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.