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.