                           Henry McCoy

Maggie McCoy


Learning to give with joy...

What a lovely way to start the holiday season!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015


When I was 25 and still new, in so many ways, to adult life, I was less than pleased when given an assignment to write an article about loneliness for the magazine where I was on the staff.

"Loneliness," I scoffed, as knowing and world weary as only a twenty something could be. "It's just self-indulgence, self-pity, so stupid."

After I finished my rant and actually did some research, I think I wrote a passable article despite various platitudes about "loneliness is one where once there were two" though I had no real understanding of the complexity and nuances of loneliness.

But life has a way of teaching one, humbling one, and all these years later, I have a completely different understanding of this complex and health-threatening emotional state.

Loneliness can, indeed, happen when a love relationship ends -- through a breakup, a divorce or the death of a partner -- and we're faced with reconfiguring our place in the world alone. Being single again after being part of a couple can feel intensely lonely -- whether the split was voluntary, necessary, and life-affirming -- or whether it was due to the devastating sense of loss after the death of a long-time, greatly beloved spouse.

Loneliness can happen with life changes -- when you stop working to retire, or go to a new workplace with a less inclusive culture or relocate to a place where you know no one and are faced with starting life anew -- a prospect that can be both exciting and daunting, with its share of lonely moments along the way.

Loneliness can happen when you feel you don't fit -- in a family, a workplace, a new community.

Loneliness is a silent phone, an empty email in-box, no text messages when you're longing to hear from an adult child.

Loneliness can happen when you think back on losses -- and wish you could spend a day, just a day, with a beloved parent or grandmother or aunt or a cherished pet.

Loneliness can be particularly painful when you're in a troubled relationship and have grown increasingly distant from your spouse -- or as you watch a dearly loved husband or wife disappear, little by little, into a disabling, terminal illness or dementia, crossing an unseen divide that is ever-widening, obliterating gradually but relentlessly the life you shared before.

Loneliness can be fleeting -- a moment of feeling very much alone in a crowded room -- or overwhelming, feeling isolated in a new place or in a relationship that isn't working.

Beyond being a painful feeling, loneliness can be a significant health risk.
  • A recent study from Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston that followed 8,300 men and women 65 and older over a 12 year period, and found that those who, at the beginning of the study, reported feeling the loneliest had a 20 percent faster decline in mental ability than those who said they weren't lonely. How and why does this happen? Lead study author Nancy Donovan speculates that the psychological stress of loneliness may cause harmful brain inflammation, thus leading to the significant decline.
  • A study from the University of Chicago has found, for the first time, a direct correlation between loneliness and high blood pressure among people 50 and older. Among subjects reporting feelings of loneliness and social isolation, a blood pressure increase was evident two years into the study, and continued to increase until the study ended four years later.
What can you do to decrease feelings of loneliness and isolation and to make warm, healthy connections with others?

1. Reach out in positive ways: Reach out with the concept of giving to others or to another. This might mean volunteering with others for a cause you believe in or participating in a group with shared interests. It might also mean reaching out to others -- whether the person is an old friend or an adult child with whom you haven't had much contact lately -- in non-guilt inducing ways. Express genuine joy at seeing them, hearing from them, reconnecting instead of making a comment like "Hello, stranger..." or "It's about time...!"

2. Let go of expectations that one person, a spouse, or certain people, your adult children, acting differently, are the solution to your loneliness. As loving as a spouse may be, he or she can't meet all your needs for companionship, entertainment, love and affirmation. You both need time alone, time with friends, time to pursue special interests. In the same way, your adult children aren't and can't be the buffer between you and overwhelming loneliness. They have their own lives. Ideally, their lives with intersect happily with yours at certain intervals, but if you have raised them to be independent, productive citizens, you've done your work as a parent well. Now is the time to rediscover some interests and pursuits of your own, a renewed intimacy with your spouse, the joy of having a circle of friends and comfort with your own company.

It can be especially difficult when you've been part of a close couple and then a spouse's disability or dementia has added stress and a growing sense of loss to the mix. I've seen this happen with more and more friends and neighbors.

"It really points up the fact that time with others and time for a little fun and escape is essential," one of these friends told me recently. "When I can get out of the house for lunch with a friend or to go see a movie, I get away from life as I've come to know it for a little while. For two hours, my life feels normal once again. And that's a good feeling. It gives me the strength to go back and be an attentive caregiver once again."

3. Recognize your own part in your loneliness:  Loneliness can be self-reinforcing as we defend ourselves against anticipated rejection, exclusion or disappointment from others. So some lonely people can put out "Don't mess with me!" or "Leave me alone!" vibes that keep others at a distance. You may find yourself actively avoiding contact with others or allowing your loneliness and depression to predict the outcome of any attempt to connect with another -- for example, putting off calling someone "because they probably wouldn't want to get together...or talk..." thus erecting walls of one's own making.

4. Take the risk of putting yourself out there.  Especially when you're feeling depressed and isolated, there is a tendency to withdraw from others and activities, to wait for the world to come to you rather than stepping outside your immediate comfort zone and embracing the world.

I was reminded of this the other day when I complained to my friend Marsha that I have come to dislike our community -- rife with so much unnecessary infighting, deliberate unkindness, snobbery, pretensions, and junior-high style cliques -- and am disappointed that what once seemed like such a promising move has proved to be an isolating one..

"I know," she said. "It is disappointing. I know exactly what you mean. On the other hand, there are some good people here. You just have to get out and among them. I've developed a nice circle of friends playing MahJong and have met some terrific people at outdoor water aerobics. If you get out more, you'll run into more people you might like and get re-acquainted with some good people you already know."

And I knew she was right.

5. Accent the positive in relationships: Another quirk of loneliness is devaluing the relationships we do have, whether this is a relationship with a spouse ("Oh, I just can't talk with him! He never listens!") or with a friend ("She's so into her grandkids, she doesn't care...") or neighbors ("People around here are just a bunch of jerks..."). We feel -- and feed -- and growing distance by devaluing those closest to us, perpetuating feelings of loneliness.

Looking, instead, at how we've been blessed by relationships increases our connection with others as we appreciate anew a spouse's sense of humor or emotional support and generosity or a friend's willingness to listen or the thoughtfulness of an acquaintance or a neighbor that we might have minimized before or simply taken for granted. It's time to take a closer look at and cultivate new appreciation for the numerous blessings of our family and friends.

6. Be open to the new -- whether new level of intimacy in a friendship or new friendships. When we cultivate a sense of openness about the growth of existing relationships or the possibility of making new friends, we rarely find ourselves lonely. On the other hand, closing ourselves off to such possibilities is a fast track to loneliness.

One neighbor I'll call Ann greeted me with a sour expression and dismissive wave of the hand when Bob and I first moved to our present home, which was in a newly built neighborhood of people who had all relocated from other places within the previous six months. "We already have all our friends," she said. "So don't come looking to be my friend. We don't have room in our lives for anyone else." In the six years since, she has grown increasingly isolated due, in large part, to her attitude toward others and, in part, to the fact that, in any situation, some friendships are temporary and perhaps only a few have lasting power.

Our lives are enriched by all of the people we meet, whether or not they become forever friends. And some forever friends start out as acquaintances until the relationships move to the next level with mutual trust and respect.

7. Find ways to connect that feel comfortable. Increasing your level of connection with another, whether this is a spouse, a friend or a neighbor, doesn't have to mean long, soul-baring talks. It can mean time shared together -- taking a walk, enjoying music together, sharing views of a movie, a book or thoughts with a friend.

Warm connections with others may take forms you hadn't expected.

Maybe you won't have a deep, uninterrupted conversation anytime soon with a friend who has a young child but you might enjoy the child together, talking, laughing and sharing your thoughts between toddler emergencies.

Talking over lunch with a friend, perhaps just discussing books or movies you've enjoyed may not seem so revealing or in-depth -- until you realize anew how much you have in common -- and feel a closer bond in that moment.

You may not say much when you reach for a spouse's hand in the dark just before you fall asleep, but holding hands in the quiet of that time can feel incredibly intimate.

And in these simple, everyday moments, you suddenly realize that you are not alone, that you do have love and connection and companions. It's a matter of learning to be in and savoring the moment, valuing the thoughts you can share and feeling the love of a spouse, with you through moments of closeness and distance throughout your years together, with a hand held quietly in the dark.

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Joy of New Pursuits

I can't claim to be a technology whiz. I've been dragged by necessity, whining and protesting, into the 21st century of social media phenomenon. Five years ago this month, I was biting my nails through an intensive course in Blogging 101 by Dan Blank, not realizing at the time just what a joy this new pursuit, this blogging thing, would turn out to be.

I faced new challenges this summer.

Before she agreed to sign me as a client, my new literary agent Stephany Evans told me quite frankly that I needed to revitalize my "platform."

Book authors, particularly non-celebrity non-fiction writers, need to have platforms that demonstrate an ability to connect with the reading public. This might mean having public speaking skills and experience or a newspaper column or frequent articles in national magazines. It can include blogging or podcasting or creating You Tube videos. It means having the energy and imagination to reach out in many ways to potential readers and a willingness to take the initiative in promoting one's  books at bookstore signings and special events as well as via media contacts.

I knew Stephany was right. My platform needed a major overhaul. Yet part of me wanted to whine "But I just want to write!"

That's not how it is these days.

Stephany suggested that I check out media consultants and she highly recommended that June Clark ( should be among those.

When I had finished checking possible media experts, June was the standout. I met with both June and Stephany when I was in New York for the Davy Jones tribute in early summer. Their encouragement was energizing. And when June and I started working together in early July on my platform overhaul, things started moving even faster.

June mapped out my areas of expertise and strengths along with a plan to utilize all of my skills and to develop some new ones as well. As she built a totally new interactive website, she made numerous suggestions that kept me busy all summer.

The new website:

She pushed me to learn all I could about major social media and start using them. I'm working on getting comfortable with Facebook, Google Plus, LinkedIn and Twitter.

She insisted that I become active with HARO (Help a Reporter Out) and make myself available for interviews in areas of my expertise. About a dozen reporters took me up on my offers to help, including some from U.S. News and World Report, and CBS News.

I reactivated my California license as a psychotherapist -- finding that I had missed doing therapy and that being an active therapist rather than a retired one added vitality to my platform. After completing the required 36 units of continuing education to reactivate my license, I signed up to do virtual therapy for California clients via

VirtualTherapyConnect unique URL:

I wrote a free mini e-book "Seven Ways to Improve Your Relationship With Your Adult Child", available for the asking in PDF form on the home page of my new website.

I took a six-week class in Podcasting (from Media Bistro taught by the wonderful Maurice Cherry) so that I could link a podcast with this blog. The "Living Fully with Dr. Kathy McCoy" podcast is now available on iTunes, Stitcher Radio, InTune and on my new website as well. Initially, the podcast is featuring audio versions of some of my blog posts most popular with readers, but eventually there will be all-new topics covered. A new episode appears each Monday and can be found on the following links.


Stitcher Radio


Looking back on this busy summer, I'm amazed and delighted.

At the beginning, I felt overwhelmed and fearful of learning new technology. I whined about Twitter (even after a kind tutorial from my social media savvy next door neighbor Judith). I was afraid no one from HARO would want to talk with me. I worried over my weekly homework for the Podcasting class. I dreaded having new professional pictures taken.

But with continuing encouragement from June and Stephany, I learned some new skills and took some risks and ventured outside my comfort zone.

And it feels good! Not just to have a new platform, but to learn, to grow and to have this lead to new experiences -- like a conversation I had with a 20-year-old male medical assistant/aspiring rock singer in my doctor's office recently.

I told him I was trying to stay mentally sharp by mastering Audacity, a recording software. His face brightened. "No way!! Really???" he said, looking at me with new interest. "You're recording with Audacity??? My band and I use that! It's so cool that you're learning it, too!" I asked him to explain some technicalities to me and he happily did so.

My doctor -- Scott Finkbeiner -- came in the room while we were talking tech and he smiled broadly. "That's what I love to see!" he said. "Keep learning, keep engaging with life! That's a prescription for good health!"

Dr. Finkbeiner said that the patients who worry him are those who sit around all day watching television and focusing on their aches and pains - rather than exploring new ideas, new skills and new ways to connect with others.

In the wake of all these learning experiences, I feel hope. I feel energized. I feel elated to be learning something new, to be conquering my fears and chipping away at my ongoing tech phobia and to be embracing, little by little, more of the wonders of 21st century technology!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

What's Real?

It was a surprise comment, from an occasional reader of my blog, off the topic and appended to a recent blog post. I didn't publish it on the post because it didn't address, even remotely, the theme of that post.

But the comment made me think because it was a rather personal criticism and it raised an issue that hasn't come up before the past few weeks in this and a few less strongly voiced comments. I wondered if others might have the same thoughts, still unvoiced.

This is the comment:

This is totally off topic. I used to be a reader of your blog a long time ago. I was used to your 2011 photo. I have to admit that when I came back to read your blog today I was completely shocked by your new 2015 photograph. At first I thought you had plastic surgery until I read the caption under your new 2015 and how you had a photographer to the stars do your photo. As a photographer myself I am shocked at the massive use of photo touch up software he did to your photo, especially your neck and the false whitening of your teeth. For a medical person who advises people to own up to their age and who they truly are, I found the whole matter hypocritical. You may think you look good but to my eye you're just another phony like those celebrities you imagine yourself to be. Shame on you! So disappointed. You're fooling nobody except your vane self. on Envisioning the Future with Your Adult Child

I was surprised by the vehemence about the photo, which is visible postage stamp size on the side of this blog, in a time when there are so many truly important issues to spark our outrage. And I was puzzled: I hadn't discussed the new photo or the photographer on this blog and only very briefly on Facebook and Google+.

My dear blogging friend Dee Ready suggested that perhaps the reader fears change in her own life and is bothered when she sees change in others, even situations that seem inconsequential, like a changed appearance in a photo. What's real to this person may be the past, not a changed present.

This reader's comment did make me think: what IS real? Especially when we're looking at the life of another, so much that seems to be real and true may not be.

In my case, the appearance changes between these two professional pictures that the reader referenced -- both of which were enhanced by a makeup artist and by photographic retouching -- actually reflect some changing realities in my life: I'm happier, healthier and lighter now than I was in 2008.

But the comment also misses a point about professional pictures.

"2011" Photo (taken in 2008)

2015 Photo

For most of us who are still working in our later years, there is the challenge to radiate vitality as well as demonstrating a certain level of expertise in technology and the social media. In my efforts to revitalize my professional writing career, under the guidance of a new literary agent and an expert media consultant, I have been challenged to update the "platform" so necessary for non-fiction writers today.

For many of us, there is a certain disconnect physically between our personal and professional lives. Personally, I live in shorts, capris and T-shirts, rarely wear make-up, have let my real white hair emerge, am frank about my age and happy to be seventy, a privilege denied many I have loved. That is the real me.                                                      

Professionally, it's not so simple. When seeing patients, I dress in business attire and put on a little makeup. When having a professional picture taken -- as opposed to an informal snapshot with family or friends, many of which I have posted on this blog -- heavier makeup and some retouching is part of the package. It is not so much vanity as professional necessity. That is also the real me.

We are all blends of our personal and professional identities.

We look one way while hanging around the house with family (and few of us, I imagine, do the Donna Reed thing in heels and pearls) and quite another at work or at a special social event. There are fun snapshots and then there are business and professional head shots. They are all real, all us, just in different parts of our lives.

My most recent professional picture -- taken for my new website -- is actually more authentic than the one it replaced.

In the 2008 picture, I was still coloring my hair.  A makeup artist applied even heavier makeup -- to cover the dark circles and facial splotches that were due to my working three jobs, not getting enough sleep and eating on the run.  The photographer then -- also one specializing in actor headshots -- chose to shoot the photos at 9:30 at night, feeling that darkness combined with a touch of artificial lighting would be kinder to my aging face. And there was even more retouching to that photo than there was to the current one.

In contrast, the new photo was taken at high noon in late July at an outside mall in Scottsdale, AZ with the temperature 108 degrees and the humidity high. I was wearing a T-shirt and my hair was its natural color and the cut my typical wash and wear style. My lifestyle is less frantic these days. I'm in a much happier phase of my life and that shows in my face. So does continuing weight loss. A professional makeup artist gave me a more polished look for the camera this time around as well. There was a bit of -- but not massive -- retouching around the neck. Personally, I'm not ashamed of my neck. Professionally, an aging neck is not an asset. This was a professional picture, taken as part of a campaign, not as a wanna-be celebrity, but to revitalize my professional "platform/image" so that I can continue to earn a living as a writer.

Professional pictures -- like professional clothes -- are necessary at times. The photo is on my blog because, even though I started the blog as a personal pleasure and adventure -- and it still is -- it is now also part of my professional platform. It's a matter of my personal and professional pursuits crossing paths.

The new picture isn't an attempt to fool readers. I couldn't, even if I wanted to, Most of you who read my blog regularly have seen photos of me in all the aspects of my life -- from making a speech to lounging shoeless on a patio with my brother and sister to hugging a beloved cat and now to posing for a professional picture.

And, as you experience in all aspects of your own lives as well, all of it is real.

Friday, September 25, 2015

When You're Married to a Hermit

Bob and I both smiled when we saw the notice of the reunion show of the "Monty Python" stars last year. From the earliest days of our relationship, we've laughed together and tried to recreate famous lines from the Parrot Sketch, the Lumberjack Song and all the rest of the memorable songs and sketches from the popular t.v. show of the Seventies. This latest reunion show would be screening live and replaying once only later in the week at select locations, none of them especially close to us.

"But it would be fun to see..." I said.

"It would..." Bob said, leaning over Ulysses, his latest reading project, and making notes.

With that faint but audible encouragement, I went online and bought tickets.

When I told Bob we were set to go, he looked distressed. "I have my life exactly as I like it, my reading projects, my music, my Netflix films," he said. "I don't want to drive an hour and a half to see this. I don't want to disrupt my routine...."

I nodded. I understand the comfort and safety of routine. I enjoy our home, too. I've always thought of myself as more reclusive than not. But I'm coming to realize that, in comparison with my spouse, I'm a social butterfly.

What do you do when one of you prefers more solitude than the other?

Accept each other's preferences and discuss how to handle these.  Get clarification, before acting, regarding just what the other person is willing to do.

In the case of the Monty Python screening, we both did go, Bob somewhat reluctantly but understanding how important it was to me. We both agreed that the show was a bit of a disappointment but also enjoyed getting out together.

In terms of socializing, Bob's needs appear to be met largely by weekly guitar jam sessions with our friend Theo. I have a greater need to have and see friends, though my work schedule of late is making me positively hermitic. I do go to L.A. from time to time to see old friends while Bob stays home quite happily with the cats. I'm becoming more comfortable attending social gatherings alone. Quite frankly, I would rather go alone than to see Bob uneasy. And I'm finding that attending events alone is, over time, increasing my sense of confidence and autonomy.

Reject the martyr role for either of you: Forcing a spouse to participate in an event he or she doesn't want to attend isn't worth his discomfort, your unease and an altogether wretched time. On the other hand, don't sigh and stay home if you're really wanting to go. I went on a trip to Palm Springs last year to see the "Palm Springs Follies" with a busload of neighbors and made some lovely new friends along the way.

Realize that you may simply have different ways of meeting your social needs. There are some people who would never believe that Bob is reclusive. When he walks to Starbucks and the grocery store at dawn each day, he talks enthusiastically with baristas and cashiers, making them laugh, remembering to ask about their families, their pets, their health issues. After half an hour of visiting, a cup of coffee and a blueberry bagel, Bob is sated and ready for another day of treasured solitude. He knows many more people than I do at our local shopping center. (My shopping style is to be pleasant but to dash into the store and out as quickly as possible.) If the Safeway and Starbucks personnel were asked to pick the hermit in our family, I'm sure I'd would win by a landslide. And yet...I sometimes yearn for a different type of socializing: long conversations, one-on-one. I find myself missing friends in L.A. with whom this is easily possible and friends in Arizona who, because of their schedules and mine, are not able to sit down for a good afternoon of talking story, as the Hawaiians call it, as often as I would like. But I also see this as my challenge to solve, not Bob's responsibility.

Be aware of changes in behavior that could be problematic. Some people are content with their own company. It's simply a long-established personality trait. Some others may have a deep-seated need to avoid social interactions. When this causes distress, either to the person or to the spouse, some psychotherapy or marital therapy may be in order. For others, sudden reclusiveness may signal depression or another issue that signals the need for a trip to the doctor for a checkup.

 One of my neighbors became a sudden recluse, for example, when he began to lose his hearing and could no longer understand conversations, especially in crowded, noisy venues. His physician referred him to a hearing specialist. Now that he has hearing aids, he's back on the local social circuit.

The red flag is a definite change of previous behavior, perhaps sudden, that signals the need to look for possible physical or psychological factors with the help of a medical professional.

Develop friendships with others who enjoy some of the same activities that you do: Go to shows or out to dinner or even travel with friends. This keeps a travel-adverse spouse happily at home and allows the partner with the desire to visit new places and attend special events to be satisfied as well.

See value of other's point of view and bend on occasion.  Not all hermit-spouses stay happily at home and not all of those with a bit of wanderlust head off happily alone or with friends. There can be tension, hurt feelings, unhappy compromises. What can help, in such situations, is a conversation about what's possible and what's not, with no blame or accusations, but understanding and valuing each other's perspective.

It can also help for each partner to make occasional concessions. The recluse may need to hear that at least a little socializing can be a major health benefit and venture out from time to time. The more social spouse may come to recognize the value of quiet and solitude on occasion, finding that time at home to relax, to reconnect with each other and to look within can be a blessing.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Envisioning the Future with Your Adult Child

The email was poignant. I could empathize with the pain and fear the mother who wrote this was feeling.

I am having a hard time accepting getting old. Also I am dealing with my adult daughter not showing any love nor care for me. She also mentioned that I need to take care of my health because if I become disabled she is going to put me in a nursing home where I will be taken care of. She said it would be selfish of me to expect her to care for me. I am not sure if she knows that by telling me that has ruined the rest of my days. So, how can I age gracefully and happy when I know i am going to end in a nursing home?

I thought about how scary it can feel to imagine a future of illness, disability and pending death -- something all of us will experience though in somewhat different ways. Some fear losing their independence while others fear independence, how they will cope when or if they lose a spouse, hoping to move in with one of their adult children.

Sometimes our hopes and their dreams are in harmony. Sometimes there is distinct dissonance. 

And it made me wonder: just how much is reasonable to expect from our adult children as we age? How much is too much to ask?

Also, if there is a clash of expectations, does that have to ruin the rest of one's days?

Our expectations, of course, are very individual, seasoned by our own experiences and by cultural considerations.

I once dated a Jewish man from Iraq who, at the age of 25, had promised his dying father that he would take care of his then 45-year-old mother for the rest of her life. He took this oath very seriously. He loved his mother dearly, though, with her demanding nature and prickly personality, he often found her a trial. Worse, her aggressive rudeness toward every girlfriend he ever had posed a real challenge to his romantic life. His married sister offered many times to take the mother in but the mother  always insisted "My place is with my son because he promised." That promise cost him any chance of marrying. He was 83 -- and his mother was 103 -- when she died. 

When we were dating, more than 40 years before that, I would ask him why he was letting his mother determine the course of his life and he would reply "I made a promise. I know better than anyone how impossible she is. She is, without a doubt, the most selfish woman alive. But in my culture, we don't dispose of our older people just because they are inconvenient or hard to live with even if caring for them makes our own lives worse." 

He is now 85, in poor health, and alone, never having been married or having the children he once dreamed of raising with love from babyhood to gloriously independent adulthood.

There was Ana Maria, an injured factory worker who was a patient of mine when I was on the staff of a Worker's Comp clinic. She had been starting medical school in her home country when her mother, who lived in the United States, had a minor stroke and sent for her, contending that it was her duty to care for her. Ana came immediately to care for her mother, whose disability was slight,  whose general health was quite robust but whose emotional neediness was overwhelming. 

Every time Ana would mention going back to medical school, her mother would protest "But I need you!!" So Ana gave up that dream and stayed, eventually marrying a man who was initially charming and eventually abusive. Finding herself a single mother of two after he left her for another woman and, with no work history in the U.S., Ana felt lucky to get a factory job. After she suffered a work-related arm injury requiring surgery, I began to see her for supportive counseling. 

Her feelings were a mix of angry regrets and loving commitments. "I am angry that my mother demanded I give up a life I had worked so hard to achieve and I'm mad at me for relinquishing it all," she said. "On the other hand, my kids mean the world to me. If I had stayed in Mexico, I wouldn't have had them. And if I had stayed in school though my mother needed me, I would have felt bad about myself. I chose to come here and care for her. But overall? I think my mother expected too much even though caring for family is a big part of our culture."

Even keeping cultural considerations in mind, these are scenarios I'm sure many of us would not want for our adult children, believing that there are ways to show love and support without sacrificing one's own life and dreams.

How does one begin to envision an unknown future?

To envision the future, look to the past: What is your family history? Is there a pattern of early-onset dementia? Or have one or more generations suffered from Alzheimers? Has cancer taken a toll on your family? While it's impossible to predict your own health future, if there are certain trends in your family, it can help to imagine yourself in such a scenario and devise a plan for the future that assures good care while demanding as little as possible of your adult children. In the past, especially when women did not work outside the home, full-time caregiving by an adult daughter or daughter-in-law was more common. That may no longer be a realistic expectation.

Begin planning as if you were single and childless: What insurance do you need? What can you afford? Meet with an independent financial advisor (one with nothing to sell!). Check out long-term care insurance before you're old enough that the cost would be prohibitive or you might have medical conditions that would preclude coverage altogether. What are your possible resources for help if you become ill or disabled? If you build a safety net for yourself as if it were all up to you -- and, for the most part, it is -- you will not only build a future the way you would prefer, but also will be asking less of your adult children. Asking less of them may bring more rewards than you ever imagined when they are able to choose how they will offer you their love and emotional support.

Create a sense of comfort with the unknown.  None of us can know the challenges older age can bring. We can get some clues by looking at the generations before us, but those are their stories, not necessarily ours. We may die suddenly tomorrow or live long lives with a gradual decline. We may never see the inside of an assisted living facility or a nursing home. It's impossible to know unless one already has a degenerative health condition. While it's prudent to plan for the future, it's also important to live fully in today, enjoying each happy, independent day as it comes to us, seeing this as a blessing denied to so many. Knowing that good health and life itself are finite can make today even sweeter.

Talk about future scenarios with your adult children, collaboratively, not in terms of your expectations. Ask them what they imagine and what they fear. Talk about your own parents, their grandparents. How would you like the future to be different? What is their vision for your future together? Talk about what you would like, not what you expect.

Know that love takes many forms and that you can have a good life and good relationships with your adult children whether or not any step up with an offer of full-time care. Living fully and joyfully is a choice --  whether or not you're close to your grown children and whatever your adult children do or don't do. You can build a life of friends, extended family, and neighbors. You can find companionship with a beloved dog or cat. You can find fun and engagement in interests and activities with friends and other extended family members. 

And as you live fully, joyfully and independently, your adult children may love you more.

My brother, sister and I always agreed that Aunt Molly, our father's childless, never married sister, was our third and best parent when we were growing up. She brought fun, laughter and poetry into our lives and also loved us enough to teach us some tough lessons in becoming kinder, more tolerant, resilient and self-motivated adults. In fact, she was central to our lives for many years longer than our mother and father, who both died of heart attacks within four months of each other, when we were still young adults.

Aunt Molly was delightful, highly intelligent, pivotal to our lives but she also had her own life filled with friends, interests and her continued career as a writer well into her eighties. By the time she passed her 85th birthday, we began to worry about how it might be for her and how we could help should a stroke or other medical misfortune take away her independence. She worried, too, and had given the matter much thought and action.

"Whoever said old age is not for sissies was surely right," she told me one day. "You really need a sense of humor in these so-called golden years. Besides the fact that I love you, I will tell you three things and then make a request. The three things are: first, my will, birth certificate and wishes for my funeral are in the first folder in my file cabinet; second, I have every kind of insurance possible, including long-term care that provides for in-home care; finally, my greatest wish would be to be cared for by professional caregivers, if needed, and to die at home."

I nodded, not wanting to imagine such a future, but marveling at her careful planning.

"And now what I want to ask of you," she said, her eyes filling with tears. "All I ask is your emotional support as I go into this phase of my life. It's a little scary..."

"I know it is," I said, my own eyes filling with tears. She suddenly looked so frail and vulnerable.

We embraced and I felt a wave of love and a touch of relief. Emotional support was something I could give -- and my brother and sister could give, each of us in our own ways -- freely and willingly. 

As it turned out, Aunt Molly never needed caregivers or long term care. She died suddenly a little more than a year after our conversation. A few days after New Year's in 2004, she was sitting in her favorite chair, doing the New York Times crossword puzzle while waiting for her dear friend Magda to pick her up for a post-holiday lunch when her tired heart simply stopped. She was 86 and still independent. It was the best possible way for her to depart this life, dependent on no one, looking forward to an excellent lunch with a good friend.

Not everyone is as fortunate. But her careful planning that took into account what was possible for those who loved her left a legacy of love that will live forever in our hearts. 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Parents of Adult Children Forum

There are hundreds of stories you have shared as the parent of an adult child. Some of these are heartbreaking, some uplifting.

There are hundreds of comments you have left -- some angry, some regretful, some hopeful.

All of these inhabit the "Comments" sections of my two most read blog posts "When Adult Children Become Strangers" and "Parents and Adult Children: Finding the Balance."

However, I have been hearing from readers recently that it is hard to leave additional comments or to find the most recent comments on both blog posts.

So here is a fresh start, a clean slate.

Anyone who wants to comment about one of the Parents and Adult Children blog posts or simply to tell his or her own story or share observations about what works and what doesn't in building closeness or resolving conflicts with adult children can write in the Comments section attached to this post.

I truly appreciate all you've shared in the past -- whether you've agreed with me or not -- and look forward to reading many more of your enlightening stories and insights!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Most Memorable Gift

My seventeenth summer was, in many ways, a miserable one.

I spent ten weeks of that summer taking a full year of accelerated high school chemistry at the local public school. Several of my classmates from my Catholic girls' school had started with me, but dropped out in favor of days at the beach and pleasure reading after an intense first week of class.

I had no choice but to persevere: at my school, chemistry class conflicted with journalism, my planned college major. I had to stay in this summer scientific marathon, enduring exams every day, midterms at every two weeks, cramming material that didn't come easy to me, struggling through experiments (including splashing sulfuric acid on my face when I dropped a vial on the desk and having the teacher hold my face under a running faucet, exacerbating my already embarrassing bad hair day).

But there was a bright light in the midst of this adolescent misery: time with my mother. Every day after picking me up from class and before I delved into mounds of homework, we would stop at the local supermarket ice cream counter to get fountain Cokes to go and then would sit in her car in the store's parking lot, the windows down, sprawling on the front bench seat, sipping our Cokes and talking for an hour. It was a blessed respite, a time I remember warmly and with love more than half a century later.

When you think back on your life, do you find yourself having the sweetest memories not of lavish gifts or fancy vacations but of moments, savored, ordinary moments with a loved one who gave you the greatest gift of all -- the gift of his or her time and attention?

My husband Bob treasures memories of times with his grandparents, sitting at the dining room table playing cards hour after hour. What endures is that how much they enjoyed each other's company and how happily he fit in, feeling warm comfort that makes him smile all these years later. He doesn't remember what was said, but that they were there together.

Often, it really doesn't matter what is said, but what one feels.

My maternal grandfather, a Kansas farmer, was a man of few words, famously taciturn. But when he would hand me a bucket with a quick smile, I knew it was our time together. We would trudge out to his mile-long strawberry patch to pick berries, often in silence but in a joint effort that somehow felt wonderfully intimate. From time to time, he would find a particularly choice berry and silently, but with a twinkle in his eyes offer it to me as an instant treat. And I felt dearly loved.

There were times when my father would invite me along on his errands with a food enticement: "Hey, Baby, want to go get tacos and root beer?" Tacos and root beer! My sudden joy was tempered with caution. My eyes would narrow.

"We're not going to the Dow Radio store, are we?"

My father would smile. "Well, who can say? But it would be nice to get out and about together, don't you think?"

My antipathy for Dow Radio -- a huge warehouse of small, musty, totally boring electronics parts -- would fade as I thought of spending time with my father when he was, for the moment, sober and in a good mood.

And those times of sitting together at the taco place, next door to Dow Radio, talking and laughing, are the moments with him that stand out all these years later.

And those Saturdays with Aunt Molly! The memory of these makes me smile. My father's sister was a single career woman, a professional writer, a woman I idolized all my life. Those Saturdays with her live on as treasured memories. We had a routine and, yes, it involved food -- always turkey sandwiches at a very cool sit down restaurant near Vroman's, our favorite bookstore where we spent hours exploring each week. But what I remember most was the joy of feeling special, blessed with her company. It was a day out for just the two of us, having ordinary conversations, going to the same stores and the same restaurant every week, sharing such pleasure in our Saturday routine.

It makes me wonder what gifts of time might mean the most to the next generation in our family. What will matter, years from now, to my own niece Maggie, now only six years old?

Will she think back and remember our hours of playing princess games -- and my trying to teach her lessons in friendship in the voice of a loyal but truculent princess friend who insists that real friends don't just ask for favors but show concern and caring for each other? (And I smiled as I watched her immediately turn to her mother, who had complained of a headache, and ask how she was feeling.) Will Maggie remember the lessons? Or simply that we sat together, hour after hour, at the kitchen table or the family room floor of her L.A. home playing together? Or will she remember the times cooking holiday meals together, paying close attention as I made my special stuffing "so I can keep making that dressing after you're dead."

After I have left this world, maybe what will matter most to her was just that we shared time together -- cooking, tasting, laughing and pretending to be princesses.

It's enough to give one pause about the modern tendency to substitute money or gifts for time. Time spent with those you love is much more important than money spent.

There simply is no substitute in showing one's love to another than simply being there, being present, giving a gift that that costs nothing but has enduring value in how it makes another feel -- at the moment and always.