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 (www.gettheremedia.com) 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: http://www.drkathymccoy.com

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, Today.com 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.com.

VirtualTherapyConnect unique URL: http://www.virtualtherapyconnect.com/drkathymccoy

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 Radiohttp://www.stitcher.com/s?fid=73830&refid=stpr

Website: http://www.drkathymccoy.com/podcasts

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.