We Gather Together To Ask the Lord’s Blessing

We are indeed blessed when we have an opportunity to gather with family and friends, at home, in church, at work, at school – especially in this holiday season. If you had the good fortune to also gather with others at Thanksgiving and Christmas, be aware that you are promoting your own good health! Being in community is a key element of strong health according to social science research. Many families have traditions of ‘getting together’ for all special occasions; and often when family members move too far away from home to participate in time-honored traditions, those people frequently gather others, also away from their homes – so they form a pseudo-family with whom to celebrate special days.

Perhaps you noted in the news media prior to Thanksgiving that there were tips on positive conversational topics that intentionally avoided discussion about politics. But let’s not back away from another potentially-sensitive conversation topic – namely, how are the elders in your family getting along with their health, housing, personal needs?  When groups gather after a long time of separation, someone’s deterioration in health can come as a shock to those who are seeing changes that cause concern.

While aging, in and of itself, is not a disease, there are some diseases that are common in those who were formerly very healthy. It is true that even those individuals who have been very intentional to keep body and mind in tip-top shape, they often must admit that the body shows definite symptoms of aging, whether one likes it or not.

Adult children have the responsibility to ask pertinent health-status questions, at least when their parents attain the beginning of a new decade of life, for example. Be advised not to lead off with sensitive issues such as height/weight or decisions about driving. But it is reasonable to ask about recent doctor appointments, results of eye exams, hearing acuity, blood pressure readings, medications, especially changes in medications. It is wise to begin conversations about the need for assistance in maintaining house and yard, or other property. If this is done in a kind and caring manner, it can be the beginning of open-ended conversation topics for future use.

And then there is the topic of memory acuity. Mental sharpness is measured on a continuum, and that also includes  both extent and severity.  The risk factors of Alzheimer’s dementia include age, genetics, environment, lifestyle, and co-existing health conditions. The more common conditions that impact, or are associated with dementia include heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and lack of exercise. The form of dementia that is genetically determined is commonly symptomatic in the ages of forty and fifty; this is a rare form of dementia, and if it’s in your family tree, you are aware of it. The presence of the cardiovascular conditions, obesity, and diabetes can be controlled with medication, diet, and exercise – many people find that very reassuring as they proudly display their FitBit tracking their vital signs as well as number of steps walked in a day.

Social connections and intellectual activity will benefit healthy aging for all persons. The connection between the nerves and the brain respond in one’s favor with improved cardio-vascular health, decreased stress, heightened sense of personal well-being. Make an effort to remain connected with your friends and family in activities, including those that serve as “muscles” of brain function such as word games, cards, and activities that challenge thinking and decision-making functions. One research finding in recent years has made a connection between head trauma and dementia. If the trauma has correlated to sports injuries in the past, it is difficult to treat wholly.  However preventing new head trauma includes  consistently wearing seat belts in the car, using a helmet when playing sports currently, and doing everything possible to “fall-proof” your home – discontinuing use of throw rugs, improving lighting, especially at night, and having railings and grab-bars in bathroom and all stairways.

Research findings over the past decade and those continuing into the future are most encouraging that it may be possible to both prevent and slow the progress of dementia. So don’t avoid conversations about health matters. Maintain a positive attitude and a cheerful disposition. Maintain a spirit of gratitude as we gather together to ask our Lord’s blessing on ourselves and our loved ones.

How “R” You?

Life isn't a predictable flow of time, which affects all of us in the same way. Consider the word ‘resiliency’ which is that characteristic which helps us cope with the ups and downs that are normal in many lives. When people experience major challenges, that flexibility and adaptability offers some strength—but we know it doesn’t make problems go away. Perhaps that generality doesn’t help you at your time of life and health. You may be like so many of us for whom life goes along pretty well, but little things may cause some underlying concerns, worry, and anxiety. Perhaps you may be anxious when the electric bill comes every month, or when the bank statement arrives; or perhaps your arthritis is getting worse and you fear losing your mobility. Or perhaps you haven’t heard from your son in a while. Perhaps it’s your reaction to the coming winter’s gray cold days. Little things can add up for us to turn into quite a load. Resiliency doesn’t only help us for the big stuff; it also helps with the smaller daily parts of our lives.

How do you respond when someone says to you “Hi, how are you?” You know they don’t actually want to know how you are – it’s just a comment of social courtesy to start of conversation. Let’s think about that question, about what it really implies and how we might respond in kindness and concern. I think we can focus on those “R” words, beginning with ‘resiliency.’

Resiliency: What is it that helps us recover from, or adjust to misfortune or change? For little children it might be the teddy bear, or the blanket, or a hug from a parent. As we get older, perhaps it becomes a prayer shawl or quiet time in a favorite place with a cup of tea. It may be a visit with a trusted friend, gardening, reading or a hobby that is relaxing for us. Whatever helps quiet the ‘noise’ of life is good to incorporate into a daily routine. It then becomes a good habit, on which to draw if/when tough things come along.

Regular routine: Cluttered and chaotic lives, with busy schedules, and cluttered surroundings disturb us in our inner core. There might be too much stimulation to think clearly. It’s difficult to remember things when we don’t know where something is, or what’s on the calendar from one day to the next. Perhaps this part of your life needs some work.

Reasons: There are stresses that are common, generally involving loss. There is loss of a loved one, loss of health, loss of independence, loss of self-esteem, loss of dignity, loss of hope. People lose jobs, homes, marriages, strength. Perhaps there have been small losses that accumulate, and then when the next little loss comes along, it tips the person over the edge of tolerance – and resiliency fails. You’ve heard the expression that someone is ‘having a bad hair day.’ That may be the last straw in a long line of frustrations for someone.

Request: Let’s practice asking for what we need. Sometimes that is uncomfortable for us to do because we don’t like to show our vulnerability. When a friend asks “how are you?” consider how you might really ask for what you need or express what’s concerning you. “I’m looking for a ride. . . I need someone to talk with. . .I goofed up my last exam” might all be responses that would indicate openness to additional support and conversation.

Reveal: Being authentic in relationships builds trust. When someone reveals true thoughts and feelings, it encourages the same in others. It suggests safety in the confidentiality and concern of friendship.

React: Showing concern does not suggest than we can solve someone’s problem. Rather, it shows interest and concern for the person. “I’m sorry to hear that. . .tell me more. . .why is that?” are responses that may fit the situation.

Reverse: There is the reversal in someone’s life when a situation just turns around, like a reversal of “fortune” which can be devastating. There are other times when we have the opportunity to reverse a situation in which a difficulty can be overcome or shared.

Regret and remorse: We don’t get to go through our lives without wishing we had done some things differently in the past. There may be past mistakes for which we feel deeply ashamed. Sometimes we need to ask forgiveness and make amends to another person, to ourselves, or to God. Let go of that mistake, and more on with resolve.

Realistic expectations: Perhaps these ideas sound pertinent to the situation at hand. Often a person will be unable or unwilling to see the facts of the situation because of lack of complete information. That’s when it may be a good idea to have a visit with whatever professionals might be available. In some of the examples given here, it might be a conference with a physician, with an attorney, a financial expert, one of the pastors, or someone in your family.

Regroup: A good friend of mine has a phrase that has helped me overcome regret and remorse: it’s simply ‘forget it, and move on.’ Resume normal life, move on to other things.

Reaffirm: Assess your gifts, your strengths, those things that go well for you. List them on paper or keep them in mind, acknowledge them, be grateful for them. Extend that arm of yours, and reach up and pat yourself on the back. Take every opportunity to do that for others when you see good things in them.  God reaffirms us in our faith, providing strength for each day.

Retrospect: Looking back can be useful; it provides grounds for the above thoughts on reaffirmation.  Tell your story of life. Consider history of your family, community, church, country. Review it, write it down if you are able to do so.

Renew: Restore, refresh, and revive. Be strong when you can, reach out when you need strength.  Reach out in relationship and friendship to others. Live as much as possible as one of grace. And finally, 

Rejoice! Give thanks and be of good cheer whenever possible. As people of God, we hold fast to what is good, and live each day in faith, hope, and love.

CHOICES that matter most

As strong, healthy, decisive individuals, we generally value our autonomy above all. This is a good thing. However, it often is short-sighted to assume that our lives will not change, or that our decisions of the past will apply in all future situations.

There is no easy way to plan for future health care choices. It's a process that involves thinking and talking about complex and sensitive issues. If you follow the news, you have heard about some situations in which choices are left up to others and you might wonder how or why that was allowed to happen. Often there are no warnings of devastating changes in health status; at other times, there is a long illness which may or may not give a person time to consider options and make one's own decisions.

Let me be clear to say that this is not referring to one's last will and testament, finances, property ownership or assets. This is about who will speak for you when you are no longer able to speak for yourself. Who will be your agent, who will work with your healthcare team for your best interest, This is about that inevitable transition that we all will come to – from this life to Life Eternal. The end of life only rarely happens in 'the blink of an eye.'

The death due to ALS of a notable dean of the University of St Thomas is well-documented in the book “We Know How this Ends,” written by Bruce Kramer, with Cathy Wurzer of MPR. There were many decisions about quality of life during his prolonged illness; and he had the courage to write about them for the benefit of others who may face similar situations.

As your parish nurse, I have worked in the settings of healthcare involving many difficult decisions required of patients, their families, their physicians, their other healthcare providers. There are no easy ways to plan for future health care choices; it's a process that involves thinking and talking about complex and sensitive issues. People have the right to have the healthcare team tell them about medical choices, the risks and the benefits of each of the options, in terminology that is understandable and clear. The patient has the right to accept or to decline these choices.

The Advanced Care Planning Guide, of Honoring Choices MN, helps a person share thoughts, feelings, concerns with the healthcare team, family, friends, and spiritual advisors. Consider the health conditions that you may have now, or may likely encounter in the future; and consider the treatment options currently in practice. Whatever your personal decisions are about certain treatments, it's important that you discuss your point of view with the people closest to you. It is also a good idea to put your choices in writing.

It's challenging to think about having to make these decisions, and it's more difficult to make decisions when you don't know what you want because you've never considered what you might want. Additional information and forms to complete are available at www.honoringchoices.org.