Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Take a Break: Learn Calligraphy

Between writing holiday cards and thank you notes, you may think you’ve had enough writing for one season. However, the art of calligraphy, or beautiful writing, is a lovely art form. It also can be calm and meditative once you get the hang of it.

While it helps to have a calligraphy pen, if it’s a nasty day, which it is in my neighborhood, start by using a pen or pencil. A good place to start is at the website Calligraphy. You can download various fonts, watch videos etc. all for free.

Practice enough so that your New Year’s resolutions will look spectacular this year. Maybe if they are beautifully written you’ll have a better shot of keeping them.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Take a Break: Compassion Meditation

While there are a number of studies that suggest that meditation is a very healing tool, in honor of the season’s peace and good will,” this post focuses on one particular type-compassion meditation. Practiced by the Dali Lama, Tibetan monks, college students and many others, this type of meditation has been shown to change the brain, resulting in reduced stress and depression.

I have tried a number of different meditation techniques, but this one I find not only easy to do, I’ve learned a lot through doing it. Focusing on family, friends as well as those I find difficult brought me a new understanding of myself as well as those in my thoughts.

The steps laid out in Compassion 101 by Penelope Green are easy to follow. The one suggestion I’d recommend to Green’s basic steps is the phrase you say while contemplating someone.

As a friend of mine says, “hold them in the light.” As you offer phrases of compassion to them, you can repeat the same type of phrases, such as “May you be free of pain and sorrow.” “May you be well and happy.” This activity took on new meaning if I personalized it for each person. For a good friend that has been through a lot of hardship, my wish for them is peace, love, well-being, happiness and financial security. I wish for them to be free of pain, loneliness and anxiety.

As you shift your attention inward and offer the same phrases of compassion to yourself, such as “May I be free of pain, loneliness and anxiety,” this takes on a whole new meaning. You not only begin to bond with someone, you begin to understand them in a new way.

To learn more, go to the following sites:

Is Compassion Meditation the Key to Better Caregiving? by Matthieu Ricard

Loving-Kindness Meditation from The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society

Wise Brain

Rick Hanson: Author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical neurosciene of happiness, love and wisdom.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Holiday songs can be good reminders for people with chronic conditions

Whether you are shopping, driving, watching television or sitting in a café, the air is filled with holiday music. Below are some different ways these tunes can serve as reminders for taking care of your self this holiday season.

“ Have your self a merry “little” Christmas.” Set limits and realistic goals about what you can do and when. Focus on the things you like doing and avoid the ones that add to the stress. Think “less is more.”

“I’ll be home for Christmas.” Make time for yourself this holiday season. If it’s freezing cold out, and a warm blanket, tucked up on the couch feels like what you need to do the night of the big party, give your self permission to stay home.

“The geese are getting fat.” Oh the season for too much of everything-too much food, drink and spending. Watch what you do now and avoid buyer’s and dieter’s remorse in January. Also keep in mind that having foods you don’t normally eat can make you feel sick.

“Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” Grandma not only drank too much eggnog, but she forgot her medication. Good reminders to limit alcohol and know if it can be used with the medications you are taking. Continue to take medications as prescribed, which can be difficult to do with the various holiday activities. If you decide that it might be time for a “medication holiday,” talk to your medical provider first.

“Do You Hear What I hear?” Chances are you wont, or they wont, if it’s in the middle of a family gathering or party and Aunt Sally, or your pal Joe, once again says something totally that grates on your nerves. Remember that you can’t change someone, or what they say or do. You can only change how you respond to them. Sometimes it’s best to smile and make an excuse, such as wanting to “see if they still have some of he shrimp left, ” and walk away.

“Silent Night, Holy Night”: If there is ever a time to make sure you are sleeping at night and in the proper amounts, it’s during this season of excess and stress. The body needs sleep so it can repair and replenish.

“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” It can be, but it also can be a time that exacerbates fatigue, sadness and symptoms. For some, the long nights are very difficult to deal with. The good news is that Dec. 21 marks the change to shorter nights and longer days. Since depression plagues about a third of the people with a chronic condition, if you find yourself feeling very dark, gloomy and sad, reach out for help.

“Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow.” If you live in that small percentage of the world that has a white Christmas, watch those beautiful flakes fall gently to the ground. Be mindful of the world around you.

“Oh the weather outside is frightful.” Some things in life you have no control over. Practice acceptance and strive for joy.

“Walking in a winter wonderland” Exercise. A 30-minute walk around your neighborhood is all you need. If that’s too much, breaking it up into intervals of 5 or 10 minutes throughout the day gives you the same benefit. A new study published in the Journal of Physiology found that if you exercise in the morning before eating, it seems to lessen the impact of holiday over indulgence.

“All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth.” Be realistic in your expectations of yourself, family and friends. It’s not about the gifts, it’s about enjoying one and another’s company.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Take a Break: Make Candleholders

In the previous two Wednesday posts, we’ve covered decorating a candle as well as how to make one. This post explores various types of candleholders.

If you have floating candles, you can place them in any container that holds sufficient water for the candle to float. Glass is very reflective and rocks, colored glass stones can rest on the bottom. Shallow containers, surrounded by greens are very pretty. Safety first. Make sure potential flammable items, such as dried flowers, are not in close proximity to lit candles. There are flameless candles that can be placed in water.

I live where there are lots of birch trees. Over the summer, birch limbs and even sections of trees that have fallen are collected. Create a flat side-use a planer-then drill holes slightly larger than the size of the candle. Tea lights and votives work well, as do some taper candles.

Other ideas for candleholders:

Decoupage Candle Holders

Kwanzaa Candle Holder

A Magnetic Menorah (no flames involved)

Hanging Candle Holders

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Who’s responsible for making us feel better?

“No matter what I do, I can’t seem to change his outlook about his health. He really isn’t that bad off.”

A few weeks ago, a spouse of someone living with a chronic condition made this comment to me. So how many friends, caregivers, or family members, assume they are in some way responsible for making someone feel better? Is it the responsibility of the caregiver to try and make the person they are caring for happy, have a better outlook or more hopeful? Attitude is extremely important in healing, yet who is responsible for creating and maintaining it?

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, the Harvard neuro scientist, who detailed her experience of having a stroke and recovery in the book “My Stroke of Insight,” was very clear about the impact people had on her. “I needed my visitors to bring me their positive energy. Since conversation was obviously out of the question, I appreciated when people came in for just a few minutes, took my hand in theirs and shared softly and slowly how they were doing, what they were thinking, and how they believed in my ability to recover. It was very difficult for me to cope with people who came in with high anxious energy. I really needed people to take responsibility for the kind of energy they brought. We encouraged everyone to soften their brow, open their heart, and bring me their love. Extremely nervous, anxious or angry people were counter-productive to my healing. “

This sounds like excellent advise for visiting someone in the hospital who is very sick.

One of my friends, who I worked with in AIDS, was forever telling us to “bring your best self to the table.” What she meant was to be as positive as we could possibly be and that if we all tried to do it, we’d get a lot further then being angry, fearful etc. Many days this approach worked, and worked well. However, like daily caregiving, there were many very stressful moments where it was hard to stay positive and upbeat.

Ultimately, we are each responsible for how we feel. We can’t change someone, we can only change how we respond to them. In many ways, this is very similar to the post I wrote in July “They don’t take care of themselves.” As much as we’d like to, we can’t “kiss it and make it better.”

There is another twist on this topic that needs to be recognized. How we perceive someone and how they view themselves can be as different as night and day. The initial comment above was made by a wife that is forever concerned that their spouse is not caring for themselves properly-they don’t get enough exercise, eat the right foods etc. Having spent time around this couple, my perception is that the spouse with the chronic condition is doing quite well and has a very positive take on their situation. I’ve learned the hard way though, never comment in situations like this. That's why they pay the marriage and couples counselors the big bucks.

While we are responsible for how we feel, we are also responsible for our behavior. Making shaming comments, “guilt tripping” , or saying things like “I told you this would happen!” isn’t going to make anyone feel good about themselves or their situation. By the same token, I don’t know a parent, spouse, or friend that hasn’t uttered the “I told you so” comment out of frustration. Ultimately, we need to be as mindful as possible of what we say and do, and try to daily “bring our best selves to the table.”

In researching this post, I came across an interesting article by a cancer patient, who is also a stand up comic. Might find it interesting reading-How Not to Cheer Up a Cancer Patient.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Take a Break: Making Candles

In keeping with December’s theme of candles for the various holidays, today’s “take a break” focuses on making the candle itself.

As a kid, we’d put paraffin and broken crayons (minus the wrapper) into a clean and empty coffee can and set it in a pot of water. After it melted, we’d remove the can with the melted wax very carefully and then pour the wax into various containers. An old milk carton, stuffed with ice chips was quite popular, as it yielded a lacy effect. For the wick, we’d dip cotton string in the wax as it was melting, let it stiffen and dry, and then one of us held it in place while the other poured the wax. Not a really great idea as most of us ended up with a burned finger. We finally went with the string on the pencil approach-we’d tie the string to a pencil and rest it on the lip of the “mold.” I watched a video of a bee keeper/candle maker who uses bobby pins to keep the wick in place. Much simpler than the pencil method

While we had a lot of the basics right, I don’t recommend paraffin, instead opting for soy, palm or beeswax. Paraffin candles emit toxins, produce black soot, and can be a source of indoor air pollution. Most craft stores now carry vegetable wax, particularly soy. There are varieties that you can melt in the microwave, so you can avoid the makeshift boiler of my youth. Watch Beeswax, Melting Bees Wax, Molds, Candle Making, which features a Georgia bee farmer. He melts all of his beeswax in a microwave.

Different waxes are better for certain uses. Soy works best if it’s in a container. This isn’t what you want for a pillar candle. Soy also requires more dye. The best way to find out what will work is to talk to someone at the store where you are purchasing your wax. Of course, there are plenty of websites where you can order.

Instead of using synthetic fragrance, essential oils can be substituted. You don’t need a lot-maybe a few drops depending on the size of the candle you are making. Add the oil after the wax is melted and you’ve removed it from the heat source. Be sure to test your essential oil first. Dried cinnamon also works.

Metal free wicks can also be purchased from a craft store, but cotton string works.

You can purchase molds at a craft store, but there are a variety of things in your home that will work just as well. Such items include: empty milk cartons; tin cans; empty candy tins; aluminum foil that you mold into a shape; gelatin molds. Teacups; canning jars; or terracotta flowerpots make containers for poured candles.

Some candles to try
Soy Wax Candle Making for Beginners

Make Candles from Citrus Fruits

Candles in the Sand

Floating Candles

Monday, December 6, 2010

Is Your Medical Information Safe On-Line

The following is from Consumer Reports Healthy Blog

Maybe not, according to four watchdog groups, which complained to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) last week that major drug, health, and information-technology companies might be compromising consumer privacy with tools used to gather information and market their products and services online. And yesterday, the FTC released its own preliminary plan on how to protect privacy online, including a “do not track” feature that would allow consumers to request that their online searching and browsing activities not be mined.

The complaint from the watchdog groups—filed by the Center for Digital Democracy, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, Consumer Watchdog, and the World Privacy Forum—says that companies might be collecting information online and using it in ways that puts people’s private medical information at risk. The companies and web sites named include Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL, WebMD, QualityHealth, Everyday Health, and HealthCentral.

The complaint alleges that those and other companies have tools at their disposal that allow them to eavesdrop on discussions on social media or health websites; target people with chronic conditions such as depression or diabetes who have sought information or products online; use services such as Twitter to spread “viral” messages about products; and launch seemingly independent websites that purport to offer unbiased information but are really fronts for marketing products.

To combat those potential misuses, the complaint asks the FTC to:
• Examine the data-collection practices of drug companies and firms involved in advertising prescription drugs for those companies.
• Review the privacy policies of drug company, health, and social networking sites.
• Require companies engaged in data collection and digital marketing to reveal the tools and techniques they use.
• Investigate whether seemingly independent health bloggers are subsidized by drug or other companies.
• Work with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other government agencies to develop policies and regulations concerning the collection and use of data mined from health sites.

“Pharmaceutical and online health information companies now have unprecedented abilities to take advantage of consumers,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the non-profit Center for Digital Democracy. “Consumers should not be subject to unfair, deceptive, and non-transparent techniques designed to encourage them to seek out forms of treatment, brand medications, or be subject to a high powered data collection system that undermines their privacy.”

Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports and this website, has voiced similar concerns in recent years. “We agree that the marketing techniques described in the complaint are alarming and warrant immediate attention from the FTC,” said Ellen Bloom, senior director of federal affairs in Consumers Union’s Washington, D.C. office. In testimony last year, Consumers Union asked the FDA to probe whether drug companies were using social networking sites to dispense information about their products and also silently subsidizing websites that give medical advice to people with certain diseases.

The complaint to the FTC comes as drug companies and some health marketers are pressing the FDA for new rules that would allow them to expand digital and social-media advertising. The complaint urges the FDA to await the outcome of the FTC investigation before issuing such rules.

A Microsoft spokesman, Frank Torres, said the complaint “got it wrong” when it comes to its personal health-record site, HealthVault, and that the privacy policies are clearly spelled out on the site. Other companies cited in the complaint said they were still reviewing the report.

The FTC’s proposed “Do Not Track” mechanism is one recommendation made in a comprehensive 122-page report on online privacy. It states that industry efforts to address privacy through self-regulation “have been too slow, and up to now have failed to provide adequate and meaningful protection.” And FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz said in a statement that the agency “will take action against companies that cross the line with consumer data and violate consumers’ privacy—especially when children and teens are involved.”

—Steven Findlay, M.P.H., senior health policy analyst

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Holiday Gifts When Chronic Disease is an Issue

Finding a present for someone who is living with or caring for someone with a chronic condition can be challenging. Depending on the situation, certain items may not be appropriate. For example, a Santa that sings every time you walk by it, while annoying to many, can be very unsettling for someone with a neurological problem, such as MS or brain injury. Season tickets can be a bit iffy, as people with diseases that have flares or fatigue can’t always be sure they will be able to go.

Condition specific gifts-such as a T-shirt with a slogan, or a book about the illness-may be welcomed by some and not appreciated by others. If you don’t know how the person may feel about such a gift, select something else.

If you are living with a chronic condition, and/or in the role of caregiver, you may, like most Americans, be financially strapped and wondering what to do about the holidays. The last thing you want to do is over spend and end up with “buyer’s remorse” in January.

I’m hearing of all sorts of creative ways that people are dealing with the economic situation and the holidays. Some people are hosting “recycled gift parties”-bring something from your home that’s in good condition that you aren’t using. Yankee Swaps are very popular where I live and of course many families have been drawing names for years now. Whatever way you wish to do it, gifts should be for those that mean something to you.

Below are several categories of gift giving that might be helpful.

Gift Giving on a Dime
The most important gift we can give one another this holiday season is our time and support. Simple, well thought out gifts mean a great deal. A card letting someone know how special they are to you and why, will be treasured for years to come. Below are some things to consider-beyond the usual baked goods items. Remember only give gifts of time if you can truly redeem them.

• Dinner and a movie. You provide the meal, movie and the popcorn on their choice of night.

• Game night. You provide the game, the snacks and drinks. They get to pick the night.

• Make a CD of music you think someone will like.

• Gifts of services that you will provide are always welcome. These can include: babysitting; car care; making necessary repairs on their house; house and pet sitting; massage; lawn care in the spring; cleaning out the gutters; washing windows; or anything else that may be on the “honey do” list. The possibilities are endless. You can make your own gift coupon or download a free coupon template.

• Make a recipe book of family favorites. Go to Creative Studio for Home for a free recipe template. If you have a recipe with a unique ingredient, such as a particular spice, give a copy of the recipe and the spice.

• If you have a hobby you enjoy, share it with family and friends. Make up a “kit” so they can try it. If you enjoy genealogy, share your research with your family by making a “family tree.” For other ideas, check out some of the “Take a Break” activities.

• If you have the time and energy, invite your friends and family to a special crafting evening or afternoon. Your gift to them is giving them a chance to make something for others.

• Re gifting is just fine, as is recycling. For example, if you have a collection of cookie cutters that you no longer use, give a few of them along with your favorite sugar cookie recipe.

• For kids and teens, they’d love a coupon letting them off their chores, staying up an hour later etc.

Caregivers, and those they care for, can spend enjoyable time together creating joint gifts. For example, family members would love to have all of grandmother’s recipes for holiday dinners. She may no longer have the ability to write them down, but with some help, this can be a gift that lasts for many generations.

Techie Stuff
• The Wii Fit, Dance Dance Revolution, Sony PlayStation Move and Kinect for Xbox may not do much as far as burning calories, but there is growing evidence that they help older adults improve balance. Since falls remain the leading cause of the injury-related deaths in the elderly, this is a fun way to help a parent or grandparent stay steady. It also offers new ways for families and friends to interact.

• Nook or Kindle reader. Very helpful for those with motion disorders. Can also adjust the size for easier reading.

• Cordless phone, Track phone, if they don’t have cell service, with a prepaid amount of calling hours.

• Subscription to Netflix. For as little as $8 a month, you can watch unlimited movies and TV programs on your computer. If you have devices like Wii, Xbox 360 you can use them to watch movies and shows on your TV. At this time of year, there are all sorts of deals.

• Software for their computer

Gift Certificates/Memberships
• Gift certificates are always welcome. If you aren’t sure what they’d need or appreciate, you can give them a Visa or other credit card with a specified amount on it. The advantage is that they can use the card anywhere they want. If you want to make it more specific, consider gift cards to the following:
- Spa
- Beauty salon
- Massage
- Area restaurants, particularly ones with take out. These are very handy on those days when you don’t have time or energy to cook.
- Local pharmacy
- Local supermarket
- Where they like to shop on-line (iTunes,, by mail (Lands End, LL Bean) or in person. Note that most stores today allow you to use the gift card at their website or store.
- Health food store
- Yoga or fitness classes. It helps if these are “as used” classes and not for a month. If they have a flare during a given month they’ll loose out.
- Garage for an oil change

• Memberships to places such as Warehouse Club; Local PBS or public radio station; area zoo, museum; community supported agriculture share (this provides lots of fresh produce during the growing season)

Other Ideas
• Goldfish or other fish that requires minimal maintenance.

• Bird feeder, wind chime or outdoor plant that can easily be viewed from a window.

• Magazine subscription

• Flameless candle. Avoid scented candles as many people have a negative reaction to them.

• Craft or hobby materials-Don’t hesitate to make this an early gift if it helps them make presents for others.

• Fruit or healthy snack basket-fruit of the month club

• Donation to a favorite charity

• Comfy clothes, such as-Terrycloth bathrobe-makes it easier to dry off after getting out of the tub; Socks; or PJ’s

• Pet supplies

• Car care items-such as new floor mates, windshield wiper fluid

• Green items for the house. A basket of items such as CFL bulbs, faucet aerators and low flow showerheads will be a gift all year round when they open their utility bills and find smaller bills.

• A basket of items they can use to have a party at some point-such items might include matching cutlery, napkins and plates; candles; wine glasses and wine; crackers and other food items that have a long shelf life.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Take a Break: Decorate Candles

The December holidays all use candles as part of their many traditions. Today’s “take a break” is about the many ways to decorate purchased candles.

Step one is to get a variety of candles suitable for decorating-pillars, tapers, squares and votives. T-lights are generally too small, however, there are many ways to decorate holders for them, which we will explore in another post this month. When selecting candles that you wish to light, purchase ones made of soy or beeswax that do not have metal in the wick. If you aren’t planning on lighting the candle, or you will be using the candle outside, you can go with inexpensive ones that you find at the Dollar Store.

• Wrap ribbons around the middle of the candle. Glue or pin items (e.g. buttons, old jewelry) to the ribbon.

• Print or stamp images to tissue paper and then gently melt them into the candle using a heat tool. It is best to use white candles for this project. The Create Decorative Candles video gives a good demonstration of how to do this with a printed image Create your own custom candles shows how to use rubber stamps. You can also use a photograph on a candle.

• Paint candles with acrylic paints. Use unscented candles. How to Paint white candles provides a very interesting effect with a very simple technique

Bead Candles: Larger beads can be pinned into place, smaller ones can be pushed in after gently heating the wax with a heat tool.

• Using sheets of colored wax, cut out shapes (cookie cutters work great) and with just the heat of your hand, they can be placed on the candle.

For more ways to decorate candles, check out the HGTV website on this topic.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Finding Contentment in the Moment

A new study from the Positive Psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert finds that we are most content/happy when we are absorbed in what we are doing. (Science 12, November 2010) Using a happiness iPhone App, the researchers checked in with 2,250 people at random times to see how happy they were at that moment. Not surprising, when asked to rate their feelings on a scale of 0 to 100, those people having sex gave an average rating of 90.

Personal grooming, such as brushing your teeth, was associated with a much higher rate of mind wandering. In fact 47% of the time, people’s attention is focused on something other than what they are doing-a sobering thought when you are driving or trying to have a meaningful phone conversation.

Aside from those having sex, 99.5% of the people had little correlation between the joy of the activity and pleasant thoughts. While mind wandering happens less with enjoyable activities, it still occurs and the mind is likely to be thinking negative thoughts.

The biggest predictor of happiness is whether the person was focused on what they were doing. It didn’t matter what the activity was, it was whether the person was engaged and focused.

“If you ask people to imagine winning the lottery,” Dr. Gilbert says, “they typically talk about the things they would do — ‘I’d go to Italy, I’d buy a boat, I’d lay on the beach’ — and they rarely mention the things they would think. But our data suggest that the location of the body is much less important than the location of the mind, and that the former has surprisingly little influence on the latter. The heart goes where the head takes it, and neither cares much about the whereabouts of the feet.”

The study found that it wasn’t necessarily what you do that makes you happier. Rather, the more mind wandering that occurs, the more unhappy people were. That appears to be happening because as the mind wanders, it tends to stray to negative thoughts.

The take home message is one we've heard from your parents, teachers, employer and even your spouse/partner, “Think about what you are doing.” Add to that “think about what you are thinking about.” Recognize that when your mind starts straying to negative thoughts, Stop, Take a breath, Observe and Then proceed.

Read more interpretations of this study

New York Times

Want to be Happier? Pay Attention by Soren Gordhamer

A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy one by Jason Castro (Scientific American)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Take A Break: The Thank in Thanksgiving

A few days ago, I received a Thanksgiving e-card from a friend I haven't seen in years, but talk to every few months. It was lovely to know that she thought enough of me to compose and send an e-card. It gave me a left.

The next day, I was thinking of a colleague/friend and thought that given that it’s Thanksgiving, I’ll e-mail her and let her know that I’m thankful she’s been part of my life. I’m not all that good with the e-card piece, so it was just a short e-mail, but from her response, it meant quite a bit. Besides, she wrote something nice about me in return.

So today’s “take a break” is all about expressing our thanks to those who have and/or do make a difference in our life this Thanksgiving.

There must be some sort of connection, since I’m finding that as I receive calls and e-mails, people are using it as an opportunity to thank me and vice versa. I really don’t ever remember a Thanksgiving where this has happened to such a degree. Given the economic crises of the last several years, maybe we all have a new understanding of what’s really important.

Below are some fun and creative ways to express thankfulness:
• Send an E-card. See if something strikes your fancy at

• Call

• Leave a voice mail of appreciation. That’s always nice to hear and it has the added advantage that the person can play it over and over again.

• Send an e-mail

• Give them a hug

• Make a card. So it’s not going to arrive by Thanksgiving-unless you are seeing them that day-but it will be appreciated whenever they receive it. Some ideas for making cards:
- Sketch something, or even use clip art, that would be of interest to the person receiving it.
- Iris Folding These are very easy to do and can be made out of scraps of paper. Thanksgiving Turkey
Maple Leaf Patterns

- A hug card

- If you have punches, or cookie cutters, cut out shapes and glue them on a card.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Home after Hospitalization

This week I was mulling over several topics to post about, when I saw an article in the New York Times “Planning for Temporary Home Care After the Hospital Stay.” An interesting piece, it reminded me of how “going home” can be so different depending on the community you live in, the reason for the hospitalization and financial resources. A lot of the chronically ill people I work with can’t afford to pay $90 to $160 for a care or nurse manager, which is one of the article’s recommendations. However, depending on your diagnosis, where you live, and where you receive your care, you may be eligible for free case/care management services.

People with chronic conditions may have more experience with hospitalizations then most, but all the same it requires planning and attention when returning home.

If this is a planned hospitalization, such as an elective surgery, you have time to prepare for what you’ll need when you return home. Stock up on food, notify friends and family who can be counted on to help, lay in a supply of books, DVDs or whatever might be of interest to you. Depending on the admission, the hospital where you will be receiving care may have a website on discharge planning and/or offer tips on recovering at home from a particular procedure or surgery. The more information you can get up front, the better.

Unplanned admissions are a bit more difficult. As soon as possible, start meeting with the “disposition coordinator” or “ discharge planner.” The last thing you want to do is to be scrambling an hour before going home. If you do have a case/care manager, contact them as soon as you can after admission and have them work with the hospital team in planning your discharge.

If you don’t have a Lotsa Helping Hands page, this may be the time to start one. If you are not familiar with this free website, it allows you, or an appointed person, to coordinate what you need, when and by whom. A lot of the support services-cleaning, cooking, transportation, laundry, yard maintenance, child care-can be achieved by using trusted friends and relatives. People really do want to help.

When a hospital wants you out, they’ll do whatever they can to make that happen, no matter if the patient thinks they are ready or not to be discharged. Pleas to a supervisor can easily go unheeded. If you really don’t think you or the person you are caring for is ready to go home, speak to their doctor. Keep in mind, that even with the best advocacy, it’s a dollars and cents game and you may be forced to leave before you feel you are ready.

Be as clear as possible about what it is you’ll need when you get home. Check your insurance to see what type of coverage you have. If you know that you’ll need some assistive devices, like a wheel chair, walker, or commode, and your insurance wont cover it, ask about “loan closets.” There are a variety of organizations that loan such equipment for free. The social worker/discharge planner should know about them. However, if you get a blank stare, call 211, the state by state information and referral service, the local chapter of your condition specific organization, and/or a local community organization that helps in times of need.

Condition specific organizations, such as the local chapter of the American Diabetic Association, can be very helpful in seeing that you have resources and tools to help you at home.

During discharge, pay close attention to the information they are giving you. Be sure to determine if they are calling the home health agency that will provide nursing care or if you need to do that. Are they going to make appointments for follow up care, or is that your responsibility? Get written copies of instructions and that you do understand them. If you get home and are not sure about something, call.

In summary, if hospitalization is necessary, you can maximize the chances you’ll remain at home after discharge if you:

• Prepare in advance if it’s a scheduled admission

• If unscheduled
- Connect with the hospital’s discharge planner as soon as possible. If you have a care/case manager, have them coordinate with the discharge planner.
- Update your Lotsa Helping Hands website if you have one, or start one if appropriate.
- Determine what you will need when you go home
- Determine what insurance will or will not cover
- Identify gaps and work to close them using hospital and community resources.
- Understand discharge plan and don’t leave the hospital without a copy of it.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Take a Break: Preserving Autumn Leaves for Your Thanksgiving Table

Several weeks ago, I was responsible for decorating tables for a community dinner. At my son’s soccer game, I noticed a number of trees with incredibly brilliant leaves and figured what could be more appropriate for a harvest dinner.

At half time, I started picking and ended up missing quite a bit of the second half of the game, as I found myself enjoying walking in the crisp air, looking for the perfect leaf. Hard to do when each one is so unique and beautiful. By the time we got home, I figured I’d preserve them the next morning, and stashed them in a cool part of the house. While many survived the night, a number of them didn’t. In short, autumn leaves are beautiful decorative items, particularly for a Thanksgiving table, but if you are going to use them, gather when you have the time to preserve them.

Where I live, I figured since leaves were off the tree, I had missed the golden opportunity of this year’s foliage. However, yesterday I started looking at some of the few remaining leaves dangling from branches and realized that a number of them could be used. I’ll just have to do a lot more searching to find enough for my Thanksgiving table.

I grew up putting leaves between wax paper and ironing away. When I think what I must have done to my mother’s iron, I cringe. So some simple steps using wax paper to preserve your leaves:
• Make sure the leaves are dry and flat. (see below)
• Place the leaf between the wax paper.
• Place a cloth on the ironing board, lay the wax paper down, place another cloth on the top and set the iron to warm, with no steam, and iron away.
• Once cooled, trim them close but leave a little edge to protect the seal.

You can dry the leaves by:
• placing the leaf between paper towels and ironing on low;
• placing them between paper towels and laying a heavy book on top of them;
• placing between paper towels and drying in the microwave for about 30 seconds on high.

Once you have a dry leaf, you can seal it in wax paper or preserve it further by spraying it with varnish.

My brother-in-law said you could preserve leaves with hairspray, something that I don’t use or like, so I decided to go searching for other techniques, particularly ones where the leaves would be a bit more supple.

Here are some different techniques

Preserving Leaves with Liquid Wax Video

New Hampshire Fall Foliage: How to Preserve Leaves (includes glycerin)

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Fear of Death

Going to Catholic school positively warped my mind about death. In their efforts to scare us into submission, the nuns described death as just the worst thing anyone could imagine. Anything you did, that was viewed in their minds as being bad, unholy, or unfit, ultimately led to dying. Then there was the nun who assured us that no matter how good we might think we were, we most likely would have to spend time in purgatory, which is a division of hell. Yes, you would get to heaven, but you would have to roast there for a while to atone for sins. However, if people prayed for you, or you had the right number of prayers said just before you died, had a papal blessing or whatever else they were pushing that day, maybe then you could go directly to heaven. Not a lot of time was spent on the beauty or glory of heaven, or if it was, I don’t remember it.

Since our brains are primed for fear-a sound device when you live on a hostile planet-these stories made for many a sleepless night as a child, and periodically come back to haunt me. What if they were right?

Having spent 30 years working with people with various types of chronic and terminal conditions, I’ve learned a lot from the dying. As a young kid, I remember sitting at my desk thinking that the nuns had it all wrong. As an adult, I know they were wrong. All the same, how does that impact my fear of dying?

Even though I remember reading about Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross as a young kid in “Life” magazine, it was during my years of working in AIDS that I read her books and articles. With the arrival of new treatments, we were seeing far fewer deaths, so I was caught by surprise when one of the kids died from AIDS. I couldn’t see my way out of this one until I overheard someone talking about Kubler-Ross’s book “The Wheel of Life.” I immediately purchased it, very rare since I am a major library patron, and read it cover to cover in an afternoon. It transformed my understanding of death and my approach to work. Her writing kept me working in AIDS, long after many I knew had changed careers and I still read parts of it from time to time.

During a hospice in-service, I was given “Final Gifts” to read and it too became one of those transforming books. In fact, I keep extra copies of “The Wheel of Life” and “Final Gifts” just so I can loan them to people. All in all, I thought I had a good understanding of things. Then one of my closest friends developed a terminal disease and was dead in less than four months.

It’s taken a good 18 months to get some sort of perspective on this. Every pain or ache quickly was turning into some form of horrible illness in my mind. I realized that my anxiety was interfering with living and was probably causing the physical symptoms in the first place. It reminded me of how my friends would worry about getting pregnant month after month only to discover many years later that it would be difficult for them to conceive. As one woman said, “I have wasted so much time over something that was never even a problem.”

In reading an article by Dr. Morse, who has studied the near death experiences of children, entitled Coping with the Fear of Death, I realized that a combination of age and the impact of sudden loss was contributing to my anxiety. We fear death for a variety of reasons-sadness of growing older; it's an unknown; reluctance of giving up people that we love and enjoy; pain etc. Many turn to religion to find answers and support, others find it by delving into studying it. There is now a growing movement of neuro scientists that are seeking a newer understanding based on their knowledge of the brain.

Several years ago, a woman I served on a board with was dying of brain cancer. She asked that I call her nearly every day, just to check in. During the many conversations we had, I came away with two insightful comments that she made. The first was that she didn’t feel sorry for herself, “We all have to die and it’s just my turn.” On death itself, she said “I think I will know it when it happens and I will have spent years worrying for nothing.”

Maybe the take home point of this post is to recognize that fear of death is part of being human and that as we age and have different experiences our views will change. For some, reading and talking about dying is important. For others, belonging to a community of faith provides answers they are seeking. Whatever your beliefs, you are not alone if you fear death, just don’t let it cripple your living. Again and again we need to remind ourselves that we can’t live in the past or fast forward to the future. What we can do is to live mindfully in the present.

Some links that might be interest:

Overcoming the Fear of Death by Dr. Alex Lickerman, a physician and former Director of Primary Care at the University of

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s Stroke of Insight

Dr. Robert Lanza’s articles from the Huffington Post that deal with various aspects of death from a scientific bent

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Caregiver Relief Fund/ National Family Caregiver’s Month

If you are a caregiver, that has been taking care of someone for 12 months or longer, and have a yearly income less than $80,000, you are eligible for The Caregiver Relief Fund. The Fund is a social venture committed to caring for caregivers. The Caregiver Relief Fund provides resources, assistance and a voice to over 50 million Americans who are currently caregivers to the chronically ill, aged and disabled by providing vouchers for at-home respite. Applications can be filled out on line.

On October 29, President Obama issued the following proclamation
Every day, family members, friends, neighbors, and concerned individuals across America provide essential attention and assistance to their loved ones. Many individuals in need of care -- including children, elders, and persons with disabilities -- would have difficulty remaining safely in their homes and community without the support of their relatives and caregivers.
Caregivers often look after multiple generations of family members. Their efforts are vital to the quality of life of countless American seniors, bringing comfort and friendship to these treasured citizens. However, this labor of love can result in physical, psychological, and financial hardship for caregivers, and research suggests they often put their own health and well-being at risk while assisting loved ones. Through the National Family Caregiver Support Program, individuals can help their loved ones remain comfortably in the home and receive assistance with their caregiving responsibilities. This program provides information, assistance, counseling, training, support groups, and respite care for caregivers across our country.

My Administration's Middle Class Task Force, led by Vice President Joe Biden, has made supporting family caregivers a priority, and we are working to assist caregivers as they juggle work, filial, and financial responsibilities. We made important progress with this year's Affordable Care Act, and because of this landmark legislation, Americans will be able to take advantage of the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports (CLASS) Program. This voluntary insurance program will help individuals with long-term care needs to maintain independent living, as well as compensate family caregivers for their devoted work.
Our businesses and companies can also contribute to families' ability to care for their loved ones in need. By offering flexible work arrangements and paid leave when caregiving duties require employees to miss work, employers can enable workers with caregiver responsibilities to balance work and family obligations more easily. Such efforts impact countless lives across our Nation, easing concerns and contributing to the well-being of individuals and families as they go about their daily lives.
During National Family Caregivers Month, we honor the millions of Americans who give endlessly of themselves to provide for the health and well-being of a beloved family member. Through their countless hours of service to their families and communities, they are a shining example of our Nation's great capacity to care for each other.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim November 2010 as National Family Caregivers Month. I encourage all Americans to pay tribute to those who provide care for their family members, friends, and neighbors in need.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this twenty-ninth day of October, in the year of our Lord two thousand ten, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-fifth.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Take a Break:Soda Can (Aluminum Cans) Art

There is a lot you can make with aluminum cans. To start, you will need to remove the tab-easily twists off- and set aside. You’ll see several projects below just using the tabs. Next comes the removal of the top and bottom. I punch a hole near the top and use regular scissors to cut around the top, side seam and then the bottom. Wear gloves to avoid any nasty cuts. So now that you have a solid sheet of aluminum, below are some projects that are easy to make.

Ornaments: If you have punches, even small ones, you can punch out shapes. Punches like Big Shot and Sizzix, often used for scrap booking are ideal. You can also use a cookie cutter or a pattern to draw a design and cut out. The advantage of the punches is that they round the edges so you don’t have to do a lot of sanding. If you are concerned about using the punches on soda cans, watch this scrap booking video, which shows how using the aluminum cans actually sharpens the punch.

Since we’re close to the holidays, check out how a Big Shot was used to make beautiful snowflakes. Other ornament ideas:

Star I

Star II

Aluminum Can Ornaments from Little House in the Suburbs

Soda Can Jewelry

Soda Can Earrings

Recycled Can Flower Bouquet

Soda Tabs and Bottle Top Garland Video (uses ribbon or thread to join them)

Tab bracelet Video

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Building a Social Network

One of the most important pieces of advice I’ve been given was about relationships. A psychologist told me that they are like a pail of water that has a leek in it. People drop out of our lives for one reason or another-move away, change jobs, no longer have common interests, ill health, don’t get along, divorce, death etc. If we want to keep the pail full, we have to work at keeping people in our lives and adding new ones to replace those that leave.

There have been a host of studies that show one of the most important keys to well being, as well as longevity, is having a good social network. Family and friends can be in your life in all sorts of ways. They can be friends and family that you see only in certain situations, such as the yearly New Year’s Eve party or family events. There are others that are part of your day-to-day life-co-workers, neighbors, spouse/partner etc. Then there are those people that no matter what happens, or when the last time you saw them, you know you can count on them.

Aging, our health, marital/partnership status, kids/no kids, all impact how we maintain our social network. In our busy lives, when and how often do we assess our network of friendships/relationships? Does having a chronic illness increase our opportunities or decrease them?

Below are a series of questions followed by resources to help you turn negative answers into positive ones.

• Do you attend a support group of any type? Whether it’s AA, Al-A-Non, church group or condition specific group (e.g. cancer support group) being part of a support group can help on multiple levels. Places to find a support group include: local newspaper; clinic or doctor’s office where you receive care; condition specific organizations; asking friends and family; your place of worship; or local library. Find friends and places that can support you emotionally, and where it is safe to talk about your health issues. For more resources

• Are you involved in helping others by volunteering? If not, there are a large number of ways to become involved. If you are 55 or older, one call to your local R.S.V.P. chapter can keep you very busy. Look in the paper. Ask friends about their volunteering efforts. Keep in mind that organizations count on volunteers, so be sure to do what you say you’ll do.

• When was the last time you went through your address book and connected with friends and family? This could be a simple e-mail, phone call or letter.

• How often do you organize a social activity? This can include: a party; meeting friends for dinner a walk or hike, having a friend over for tea etc.

• How often do you attend events that you are invited too? Keep in mind, the more times you don’t go, the fewer the invitations you will receive in the future.

• How much time do you spend around other people? If you find it’s very little, consider activities that interest you and find out what types of organizations or groups that you can participate in. Such activities could be a reading, birding or a hiking group; cooking, art or craft classes; campaign for a candidate that you like. Participating in activities where everyone has a common interest increases the odds you will find people you want to connect with.

• Do you use internet social networking tools, such as Facebook, message boards etc? There is a growing level of social networking happening thanks to the internet. A month ago, a close friend of my husband’s died. Since this individual, was known and loved by many, a Facebook page was established so people could connect, remember and grieve. It was the most wonderful piece of social networking I’ve witnessed in years. Not only was it an interactive way for people to mourn their loss together, all of the entries, videos, photos etc. are being downloaded and made available in digital format for this individual’s family.

Up until this point, I would occasionally look at my Facebook page, but hadn’t invested a lot of time in it. Because of this experience, I have been following my Facebook page, as well as making entries. I’ve added a lot of friends that I haven’t talked to in years. Yes, there are issues with this technology, so be very careful. Don’t look to this form of social connection for your health information. There are people that join these sites just so they can promote a treatment or make money off of someone’s illness. Also, don’t limit your social connections to the internet.

To the question of whether having a chronic condition increases or decreases chances for social interactions, it depends on the person. Many people are clear that receiving their diagnosis was the best thing that happened to them, since it gave them a social outlet they were lacking. However, people do withdraw from you because they can’t deal with the idea of someone being sick. When it comes down to it, relationships are critical to our well-being, and therefore it is important that we continually work at keeping a balance of them in our lives.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Take a Break Activities 8/09-10/10

Since I began this blog, in August 2009, every Wednesday has been, and will continue to be, "take a break" day. These posts (there are over 60 of them) contain a variety of activities that can help relieve stress and increase your sense of well-being.

August 2009
Take An Art Break: Five Ways
Art of the Game

Make a Potholder
iris Folding
Walk a Labyrinth
Take a yoga Break

Paper Beads
Color a Mandala
Learn Something New

Make a 3-D Snowflake
Play Moon Fish Ocean
Feed the Birds
Cards/Relax/Family History

Duct Tape/Music
zen gardens-make one/rake one
Garlands and Christmas Mandalas
Make Snow/Do Qigong Now
Take a Beach Day

January 2010
Plant Something
Watch a Feel Good Movie
Save and Read Quotes
Make a King Cake

Groundhog/Chinese New Year
Valentine’s Paper Basket
Langston Hughes poetry
Fold a Dollar

Be Inspired
Make Irish Soda Bread
Decorate Eggs
Make an Easter Basket/Remembering Anderson/Roosevelt

Fly a Kite
What’s Art/Flowers
Celebrate Earth Day
Take a Break With Rocks

Paint on Glass
Bring Nature Close to You
Aboriginal Art
Memorial Day Activities

Interact with Art
Do Something for the Dad’s
Play with sand
Get Ready for the 4

Make a vase that reflects your environment
Beat the Heat
Spatter Paint

Watch the Clouds
Visit a Farmer’s Market and Eat Well
Read a Book/Sip Tea
Fun Holiday Gifts to Start Making Now

Back to School
Apple Shrunken Heads
Apple Recipes
Apple Fables

Dia de los Muertos-Paper cuts/skulls
Dia de los Muertos-skeleton figurines /paintings
Dia de los Muertos-Food and coloring
Dia de los Muertos-Altars/Flowers/Halloween Movies

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Youth Caregivers

If you are under 21 and caring for a family member or friend with health needs, you are not alone. It can be hard work. It may cause you to miss school, social events, sleep and may even make it hard to maintain friendships.

You are not alone. There are millions of kids all over the world being a caregiver.

Other kids like you help family members take medication, get dressed, go to the bathroom, do the shopping, make meals, and stay at home to help out.

Understand there are resources out there to help. Places to look:
• the hospital or clinic where you family member goes for care
• your local church or place of worship
• school counselor
• a trusted adult
• health organizations like the American Cancer Society, Diabetes Association or Alzheimer’s Association. Use this link to find a chapter of an organization where you live.
• your local library

Taking care of someone is stressful. Follow these tips to take care of yourself
Learn about the health condition your family member is living with
• Stay in school, study as much as you can, ask for help
• Be aware of the signs of stress- Very tired; sleeping more than usual; easily crying; eating less; feeling sad; not enjoying life; panic attacks; resenting family members or friends; stomach problems
• Reduce stress
- Get 8 hours of sleep a night
- Eat a well rounded diet, stay away from junk food, eat breakfast
- Listen to music
- Exercise use the gym at school, walk, run, play
- Talk to someone, such as a parent, friend, an adult you trust
- Remember that your best is more than good enough, so relax
- Breathe!
- Join a support group
- Make time to do something you like
- Get help if you need it
• Read Treasure Talk: The Caregiving Youth Project Newsletter, which can also be e-mailed directly to you
• Keep a journal and write about your feelings.
• A fun way to learn more ways to caring for your body and mind is the BAM website
• Take a pass on the alcohol and drugs. They only make more problems.

Help is often just a phone call or e-mail away. Ask for it

American Association of Caregiving Youth

Camp Building Bridges

Caregiving Youth Project

Treasure Talk: Newsletter for Caregiving Youth

Caregiver Resources

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Take a Break: Dia de los Muertos Altar/Flowers and Halloween Movies

In writing this past Saturday’s post about creativity and mourning loss, I realized why Dia de los Muertos works so well for me. Since creativity can help in mourning loss, what better way to celebrate family and friends, who have gone before us with weeks of creative efforts in the areas of art, music, food and writing?

With Halloween just a few days away, this is a great opportunity to watch some films that set the mood. One of my favorite films as a child was “Fantasia,” which includes “Night on Bald Mountain.” I thought this was eerie and exciting all at the same time. I was never a big Mickey fan, but there was something funny about bewitched brooms in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Fortunately, you can watch both on-line

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Night on Bald Mountain

Then there is The Halloween Tree, which is often featured on the Cartoon Network at this time of year. Based on the short story and screen ply by Ray Bradbury, a group of children experience traditions of Halloween as practiced in many different cultures and times. The last place is Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebration. Ray Bradbury is the narrator of the animated made-for-TV movie.

Ofrendas (Altars)
Built inside the home, the altar is a way to remember family and friends who are being honored. It feature foods, candles, photos, skeletons, flowers, incense and other items. Mexican Sugar Skulls has checklist for altars, as well as an information sheet about Day of the Dead. Marigold (cempasuchil) bouquets brighten the altar. Since marigold season is long gone where I live, a paper version works quite well.

Paper Marigolds
Using yellow or orange tissue paper, layer about six sheets on top of one another. I tend to make mine small, so they turn out to be the size of a marigold. If you are making a larger flower, layering more than six sheets will give you a fuller look.

Next, fold the paper back and forth in an accordion style, just like making a paper fan. Wrap a pipe cleaner or wire around the center of the accordion tissue paper. Twist it, so it holds the paper and leaves a steam.

Round off the ends with scissors. Using pinking shears makes a very nice effect.

Start pulling each layer into the middle so you have a circle and a full looking flower. Watch the video flor de meuertos for more instructions. They call for crepe paper but it appears they are using tissue paper.

Make small bouquets and place on your altar.

For other Day of the Dead projects, check out the following:

Paper cuts/skulls

Skeleton figurines /paintings

Food and coloring

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Creatively Mourning Chronic Disease: Why “Take a Break”

This post is being modified to include a very interesting comment made by Martha Beck about achieving contenment/happiness by making something. She put into words what a number of us have learned and it summarizes why I think it's important to have a "Take a Break" post each week. Her comment appears first and the original blog post follows.

How to Be Here Now: People started telling me to "be here now" when I was about 20. "Great!" I responded. "How?" Be still, they said. Breathe. Well, fine. I started dutifully practicing meditation, by which I mean I tried to be still while compulsively planning my next billion-watt wow. But one day, while reading up on the latest research in positive psychology, I discovered a two-word instruction that reliably ushered me onto the plains of peace when I couldn't force my brain to just "be still." Here it is: Make something.

You see, creative work causes us to secrete dopamine, a hormone that can make us feel absorbed and fulfilled without feeling manic. This is in sharp contrast to the fight-or-flight mechanism, which is associated with hysteria hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Research indicates that we're most creative when we're happy and relaxed, and conversely, that we can steer our brains into this state by undertaking a creative task.

To get a dopamine "hit," make something that pushes you to the furthest edge of your ability, where you're not only focused but learning and perfecting skills. Cooking an unfamiliar dish will do the trick, as will perfecting a new clogging routine. At first, depending on how addicted to mania you happen to be, the excitement-grubbing part of your brain won't want to stop obsessing about over-the-top experiences. It will cling to its fantasies about the next huge thrill, its fears of Suicide Tuesday. Keep creating.

As you persist, your brain will eventually yield to the state psychologists call mindfulness. Your emotions will calm, even if you're physically and mentally active. You won't notice happiness when it first appears, because in true presence, the mind's frantic searching stops. In its place arises a fascination with what's occurring here and now. Though this feeling is subtle, it's the opposite of dull. It's infinitely varied and exquisite.

The aftermath of a creative surge, especially one that involves a new skill, is a sense of accomplishment and increased self-efficacy—which psychologists recognize as an important counter to depression. Instead of a Suicide Tuesday crash, you're left with the happy fatigue of someone who is building strength.

Pay attention to this process, and you'll see that the motivation to be here now will gradually grow stronger than the cultural pressure to seek excitement. You'll find yourself increasingly able to tune in to the delights of the present even when you're not actively creating. When this happens, you'll be on your way to genuine happiness: abundant, sustainable delight in the beautiful moments of ordinary life.

In the past month, I have been watching someone very close to me grapple with the death of a good friend, so I’m a bit tuned into the idea of mourning loss and the importance of doing so.

Yesterday, I came across an article by Joseph Nowinski, entitled “The New Grief: Is Creativity the Way Out of Mourning? “ He writes, “It is in our long-term interest that we allow ourselves to experience this journey into darkness, having faith that doing so will in the long run lead us back into the light. To achieve that result -- as opposed to getting stuck in the darkness -- we must be careful to give mourning the respect it is due, and to avoid seeking refuge in quick fixes, such as medication. I, too, have worked with returning veterans, and I have seen how such quick fixes can backfire, leading not to light at the end of the tunnel but to continued darkness in the form of unrelenting depression and anxiety.”

Nowinski uses the term “new grief” to describe the emotional changes that have come about now that most people live for a long time before they succumb to a disease (chronic illness) This new grief is the product of medical advances that have been brought to bear on terminal illnesses. As a result, what was once a, more or less, time-limited process of diagnosis leading to death has evolved into a drawn out process of diagnosis, treatment, remission (or arrest), relapse, more treatment, and so on. Not only the patient, but the entire family gets caught up in this process. Initially we may be very much aware of the emotions we experience.

While initial fear and anxiety arise when a diagnosis is given, over time it becomes that dull background emotion. Last Saturday’s post was about how the brain always has a trickle of fear running through it, which can quickly turn into a raging river when situations, such as grief, loss, and anxiety arise. In short, people dealing with chronic illness, where these emotions are part of the process, have more reasons then most to learn how to reduce the flow of fear in their brain.

Dr. Shelley Carson, the author of “Your Creative Brain,” is quoted extensively in Nowinski’s article Carson describes how the ongoing flood of negative emotion can lead to a loss of creativity. ….one effect of an ongoing negative background emotion such as grief (or anxiety) is that it makes us less open to novelty, less willing to explore or experiment. These, being the keys to creativity, mean that as we get entangled in the new grief we may also experience a disturbing loss of creativity.

The “take home point” of Nowinski’s article, is that creativity can help us heal because it reduces the flood of fear and anxiety. "We are all creative. Creativity is the hallmark human capacity that has allowed us to survive thus far." Viewed in that way, exercising our creativity in response to mourning makes sense.”

When asked how to be creative, Carson offers the following advise: First, keep learning new things. Take courses, read widely, and learn how to play a new instrument or how to cook Tuscan food. Learn, learn, learn! Second, try not to judge the things you’re learning. Keep an open mind. Everything you learn is a possible element that may make its way into some future creative idea that you can’t even imagine today. And the more open-minded you remain about what you learn, the more likely you are to see how it can be combined with other information to form a novel and original product or idea.

Each Wednesday is “Take a Break Day” on this blog. There are now over 50 ways to do that. So if you aren’t inspired by one week’s activity, definitely explore the others.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Take a Break: Dia de los Muertos Food and Coloring

Food! Glorious Food! This holiday offers all sorts of lovely treats. Chocolate, sugar skulls, tequila and Pan de Muertos or Day of the Dead Bread decorate altars, along with foods that those being remembered enjoyed in life. Pan de Muertos, a yeast sweet bread, is molded into bones, skeletons or other shapes relating to the holiday. Below are several recipes to try.

Pan de Muertos (recipe is given in Spanish and English)

T’ant’a Wawas (Andean All Saints’ Day Bread)

Because Halloween is a much bigger holiday where I live, I have come across some interesting Halloween treats that lend themselves to Day of the Dead. The best collection I’ve seen is from Our Best Bites. They have some easy ways to make bones and interesting looking fingers. They also describe how tonic water, when exposed to a black light, will glow in the dark. If the mood hits you, you can make Jell-O look like it’s radioactive.

More than anything, make foods that were special to those you are remembering.

A very calming activity, there are some fun things to do with pages that you color. For the mandala patterns, you can cut them into four sections and have people color just a portion. Then assemble them to make unique art pieces. It also works by coloring the entire mandala, then cutting them into four pieces and reassembling. If you put a lattice pattern, use simple construction paper, between each reassembled picture, you create a very interesting quilt pattern.

Some of these coloring pages can be used as patterns for sand paintings, outlined in last week’s post.

Sugar Skull Mask Will work for mandala project

Skeleton Coloring Picture

Day of the Dead Skull

Skull and bones mandala

Teacher packet

I came across the Missoula Mandala Project 2009 Celebrating Day of the Dead while looking for coloring pages. This large community mandala was made using sawdust.

If you are needing more information about Day of the Dead in general, go to the first “Take a Break” post this month.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Fear in the Patient/Provider Relationship: The Importance of Mindfulness

With the announcement of Stephen Colbert’s march to “keep fear alive” there have been some interesting articles on the topic. Rick Hanson, the neuroscientist and author of “The Buddha’s Brain,” has written several, which explains that our brains are in fact wired for fear so there is little need for a march to remind us of this fact. After reading the following passage in his Just “One Thing: What Makes You Feel Threatened?” I had a “eureka moment” about the medical appointments.

To keep our ancestors alive, Mother Nature evolved a brain that routinely tricked them into making three mistakes: overestimating threats, underestimating opportunities, and underestimating resources (for dealing with threats and fulfilling opportunities). This is a great way to pass on gene copies, but a lousy way to promote quality of life.

So for starters, be mindful of the degree to which your brain is wired to make you afraid, wired so that you walk around with an ongoing trickle of anxiety (a flood for some) to keep you on alert. And wired to zero in on any apparent bad news in a larger stream of information (e.g., fixing on a casual aside from a family member or co-worker), to tune out or de-emphasize reassuring good news, and to keep thinking about the one thing that was negative in a day in which a hundred small things happened, ninety-nine of which were neutral or positive. (And, to be sure, also be mindful of any tendency you might have toward rose-colored glasses or putting that ostrich head in the sand.)

Additionally, be mindful of the forces around you that beat the drum of alarm - whether it's a family member who threatens emotional punishment or political figures talking about inner or outer enemies. Consider for yourself whether their fears are valid - or whether they are exaggerated or empty, while downplaying or missing the larger context of opportunities and resources. Ask yourself what these forces could be getting out of beating that scary drum.

For most people, myself included, just walking into the doctor’s office sets off fear responses. How well do we really listen to what we’re being told when the normal trickle of anxiety turns into a raging torrent? Since we’re wired for bad news, when we are given test results that vary, even slightly, from the norm, does it get blown out of proportion? The short answer is “many times yes. “

In this doctor/patient visit is the fear only on the part of the patient? No. Even if it’s subtle, and it is a trickle versus your flood, it’s still there for your provider. Issues of malpractice, payment for services rendered, a waiting room full of patients, and even concerns of competency to treat a patient, all factor into the provider’s anxiety and fear levels. This can easily translate into more tests and procedures, more medication etc.

So knowing that the brain is wired for fear, and it’s a tense situation, how do we ramp it down so that we can make the best use of the time with the provider? Below are some suggestions to consider. Keep in mind that you may have to try several different approaches until you hit on the strategy that works for you.

Implied in these suggestions are the givens of writing down questions and concerns in priority order before your visit. Take an advocate to your visit and ask them to keep notes. Make sure they know what your concerns are.

• Remind your self periodically that the brain loves to be extra vigilant, particularly when there is a potential of something to be feared.

• In the waiting area, talk to your advocate about something that will engage your brain and not add to the stress. This isn’t the ideal time to go over your concerns, as waiting rooms can be pretty stressful.

• If you’ve watched any of the snowboarding events, you’ll notice that many of them are listening to music on their MP3 players. It not only keeps them “in the zone,” but it reduces the high anxiety levels, which could wreck their run. Some anxiety isn’t a bad thing but too much and you’ve hit the deck of the half pipe before you’ve even dropped in. Listening to music or a book might be just the distraction you need.

• Be mindful of your breathing. Mindful breathing goes a long way to help you remain calm. Notice aspects of your breathing. Is there a difference in temperature when you breathe in versus breathing out? Are you taking deep breathes versus shallows? Try saying a word or phrase as you breathe.

• Read a magazine or a book; do a crossword or some other type of puzzle.

• If you practice relaxation exercises, this is a good time to do a check about where you might be holding tension-neck, shoulders, hands.

• Notice the room around you. Even mentally counting something can occupy your brain.

• If you are alone, try talking to someone else who is waiting. They might welcome the diversion.

• After being called into the examination room or the doctor’s office, you will still be in the “waiting” mode. This is often the hardest times to stay calm, since distractions in the waiting area aren’t usually available here. Whatever you were doing in the waiting area, try bringing it into this situation.

If you can keep your fear levels under control during the waiting periods, which are often the most stressful times, you should be a bit more relaxed when talking about test results etc. and therefore more accurately understand your situation.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Take a Break: Dia de los Muertos: Calaca (skeleton) Figurines/Sand Painting

Don’t get me wrong, I love Halloween-any excuse for a party is okay in my book. However, there is a difference between Halloween and Dia de los Muertos, aptly described by Bobbi Salinas-Norman: Halloween is based on a medieval European concept of death, and is populated by demons, witches (usually women) and other images of terror -- all of them negative. The Day of the Dead, in contrast, is distinctly different. It is a uniquely Indo-Hispanic custom that demonstrates strong sense of love and respect for one’s ancestors; celebrates the continuance of life, family relationships, community solidarity and even finds humor after death -- all positive concepts! "Indo-Hispanic Folk Art Traditions II"

Watch how Day of the Dead is celebrated in different parts of Mexico.

This week’s activity is to make calacas, the skeletons and skulls that dominate Day of the Dead celebrations, and to create paintings using sand, salt or flower petals.

Calacas (Skeleton) Figurines
The Day of the Dead Ofrenda (altar) includes figurines and sugar skulls to represent the person who has died. In addition to stores that sell Mexican folk art, the figurines are also available on-line:

Mexican Sugar Skulls: Includes paper mache and ceramic. The paper mache are more expensive.

In the Mexican markets, you can find calacas made from a variety of mediums-paper mache (papel pegado), wire, wood, cardboard, cotton and/or clay. However, it’s not that hard to make your own.

Start by making the basic shape of your figure using wire. Check out Make a Wire Man if you need help with the basic shape. Once you have your wire armature, start adding clay, molding it to the shape you want. Polymer clays (Sculpy, Fimo) work well for this. Skull Beads and Charms have directions and photographs to illustrate the process of making a skull.

Painting with sand, salt or flower petals
From the video links below, you can see that these paintings are used to decorate graves, adorn churches, and are even parts of contests. These are generally temporary works of art.

At this time of year, there isn’t much in the way of flowers where I live so I’ve been experimenting with dried leaves. They work but don’t have the same impact of flower petals. You can also use beans, seeds and herbs to get a similar effect.

The technique is simple-sketch your design and fill in with sand, salt or flower petals.

I’ve been experimenting with sand and salt all week and am amazed at how incredibly beautiful the paintings are. So some basics:

• Salt and sand can be colored by using regular food dyes. Putting the salt or sand in a baggie, add the dye and massage until the color is absorbed. Add more dye for richer and deeper color. Let dry before using. Using different types of salt will yield different textures.

• I used my small Zen garden to experiment with different sand on sand techniques. My favorite was laying down a stencil and pouring sand on top of it. Carefully taking off the stencil, I was stunned by how beautiful it looked. This is a technique that is used in some parts of Mexico and stencils are handed down from one generation to the next. You can obtain contrast and detail by using a pipette filled with sand and carefully outlining your design.

• By laying down a base of wet sand, patterns can be carved and filled in with different colored sand. As you’ll see in the videos, you can use funnels and small strainers to control the amount and placement of the sand.

• While these paintings are often large and in very public places, you can make small ones using a picture frame, tray, large bowl or whatever type of container that strikes your fancy.

As one friend noted, “Americans like permanence” so if you want to save your sand or salt painting, you can spray adhesive on them, or lay down a base of watered down white glue before adding sand or salt.

Sand Painting Links
• Day of the Dead Sand Paintings, Oaxaca
• Day of the Dead Sand Painting Video
• Video How to Make a Sand Painting

Other Dia de la Muertos Activities
Introduction to the Holiday Paper Cuts and Skulls
Food and Coloring