Prediabetes: More Common Than You Might Think

Nearly 1 in 10 upstate New Yorkers has been told they have prediabetes. Pat Salzer, a Registered Dietitian and Workplace Wellness Support Coordinator with Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, is one of those people.

Why all the Fuss?

Salzer was diagnosed with prediabetes 15 years ago.

She works to manage her prediabetes by applying what she preaches as a dietitian to what she practices in her own lifestyle. She acknowledges that it’s challenging to manage her prediabetes, especially when it comes to healthy eating, sleep and stress. But, she works hard to stay consistent with healthy habits. For example, she uses her own portion containers to take home leftovers from a restaurant and she sticks to a consistent bedtime. She also enjoys physical activity with friends to help keep her active and socially connected.

Why all the fuss? Though the “pre” may lead you to believe that it isn’t serious, prediabetes is a serious disease. People with prediabetes have up to a 50 percent chance of developing type 2 diabetes over the next 5-10 years. It also increases the risk of heart disease and stroke.

90 percent don’t know they have it

Prediabetes means that your fasting blood sugar level is higher than normal but not yet high enough for you to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

The rising of blood sugar levels associated with type 2 diabetes occurs when your body does not respond to the hormone insulin properly. This is known as insulin resistance. Insulin resistance leads to more glucose (sugar) in the bloodstream, raising the blood sugar levels to higher than normal. High blood sugar levels can be very damaging to your body.

While 1 in 3 U.S. adults has prediabetes, 90 percent of them don’t know they have it.

Prediabetes generally shows no signs or symptoms. Damage can be happening to your eyes and blood vessels over time even before the disease progresses to type 2 diabetes.

Know Your Risk for Prediabetes

There are many things that can put someone at risk for developing prediabetes.

Many of the risk factors for prediabetes are modifiable. That means that you can take steps to reduce your risk. You may be at risk for prediabetes if you:

  • Are overweight
  • Are physically active less than 3 times per week
  • Eat a diet high in processed foods and sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Smoke (Smoking damages the organs and cells of the body. According to the CDC, people who smoke are 30-40 percent more likely to get type 2 diabetes than people who do not smoke)

Other risk factors are not modifiable. These include having a parent or sibling with type 2 diabetes, race, and previous diagnosis of gestational diabetes.

But First, Diagnosis

The first step is to talk with your doctor about your risk. Your doctor may suggest doing a fasting blood sugar test to find out if you have prediabetes.

A fasting blood sugar test is very common. The blood sample for this test is taken after you fast overnight or for at least eight hours. The results will show if your blood sugar levels are normal or indicative of prediabetes or type 2 diabetes.

  • Normal: below 100 mg/dL
  • Prediabetes: 100 mg/dL to 125 mg/dL
  • Type 2 diabetes: 126 mg/dL or higher

Other blood sugar tests include an A1C blood test and an oral glucose tolerance test. A conversation with your doctor will help determine the right blood test for you.

Taking Steps to Manage Prediabetes

Prediabetes is serious, but it can be managed and is even reversible. Once Salzer became aware that she was prediabetic, she could take steps to manage it.

Making healthy lifestyle modifications can help you control your blood sugar levels. Lifestyle modifications include:

  • Eating a diet rich in vegetables, fruits and lean meats and avoiding foods that are high in sugar or highly processed. Salzer recommends meal planning as they key to having a healthy pantry and refrigerator.
  • Incorporating physical activity into daily life. Salzer suggests making exercise a social activity by walking with friends or taking a group fitness class.
  • Quitting smoking. For help with quitting, visit SmokeFree.gov

For Salzer, it’s not always easy, but she finds the joy in caring for her body. “Grocery shopping and cooking can be therapeutic and fun,” said Salzer, Her routine is to practice healthy habits most of the time, with some room for dark chocolate. “It’s all about balance,” she adds.

 

A free, downloadable educational poster on prediabetes is available at ExcellusBCBS.com.

How to Skip Traffic and Get a Workout, All Before 8am

The average American commute is getting longer. Between construction, accidents and traffic, it seems there is always something stopping you from getting to work on time.

The daily grind of his commute is what led Scott Pudney, a Software Engineer with Excellus BlueCross BlueShield to start biking to work. Pudney began by riding with a co-worker who lived nearby, which helped him get used to biking in traffic. He admits that biking to work has challenges, like showing up sweaty, storing his bike on site, and riding in the rain. Despite those challenges, Pudney says that having a bike that is capable, safe to ride and easily maintained made his new commute worth it.

This summer, you too can experience the benefits of biking to work.

it won’t burn a hole in your pocket

Cars are expensive. Just this year, the cost of owning a car has gone up to over$9,000 a year. On the other hand, it costs 30 times less to keep bikes in shape. So, if American drivers were to make just one four-mile bike round trip a week, they would save almost 2 billion gallons of gas a  year.

burn fat not fuel

On average, bicycle commuters lose  13 pounds in their first year of cycling alone. With biking, you can get your workout in before work, without all the hassle of paying for and finding time to hit the gym. Plus, because it’s low impact, biking is great for your bones and joints.

Stay Safe

Biking to work is only effective if you can stay safe on your bike. Pudney recommends finding the safest route, obeying traffic rules and making yourself seen.

Follow these tips to get the most out of your new commute. While many of them might seem simple, Pudney adds that “as a biker, you are much harder to see, therefore, you need to follow the rules and be twice as careful to make it to your destination.”

  • Helmets.  You’ve heard this one since you were little; every bike ride should begin with putting on a helmet. But it’s equally important that your helmet fits you right. Follow these steps to ensure your helmet can protect you on your ride.
  • Crash Prevention.  If you’re riding a bike, you should follow the same rules as people driving a car. For a reminder on the traffic laws, check the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Pudney says that while you “might feel the urge to skip traffic by weaving in and out of cars…you should maintain a straight, predictable line so cars can see you from far away. Popping out of nowhere might not only scare drivers, but also increase your risk of an accident.” You can also avoid a potential crash by staying alert of the traffic around you. If you can anticipate what others may do, it can help you prevent a crash.
  • Signal. Bicycles don’t come with turn signals and brake lights. But fortunately, there’s already a universal language for turns and stops on a bike.
  • Be Seen. An avid cyclist, Eileen Mazzo,  Financial Analyst at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, suggests increasing your visibility, by adding a “flashing white front light, a flashing red rear light, and reflectors” to your bike.

How to Get Started

Ready to give biking to work a try? Here are some tips to get you started.

  • Tune Up. Before you head out, make sure you are riding a bike that works and fits you. Check the brakes, tires and gears to prevent problems down the road.
  • Plan Your Route. Depending on how you drive to work, you may need to find a new route that helps you avoid the highway on your bike. Choosing a route with less traffic and slower speeds can be a good option for new bikers. Your safest route may be one away from traffic altogether in a bike or on a bike path.
  • Be Kind. A little kindness on the road goes a long way. Mazzo says that, it’s great to wave or even say thank you when cars are courteous. It makes them think of the cyclist in a more personal and respectable way.
  • Try a Bike Share. If you don’t own a bike, a bike share program can help! Bike sharing is a rental system, whereby you can pick up, ride and drop off bicycles at numerous points across the cities – usually at automated stations close by. Rochester has an established bike share program called Pace, and Syracuse is starting to break into the bike share program with Gotcha.  For more information on bike sharing, check out 12 Things to Know Before Using a Bike Share.

Ins and Outs of a Volunteer Vacation

Planning a summer vacation? Why not  take a trip that makes a difference and lets you explore the world? Consider taking a volunteer vacation.

What’s a volunteer vacation? While you are off exploring the world, you could also be living with a host family, working in the community, and getting to know the local people.

If you’re on the fence on this travel trend, check out some more reasons to try it out.

The Best Way to Experience the Culture

Dr. Gregory Carnevale, a Chief Medical Officer at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, went to Haiti for a volunteer vacation. He said it was amazing “to see a different part of the world and to be able to help a population that has nothing compared to what we have here in the US.” Carnevale and the volunteer team were deeply immersed in the Haitian culture through their work in a local orphanage.

Dr. Gregory Carnevale on his volunteer vacation

You can also enjoy authentic home-cooked meals from local villages, while becoming immersed in the local language. Learn the rich history of the culture around you by attending traditional festivals and holiday celebrations with your host family or fellow volunteers.

Carnevale adds that,”volunteer vacations give not only meaningful perspectives on difficult issues in other parts of the world, but also how different people live their daily lives.”

Explore the World and Give Back

Pat Salzer,  a Registered Dietitian and Workplace Wellness Support Coordinator with Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, visited Thailand on her volunteer vacation. The experience gave her the opportunity to explore a beautiful location with breathtaking views while she was working for the community there.

Salzer and husband on their volunteer vacation

Not only can you explore picturesque places, but you can contribute to a meaningful cause. By having this sense of purpose in your travel, you can opens the doors for learning about the people in the communities you serve.

Friendships

During these programs, you’ll likely create life-long friendships with host families and other volunteers. Salzer stresses that this was her favorite part of her volunteer vacation. She knows that, “the bonds that are made with the family who we help build their home are lasting memories.” Salzer adds “even if language is a barrier, we are able to communicate and learn about other.”

Salzer and her husband on their volunteer vacation

Life Changing

Many people who choose a volunteer vacation are forever impacted by the experience. The lessons learned through the immersion into another culture are often something that become  integrated into daily life when the trip is over. There’s also the opportunity to teach others from those lessons and encourage more acceptance of the culture you experienced.

Where to begin

Here are some possible programs to choose from:

  • International Volunteer HQ is the most widely-used provider of volunteer travel, and works with local organizations so that costs stay low and go directly towards community projects and jobs.
  • Volunteering Solutions offers multiple excursions that you can pick while volunteering. Some include Safari tours, bungee jumping, and language courses.
  • WWOOF pairs those who want to learn about organic farms with farm-owners that want to share their skills and lifestyles.
  • UN Volunteers assignments generally run for six to 12 months, with the possibility of extending for one to two years. If you are looking for a long-time commitment, this program would be a great fit.
  • Transitions Abroad can help you search through the many programs throughout the world to find your perfect match. Just put in the country or region and it will provide the programs!
  • REI Volunteer Adventures combines outdoor adventuring with volunteering. Programs are one to two weeks, and range from relocating sea turtle nests to helping rangers renovate trails.

Important Tips:

  • Decide the type of work before hand by researching the destination. Making sure your program is a good match for you will make the trip most memorable. Carnevale says that advance planning is critical to avoid unnecessary worries. A lot of people forget to consider time-off, necessary immunizations, travel documents, travel arrangements, currency, language barriers, etc.
  • Contacting the organization and asking a lot of questions will ensure that you know all the details of your program before you leave. Even asking people that have done the program previously will give you good background information.
  • By working with certain local organizations, fees are low and usually go towards community projects or employment. You can save money, and do good.
  • Creating a budget before the trip will help you plan out your extra activities throughout the entirety of the program, while also keeping you on track for your spending goal.

How Knowing the Signs of Stroke Saved My Life

“You’re too young to have a stroke!”

That’s what I’ve heard countless times since I had my first Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA), or mini stroke, at 24 years old. After suffering a second stroke-like episode at age 28, I can say firsthand that strokes do not discriminate by age. In my family, many of the women have suffered a stroke when they were young. Because of that, when I was growing up, I was taught to be aware of the signs of stroke. That may have saved my life.

Every 40 seconds

A stroke happens when the blood supply to the brain stops or when a blood vessel bursts. When the brain doesn’t have oxygen, brain cells die, resulting in disability or death. According to the CDC, a person in the United States suffers a stroke every 40 seconds. Fortunately, timely treatment can lower the risk of disability and death from a stroke. That’s why you need to get help quickly when the sudden signs of stroke appear.

I knew I needed help

It was late February 2019 and I was 28 years-old. I suddenly felt the left side of my face begin to tingle. The sensation moved down my left side to my left arm, hand, leg and foot. My symptoms came on suddenly and got worse quickly. I do also suffer from hemiplegic migraines, which can mimic a stroke, but the symptoms develop slowly over the span of a few hours. This time, I knew something was different.

Within minutes, I had extreme weakness in my left arm and leg. My face started to droop on the left side and speech became difficult. I knew I needed help. This is where knowing the symptoms of a stroke and educating my family and friends became so important.

Sudden signs of stroke

The sudden symptoms I was experiencing were characteristic symptoms of a stroke. According to the CDC, the sudden signs of stroke include:

  • Numbness or weakness in the face, arm, or leg, especially on one side
  • Confusion or trouble speaking
  • Trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Difficulty with walking, balance, or dizziness
  • Severe headache with no known cause

When every minute counts

I was fortunate that the people who were around me recognized that I was having a stroke. They knew I had to get to the hospital as soon as possible to ensure I received the “blood clot busting” drug – Tissue Plasminogen Activator (tPA). This drug works to dissolve any clots and helps regain blood flow to the brain. Furthermore, it helps reduce the risk of longer lasting residual effects from a stroke. However, there is only a short window of time that this powerful drug can be administered.

There are several other treatment options for stroke. The recommended treatment depends on the cause of the stroke. Some strokes are treated with a mechanical device that removes or breaks up the blood clot. Other options can include controlling high blood pressure and surgery.

With any treatment, time is crucial when a stroke is suspected. Every minute counts. You, and those surrounding you, should take quick action. That’s why it was important for the people around me to move fast and for me to note the time my symptoms started.

Act F.A.S.T.

If you think someone may be having a stroke, it’s important to remember to act F.A.S.T.:

  • F = Face. Ask the individual to smile. Does one side of their face droop?
  • A = Arm. Ask the individual to raise both arms. Is one arm drifting down or appearing weak?
  • S = Speech. Ask the individual to repeat a simple phrase. Is the speech slurred or confused?
  • T = Time. Note what time the stroke symptoms first appeared. Call 9-1-1 right away.

Knowing the signs of stroke may someday save your life, or someone else’s life.

Risk factors and causes

I am lucky that I knew my family history of stroke and was taught from a young age about the signs and symptoms of stroke. It allowed me to be prepared for this situation, to educate others, and understand my risk for having a stroke. Aside from family history, your sex and race or ethnicity can also increase your risk for stroke. While a stroke can occur at any age, the risk for stroke does increase as you get older.

There are many causes of stroke. According to the CDC, the leading causes of stroke are high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, and obesity. You can help prevent a stroke by making healthy lifestyle choices like eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and quitting smoking.

Walking down the aisle

Doctors are still working to formally diagnose the episode I had in February. Fortunately, the quick action of those around me and the administration of the tPA helped to lessen the severity of my side effects. After my stroke, I needed in-home physical and occupational therapy. Without the tPA, the residual side effects could have been much more severe.

Now, thanks to hard work and determination, I’m walking again without the assistance of a walker or cane. Some days when I get tired, I still notice weakness on my left side. But for the most part, I am proud to say that I have made a full recovery. I’m even going to achieve my goal of walking down the aisle on my upcoming wedding day without a cane.

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Out With Bones, In With Beets: Our Ever-Evolving Passover Celebration

I’ve always loved the traditions of Passover, the Jewish holiday that commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. Now that I have my own family, I’ve adapted my own traditions in ways I didn’t expect but find exciting. Our new family traditions are on display the most at the family meal of Seder, which marks the first of the eight-day observance. (This year, the first night of Passover is April 19.)

Everything on a Seder plate carries symbolism and purpose. But then, my daughter became a vegetarian. She was bothered by the bone that is traditionally displayed on the Seder plate.

So we did what any family would do: improvise.

Shevah’s daughter helps set the table for the Seder.

We spoke with other vegetarians and discovered they replaced the bone with a beet. She’s not bothered by the egg on the Seder plate, but some replace it with an avocado pit. It carries similar symbolism, but without involving animals. There are even new additions to the Seder plate such as adding an orange to represent gender equality.

Then there’s the meal. There’s some debate in my household about what’s allowed. My husband’s family has Sephardic roots (mainly Southern European) and observe different food customs, allowing beans and corn, for example, whereas my Eastern European ancestors did not. Last year, we had a lively discussion about quinoa! The verdict? We ate it!

And I still enjoy some of the foods from my childhood, including gefilte fish and chicken soup with matzo balls. It’s fun to experiment with matzo over the week-long holiday. We also enjoy a visit to the Model Matzha Bakery at the Louis S. Wolk Jewish Community Center of Greater Rochester.

Shevah’s son at the Model Matzha Bakery.

The Old and the New

Although my husband and I have adopted new customs, some are nice to hang on to from our childhood, like:

  • Find a hidden piece of matzo after the meal
  • See who can eat horseradish without making a face
  • Share the meal with friends and family
  • Sing loudly and off key, of course

My fondest memories of Seder include reading aloud the story of the holiday. It was a three-hour affair, usually with my grandfather reading while the rest of us followed along or bustled about in the kitchen. We stretched it out by singing songs and lingering over the table after the meal. (We weren’t always singing in tune with each other!)

While many people my age remember the story being read from the Maxwell House version, my family prefers the New American Haggadah. Edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, it incorporates poetry, notable quotes and interesting stories in the telling of the Passover story. You can even make your own kid-friendly version with your children.

In telling the story of Passover, we ask why traditions during this observance differ from what we do most other nights. I particularly like highlighting this idea with my children: this holiday gives us the opportunity to talk about bigger ideas like fighting hunger. We eat matzo to remind ourselves that the Jewish people experienced hunger as they fled Egypt. But I also feel it’s important to take action, such as bringing leftover items to a local food bank.

There are even whole Seders revolving around women or the theme of freedom from slavery.

Family Matters

Passover traditions vary from family to family. Some Jewish families use only special dishes set aside for Passover, or remove all foods that won’t be eaten during the observance. I choose not to do those things because that’s not the tradition I’ve set with my family, but the reminders are always appreciated.

The most important thing, whether you stick with tradition or have incorporated new ideas into your Passover, is spending time with family, taking time to pause and reflect, and most of all, counting your blessings!

We’d love to learn more about other favorite Passover customs – new or old. Post your memories and recipes below.

Knocking on doors. Looking under bridges. How we find hard-to-reach members.

Dajia Richardson parked her truck outside a house in a suburb of Rochester, N.Y.

She peered at the freshly-fallen snow on the driveway. No car. No footprints. “I’m still hopeful that someone is inside,” said Richardson, as she got out of the truck.

She trudged through the snow and knocked on the front door. Unlike some of her other visits this February morning, the man she was looking for opened the door.

 

Knocking On Members’ Doors

Richardson is part of the Safety Net CARE team at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield in upstate New York. CARE stands for Committed and Accountable to Relentless Engagement.

Richardson supervises the Community Connections team. These employees try to find hard-to-reach and medically-fragile Medicaid members and connect them back to the Health Plan.

If a care manager is unable to reach a Medicaid member, for example, the employees will look for members wherever they may be – at home, living under a bridge or at a friend’s house. The team, for example, connected almost 600 Medicaid members back to the Health Plan in the fourth quarter of 2018.

On this February morning, the member who answered the door struggled with high blood pressure. A nurse care manager kept calling him, but he wasn’t answering her calls.

That’s why he had an unannounced visit that morning from Richardson. The two talked for a few minutes. Then he invited her inside.

Another Nurse To Care About You

Richardson’s team of six employees look for Medicaid members daily. They look for Excellus BCBS members who live within eight counties of upstate New York: Broome, Erie, Livingston, Monroe, Oneida, Ontario, Otsego, and Wayne counties.

The employees have discovered that a personal visit may do more than an official letter or phone call to encourage Medicaid members to:

  • take advantage of community resources
  • talk to a care manager and enroll in a health-improvement program. Care managers help members with medical conditions, including pregnancies, diabetes and behavioral health issues.

The member with the high blood pressure, for example, told Richardson that he didn’t answer the care manager calls because he didn’t recognize the number. His girlfriend was also a nurse, he said, so he didn’t need to work with another one.

Dajia Richardson of Excellus BlueCross BlueShield

“It’s sometimes a little bit different when you have someone who works as a nurse and you know them personally, as opposed to a nurse care manager specifically for you and your care,” Richardson told the member. “When I put it to him that way, that he would have another nurse to care about him, he was definitely interested,” Richardson added.

By the time Richardson left his house, the member was on the phone talking to the nurse care manager at the Health Plan.

Looking Under Bridges

The hardest members to find are often those who are homeless. “We look for those bread crumbs that tell us where the member may be,” Richardson said.

Community Connections representatives, for example, traced one member with behavioral health issues to his parent’s house. They learned the member was living under a bridge. The parents shared details about the member. He was in his 20s, with a blonde ponytail and a scooter. After several trips to the bridge, Community Connections representatives found him and connected him to a care manager.

Click on the video below to learn about Richardson’s favorite success story – a member who needed help with her health and with other issues, including an eviction.

 

“We’ve Got the Goods”

Richardson and her team often go above and beyond to help members with other parts of their life.

On a day in January, for example, Richardson started her morning at the Angel Care ministry in a suburb of Rochester. The ministry helps financially-strapped moms acquire portable baby beds and other items.

“We’ve got the goods,” Richardson joked as she left the ministry with a pack n’ play and other baby items for a Medicaid member. She loaded the items in her vehicle. She then headed to the member’s home in the inner city of Rochester.

Community Connections representatives have cultivated contacts in the community – churches, government agencies, nonprofits, etc. – who can help employees secure items such as:

  • Special formula for premature babies
  • Help with an eviction
  • Government-subsidized cell phones
  • Beds for a family sleeping on wood pallets
  • Car seats for newborns

For the member receiving the pack n’ play, a care manager had learned that the new mom didn’t have a safe place for her newborn to sleep. That’s why Richardson trekked to the ministry that morning.

“A lot of moms plan to sleep with their baby in their beds, with no plans after that,” said Richardson, as she turned her car out of the ministry’s driveway.  “That’s where we can help.”

Chris Booth, CEO of Excellus BCBS, said the work of employees with Community Connections – and many others at the Health Plan – get at the heart of the company’s mission as a nonprofit health plan.

“The reason our Health Plan exists is to make sure as many people as possible have access to high quality, affordable health care,” he said. “We have a lot to be proud of, given all the work we do in our communities and especially with our Medicaid members.”

5 Ways to Reduce Caregiver Stress

When I was in high school, there were several years where my mom devoted herself to taking care of my grandparents. We lived in Syracuse, but my grandparents lived in Watertown, so my mom would regularly travel the hour or so north up I-81 to be with them. Back then, and for years after, she would often say how glad she was to be able to be there for her parents during that time. Despite the gratification caregiving brought her, I know it was hard for her to balance helping her parents while taking care of me and my sisters and working a full-time job.

Caregiving can be a rewarding experience, but it can also be very stressful. You may be experiencing caregiver stress if you’re feeling overwhelmed, alone, or are often worried. Whether you’re providing hands-on care or helping from afar, here are some tips from fellow caregivers to help reduce caregiver stress.

Take a break

Recognize that providing care for someone is an important job. Like all jobs, it’s important to seek a well-deserved break when you can. Don’t be shy about asking others for help. Jan Caster, a caregiver from Onondaga County, says that when someone offers to help, it’s important to “be specific about what the individual can do for you. Suggest choices like respite care, preparing meals or providing transportation.”

If you’re a long-distance caregiver, offer what you can to help the caregiver who is local. You can help research community resources or even give a small gift card to help give the other caregiver a break. That kind of help can be “a better gift than any ‘thing’,” says Jan.

There are also more formal respite services available to help give you a break and reduce caregiver stress. These services include:

  • In-home care: regular or periodic in-home care can provide someone to help with personal care, providing medical services and respite care.
  • Programs for All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE): these programs provide both medical and social services to individuals who live in the community.
  • Adult Day Care Centers: provide your loved one with some socialization while giving you an opportunity to work, run errands or take a break.
  • Nursing homes: many communities have nursing homes or other residential care facilities that can provide short-term overnight care if you need to go out of town.

Check with your local Office for the Aging and NY Connects to learn more about these and other respite services available in your community.

Communication is Key

Having open and honest conversations with your loved one can help to take the burden off of you, the caregiver. It’s helpful to understand the wishes of your loved one and make sure everyone is on the same page. Jim Redmond, a caregiver from Monroe County, says that when you’re a caregiver “you may need to have difficult conversations with your loved one…but you can still maintain a level of respect and help them preserve as much of their independence as possible. Part of having a difficult conversation is helping your loved one determine realistic goals based on their condition and the way it is changing.” Resources like AARP offer tips for having those difficult conversations.

It’s also important to establish open communication with other family members. “We have an on-going group text with my siblings and our spouses,” says Jim, “It helps everyone get the same information at the same time”. It’s one way to include everyone, even if they live out of town.”

Do Something You Enjoy

When you’re caring for someone else, you often prioritize your loved one’s health over your own. It’s important to remember to take care of your own health too to help you provide your loved one with the best care.

While it can be hard to do, Jan says it’s also helpful to “do something for yourself that you’ll look forward to.” You could watch a movie or take an exercise class. Jan enjoys a yoga class as one way to take time for her health. Finding time to rest or nap is important too, as many caregivers struggle with sleep. “Sleep is not overrated!” adds Jan.

Seek Support

Feeling isolated can be a challenge for caregivers. When you’re feeling alone, talking with others can help you to cope, whether it’s with a counselor or with a few good friends. My aunts were a main source of support for mom. They were helping to take care of my grandparents too. I remember the long phone calls my mom would have with them late into the night. Like with many of life’s challenges, it helps so much just to know you’re not alone.

Support groups are another great resource for caregivers. They can provide a safe space for venting frustration or sharing struggles. To find an in-person or online support group, contact your local Office for the Aging.

Keep Things in Perspective

It’s easy to become overwhelmed when caregiving, whether it’s with your loved one or with the situation in general. Jim says it helps to “maintain perspective” and remember that “everyone will have good days and bad days.” Many fellow caregivers say that when providing care for a loved one, it’s helpful to focus on what’s really important and not sweat the small stuff.

When all else fails, take deeps breaths and give yourself credit for doing one of the toughest jobs that there is. Jan adds, “Trust yourself when it comes to your loved one’s care – you know them better than anyone.”

Tips for Caregivers: 5 Ways to Help Your Loved One

Like in many families, my mom and my aunts spent several years caring for my grandparents. Each sister had a caregiver role. While one advised on medical decisions, another assisted with legal affairs. They did chores around the house, cooked meals, and helped my grandparents get to appointments. Most importantly, they all continued to bring laughter and joy to my grandparents, even in the most difficult of times.

In upstate New York, 20 percent of adults identify as informal, family caregivers. Another 14 percent of upstate New York adults are expecting to step into a caregiver role within the next two years. Caregiving can be a rewarding experience, but it can also be very stressful. Whether you’re providing hands-on care or helping from afar, here are some tips from fellow caregivers to help you provide care for your loved one.

Make a Plan and Put it to Paper

Phil Fielding of Monroe County learned a lot about caregiving from watching his own parents take care of his grandparents. “Have a plan way earlier than you think you need it,” suggests Phil, “Because you just never know when you may need it.” Phil added that making a plan early is “nothing to be scared of. But you need to make sure that your loved ones have a plan in place and wishes on file for what they want.”

Start planning by working with your loved one to complete necessary paperwork. Forms for a HIPAA authorization, or advance directives including a health care proxy, may need to be completed. For more information on advance care planning, visit CompassionandSupport.org. It may also be useful to consult with an elder law attorney to help protect your loved one’s finances should he or she need institutionalized care later.

Be an Advocate

It can be overwhelming when a loved one is diagnosed with a medical condition. If you’re suddenly in a caregiver role, Jan Caster, a caregiver from Onondaga County suggests learning about your loved one’s medical condition to “be your loved one’s best advocate.” Local chapters of health organizations like the Alzheimer’s Association, the American Cancer Society, and the American Heart Association can be good places to start when looking to learn more about a medical condition.

If you’re able to go with your loved one to the doctor, take notes during the appointment. This can help you and your loved one remember more about the appointment. Taking notes can also help trigger questions you may have. At home, using a calendar can help you keep track of your loved one’s health and activities. That makes it easier to share the information with the health care provider at the next appointment.

Choosing Wisely is another resource that can help with learning about whether certain tests, treatments or procedures are necessary for certain conditions.

Get Organized

Keeping track of documents can be challenging when medical bills, statements and educational materials start to pile up. Phil suggests “finding a system that works for you and using it to stay organized.” A filing cabinet or labeled folders can help you keep track of all the paperwork. Phil adds that you’ll also want to “find out the system of the person you are giving care for.” That way you can easily find the important documents that they were keeping track of.

Manage Medications

It’s important for your loved one to take any medications as directed by their doctor. One of my aunts, a pharmacist, took charge of helping my grandparents with their medications. She would explain why the medication was recommended, what the potential side effects were, and look for any potential drug interactions. For caregivers without a medical background, spending time looking up the medications and side effects can be helpful. The pharmacist or health care provider can also answer any medication questions.

Using a pill box can also help your loved one remember to take the right medications at the right time. You may even be able to save yourself a trip to the pharmacy by signing up for prescription home delivery. Some home delivery pharmacies will deliver a 90-day supply of a monthly medication right to the home, saving you time and/or money. Talk with the pharmacist to learn more.

Use Community Resources

Many caregivers stress the importance of having a strong network of community resources. But when you’re new to caregiving, it can be hard to even know where to start looking for help. Based on his experiences, Phil says that “Eldersource has been a huge help with linking to resources in the area. Senior centers in the region are also a great contact when caring for the elderly.” Contact your local Office for the Aging for assistance with things like transportation, long-term care insurance, or housing resources. To learn more about available services and supports for people with disabilities of all ages, utilize a hospital social worker or NY Connects to help you explore options.

Thank you, Henrietta Lacks

Earlier in my public health career, I lived in Baltimore, Maryland. There I met a successful nurse practitioner with whom I maintained a close connection even after I relocated to Rochester, New York. Angel and I shared similar interests in community health. Over the years, we traded stories of our professional experiences and inspired each other to improve the health and well-being of the communities where we lived and worked.

One day, Angel told me about a book she was reading, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.

I had never heard of Henrietta’s story. But as a health care leader, I was deeply inspired to learn more about her life. I would soon learn that Lacks played a monumental role in modern health care. As I learned more about her, I developed a deep connection with her.

The Mother of Modern Medicine

Henrietta Lacks was born in the 1920s in Roanoke, Virginia. Like most African-Americans living in the South during that time, Lacks was deeply disenfranchised by racism and Jim Crow policies and had no access to education or health care. In the early 1940s, she and her husband moved to Baltimore for economic opportunities. When she was barely 30 years old, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital, which was one of the only hospitals that provided health care to African-Americans during that time.

While receiving treatment for cervical cancer, Lacks’s cancerous and non-cancerous cells were removed from her body without her knowledge. While this would be regarded as shocking now, it was a common practice back then.

Then her healthy and malignant tissues were acquired by a cancer researcher who had been trying to successfully clone human cells for years. Lacks’s “HeLa” cells were the first and only cells to survive and multiply exponentially. They were also the first cells to be successfully cloned. This was a huge breakthrough not only for cancer research, but for medicine in general.

Henrietta Lacks tragically died at the age of 31, nine months after her diagnosis. Her cells, however, lived on. As news spread about the immortal cells, Johns Hopkins shared the HeLa cells with many other research institutes.

How HELA Cells Transformed Health Care

Over time, the HeLa cells were used to help develop the polio vaccine, AIDS and chemotherapy treatments, in vitro fertilization, gene mapping and other significant medical and research breakthroughs.  HeLa cells contributed to many of the Nobel Prizes given in medicine over the last 60 years.

Regrettably, Henrietta’s family did not learn about the use of her cells and how they had transformed health care until decades after her death. Neither Johns Hopkins nor the family of Henrietta Lacks ever received compensation for the cells, even though the cells ended up being used for commercial and for-profit purposes.

Skloot’s book and a movie about her life have helped spread awareness about Lacks’s story. Often called The Mother of Modern Medicine, Lacks is just now receiving the recognition she deserves for the significant part her cells have played in the development of modern medicine.

Given the significance of the HeLa cells, I think it’s important for Americans, especially health care professionals, to know this amazing story. I feel a strong connection to Lacks. We are both African-American women who lived and raised families in Baltimore.  I am inspired to keep her memory alive by helping to raise awareness about her contributions to health care and by continuing the work to solve the social issues that impacted her and her family.

Thank you, Henrietta.

Will you join me? New York City at 3 mph

Growing up on Long Island and then while attending college in New York City, I had the opportunity to enjoy many of the things that make the “Big Apple” an endlessly interesting and special place.

But it was not until several years ago that I was made aware of the opportunity to experience Manhattan in two very challenging and unique ways.

In a few months, I’ll again experience Manhattan in this very unique way. I’d love for you to join me. But first, read on.

Experience Manhattan by bike

Several years ago, my brother and I joined about 4,000 other cyclists and rode our bicycles in the New York City Bike MS event to raise funds for the many individuals (including our Dad) who struggle with multiple sclerosis.

The first year we participated, we rode about 30 miles on closed roads around the perimeter of Manhattan. The following year, a friend joined us, and we took an extended, 45-mile ride on (mostly) closed roads that included the ride around Manhattan and a ride through the Lincoln Tunnel to New Jersey and then back into Manhattan via the George Washington Bridge.

Experience Manhattan on foot

A few years ago, my mother-in-law made me aware of a chance to experience Manhattan in yet another unique way, through a Shorewalkers event known as “The Great Saunter.” Held the first Saturday in May, it’s a one-day, 32-mile walk around the perimeter of Manhattan.

The majority of the walk is along the Manhattan waterfront, including the Hudson and East Rivers, and traverses more than 20 parks. It begins and ends in Battery Park at the southernmost tip of the island.

On my first Great Saunter experience in 2015, one of my good friends from college and I joined 1,500 other walkers who set out early in the morning. Although my friend and I did not complete the entire walk, we did cover more than 25 miles! By late afternoon/early evening, more than half of the original group had completed the course.

It is amazing how different Manhattan looks and feels “from the edges,” rather than being immersed in the glass and steel canyons of the usual street grid. Highlights of the walk include stunning views of the Statue of Liberty and the New Jersey, Queens and Brooklyn waterfronts.

We walked under several bridges, including the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges.  At the northern tip of Manhattan, we ate lunch at the base of the Little Red Lighthouse in Fort Washington Park, and we later passed through almost 200 acres of the beautifully wooded (and quiet!) Inwood Hill Park. At that point, it was difficult to believe that we were still in Manhattan!

Armed with an excellent map of the Great Saunter route, we were guided along the way by Shorewalkers volunteers, who also provided snacks, drinks and plenty of encouragement.

Preparing for The Great Saunter

If you’re anything like me, you won’t be able to undertake a 32-mile walk on the spur of the moment. To prepare for the Great Saunter, I added several long (six- to seven-hour) walks in the Syracuse area to my usual, regular daily walks. My favorite places to go for the longer walks are Green Lakes State Park, Onondaga Lake Park, and during those cold winter months, Destiny USA mall.

My challenge for 2019:  Walk AND bike Manhattan

I may have to do a little more training for my trip to New York this year. I recently learned of the annual Five Boro Bike Tour, a one-day, 40-mile ride that begins and ends in Staten Island on the first Sunday of May (the day after the Great Saunter).

As the name suggests, this event is a ride through all five of the New York City boroughs (also on closed roads), including a trip on the Staten Island Ferry and a ride over the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge. Each year, more than 30,000 people from around the world participate in the Five Boro Bike Tour.

So this year, I’ve made it my personal challenge to spend the first weekend in May in New York, walking in the Great Saunter on Saturday, May 4, and then riding in the Five Boro Bike Tour the following day, May 5.

Anyone care to join me? If so, please respond in the comments section below.