How Parents Can Spot the Signs of Substance Abuse

Parents know there’s a lot to keep up with in the fast-moving world of teens. The latest trends in fashion, video games, music, social media …the list seems endless. But what about trends in drug and alcohol use? Would you know what they are, or what to look for?

Raising Awareness about drug and alcohol abuse

There’s help with that. “Hidden in Plain Sight, Telling Their Secrets,” a program developed by The Council on Alcoholism and Addictions of the Finger Lakes is designed to help parents, teachers and others learn about current local drug trends.

Even if your child isn’t using drugs or alcohol, this program provides information that is important for anyone who has a relationship with young adults.

“The purpose is to raise awareness and start conversations about drug and alcohol abuse,” said Timothy VanDamme, executive director of the Council on Alcoholism and Addictions of the Finger Lakes. “We all need to work together to raise healthy families and keep our children and community safe.”

Can you spot the warning signs?

I attended a recent presentation of the program. It began with a replica of a teen’s bedroom. There was a bed, a dresser and a desk with a chair. Clothing, food and drink containers were lying about. Pictures and “mementos” covered the desk and posters hung on the wall.

The contents of the room looked innocent enough.

Participants went through the bedroom and identified objects that could possibly warn of substance use. They looked closely at items on the desk and bed, and picked through the pile of clothes on the floor.

Amazingly, there were 49 items hiding throughout the small space.

Some warning signs of substance abuse were easy to identify:

  • A photo of a boy and his friends drinking
  • A bong
  • A small vodka bottle
  • A Juul (an electronic cigarette)

Girl with an electronic cigarette

Other signs weren’t so obvious.

The Signs that Went Unnoticed

Here are some of the items that I didn’t see or realize could hint at substance abuse:

  • A ping pong ball on the desk. What if there was no ping pong table in the home, or the teen didn’t regularly play the game? Could it be used for a game of “beer pong?”
  • “Bracelets” that could be used to smoke marijuana
  • A pipe disguised as a marker.

Photos are courtesy of Council on Alcoholism and Addictions of the Finger Lakes “Hidden in Plain Sight” presentation

  • Items that could hide drug paraphernalia or alcohol, like beverage cans with false bottoms and hats and undergarments with hidden pockets. To the uninformed, these items may never be identified. It was surprising to learn how easy it can be to purchase – or even make – some items.

Photos are courtesy of Council on Alcoholism and Addictions of the Finger Lakes “Hidden in Plain Sight” presentation

In addition to the search for warning signs in the mock bedroom, the program also provides education about the drugs that are readily available in our community, including marijuana, heroin, and fentanyl. Program attendees learn about what these drugs look like and how they’re used.

“The More I learn, The better parent I can be”

Russ Kenyon is a parent of teens ages 15 and 17. The program, he said, expanded his horizons.

“The more I learn, the better parent I can be,” he said. “I thought I would pick up on these things. I was surprised. Now I have a better awareness of things that I wouldn’t have thought twice about. I recommend any parent go through this, your eyes will be opened.”

Trends in substance abuse are always changing. Therefore, VanDamme and his team are always conducting more research and updating presentations, which he said is very worthwhile.

“With the opioid epidemic, alcohol consumption, vaping issues and other drug abuses we want to reach as many people as possible,” he said. “It’s our goal to witness a reduction in drug and/or alcohol use among the adolescents and young adults in our community.”

“Hidden in Plain Sight, Telling Their Secrets” is a free program. Participants should be 21 or older (due to program content). To register or host an event, call the Council on Alcoholism and Addictions of the Finger Lakes at 315-789-0310 or visit their website: http://councilonalcoholismfingerlakes.org/.

50 Small Changes for a Healthier Life

I’m obsessed with my popcorn popper. My hot-air wonder has been popping healthy treats since before I met my hubby and had kids – even before I got the now-elderly feline.

You come to my house, I serve you popcorn. You invite me to your house, I come with popcorn.

My friends mock me for my love of air-popped popcorn. But they lust after salty chips and fudgy ice cream, while I happily embrace my popper and bag of popcorn kernels.

It’s my simple solution to healthy snacking.

“Swapping out junky treats for air-popped popcorn is a simple change that can lead to a healthier tomorrow,” said Patricia Salzer, registered dietitian, Excellus BlueCross BlueShield.  “One cup of popcorn is about 30 calories – if you don’t add gobs of butter and other unhealthy stuff!”

It’s not the only simple solution to life’s healthy living problems. Consider these 50 small healthy changes that can make a big difference, and visit ExcellusBCBS.com/LiveFearlessNation for more on how to make small changes – one fearless step at a time. Help spread the word with family and friends and inspire others to be part of this Fearless Nation.

Eat better

Let’s start with my biggest hurdle – eating right! I generally eat OK, especially when I’m inhaling popcorn, but I’m a sucker for sweets. Here are some ideas:

  1. Invest in an air popper! (Are you surprised this is tip #1?) You, too, can be mocked by friends for snacking on nothing but popcorn. But, get this. One of those friends ran out a few years ago and BOUGHT HER OWN POPPER! It changed her life.
  2. Banish the Oreos to the highest of shelves! Exile the double fudge ice cream to the back of your freezer!  Out of sight, out of mind, right?
  3. Wash and cut-up raw veggies and coax them to the front of your fridge. When you’re looking for something quick to eat, you can grab and go. For an added treat, dip them in a hummus or a yogurt mix.
  4. Swap out the cookie jar for a bowl of apples. Apples are guilt-free because they have just traces of fat and sodium and no cholesterol. The skin of the apple is loaded with disease-fighting antioxidants.
  5. Ditch the gigantic plates. Smaller plates can help control portion size. The bigger the plate, the bigger the portions . . . and the more calories you’ll consume.

  1. Fill that smaller plate with the right stuff. Fill half the plate with fruits and veggies and split the rest between lean protein (chicken, fish, beans, etc.) and grains.
  2. Hey ladies: If you’re thinking of having a baby at some point, consider stocking up on folic acid. This vitamin helps to prevent birth defects. Aim for 400 micrograms of folic acid daily in vitamins or foods, such as fortified breakfast cereal.
  3. Ditch the “I need to get Vitamin D” excuse for excess sunbathing. Don’t risk getting skin cancer. Consider eating foods high in the vitamin, such as tuna fish, salmon and fortified milk. The vitamin is critical to having strong and healthy muscles and bones.
  4. Carry around a water bottle for easy drinking. Drinking lots of water can help curb your hunger and help you lose weight.
  5. Not a fan of water? Add flavor to tap water with slices of cucumber, cinnamon sticks, apples, fresh cranberries or a sprig of mint.
  6. Now that you have an air-popper, consider adding a crock-pot to your collection of small appliances. Become a wiz at making easy, healthy meals. It can even save your sanity and your marriage.
  7. Add veggies to your meals, whenever possible. Got fussy kids? Find ways to sneak veggies into their foods. Try this Stealthy Zucchini Meatball recipe.
  8. Eat breakfast. Lose weight. Really.
  9. Indulge in healthy snacks. Think plain Greek yogurt, a few nuts, fruit, veggies or nut butter. If you get too hungry, you’ll likely overeat at your next meal.
  10. Buy fruits and vegetables that are in season in the fallwinterspring and summer. Eat foods at their peak for flavor and freshness.
  11. Drink your greens. You won’t taste the added veggies, but you’ll be getting an extra serving of produce without even trying. Check out this recipe.

Move more

I used to run – a lot. But then then I had kid #1 and kid #2, and started running less. I stressed over my inability to find enough time to run.

I finally faced reality. As long as I moved a lot in a day, it’s OK if I didn’t run. My new outlook saved my sanity, and kept me active.

Here are ideas for moving more:

  1. Buy a FitBit or another activity tracker — if you don’t mind spending the cash! It might be the motivation you need to hit certain activity goals, like 10,000 steps or more a day.
  2. Walk out your front door and keep walking. Walking has the lowest dropout rate of any physical activity. It’s so easy to do!
  3. Loop around the perimeter of a big box store such as Walmart, Target or Wegmans before you fill your cart. Destiny USA in Syracuse has a walking path around its stores, or check out these community walking paths if you live near Monroe County.
  4. Race your kid. Run outside with the little ones, climb that tree, jump rope and kick the ball. When I’m low on steps for the day, I race my kindergartener around our yard to boost my activity totals.
  5. Stand up! More than half of your day is likely spent sitting. Too much sitting is linked to heart disease and other serious issues. Sit all day at work? Set a reminder to stand every hour. Stand when on a conference call or eating lunch. Or, try a walking meeting with co-workers.

  1. Wake up 10 minutes earlier for a quick workout. I’m currently hooked on a 12-minute Tank Top Arms Workout on YouTube. My co-worker swears by the free workout app, Seven, for — you guessed it – seven-minute workouts.
  2. Time strapped in the morning? Squeeze in a few push-ups (on toes or knees) before you brush your teeth.
  3. Keep refilling the water bottle or glass of water. That’ll get you extra steps – especially from added bathroom breaks!
  4. Skip the email! Get up, walk to your co-worker’s desk and have an actual conversation in person.
  5. While watching TV, stand, stretch or squeeze in exercises.
  6. Schedule a gym date with a friend. You’re more likely to go if you have a buddy holding you accountable.

Feel better

My neighborhood is full of big weeping willows and other park-like, mature trees. A creek winds through my yard. A walk around my yard or street is the perfect stress buster, since being in nature is a great mood booster. Here are other ideas to help you stay sane:

  1. Trek through a park, forest or trail. As I mentioned — nature is believed to reduce stress and depression.
  2. An even simpler solution? Go outside and breathe in the fresh air.
  3. When you’re outside, look up! The sky can be beautiful and a great distraction from your troubles.
  4. Gardening – Fixing up your yard or tending to rows of tomato plants can help reduce stress.
  5. Breathe … deeply. It’ll help distract you from your thoughts and might actually help you (really) relax.
  6. Power Pose!  Stand tall with your hands on your hips! Or, flex your muscles! Do whatever pose makes you feel powerful for two minutes. It might boost your confidence before a job interview or another high-pressured event.

  1. Exercise to . . . relax? It’s a real thing. Exercise can decrease stress levels while stimulating the feel good chemicals in your brain, called endorphins.
  2. Pen thank you notes. Focusing on the good things in your life, such as how others have helped you, can make you feel happy.
  3. Write only happy thoughts. Journal about what makes you feel good. It’s the same idea behind #33. Gratitude can boost the positive emotions that make you happy.
  4. Call a friend. Connecting with good friends can prevent you from feeling lonely, offer companionship and boost your overall mood.
  5. Smile! I mean a real, full-fledged smile that leaves crinkles around the eyes. Smile your way out of your crabby mood.
  6. Volunteer. If you want to fight depression and loneliness, helping others is a great antidote.
  7. Hey road-ragers: Get a stress ball. Instead of shrieking at the car in front of you, find other ways to alleviate stress.

Sleep more

I took an amazing nap the other day. It was Sunday, and I was up early with the kids. After a morning of chasing them around, doing errands, laundry, etc., I was cranky and exhausted. Then I took that amazing 20-minute nap. I woke feeling unusually refreshed and pleasant!

Here are tips for grabbing more of that elusive shuteye:

  1. Nap! A short, 20-30 minute nap can help fix a poor night’s sleep.

  1. No bedtime iPhone-ing. That light from your smartphone might wreck your ability to sleep.
  2. Read a book. When I’m struggling for shuteye, I grab the Kindle and read until my eye lids start to droop. It. Works. Every. Time.
  3. Quiet your racing mind. One large sleeping roadblock is your obsession with your to-do list, your workload, your kids, etc. But meditation can help calm your mind and relax. Sleep.org has tips for meditating before bed.
  4. Skip the booze. I’m really sorry about this one. The wine before bed might help you quickly doze off, but you might not get a restful night’s sleep. Everyone’s body is different, so listen to yours in deciding if and how much to drink before bed.
  5. Exercise during the day. When I run, I sleep. Doing aerobic exercise for at least 10 minutes and you might have a more satisfying slumber.
  6.  Snack before bed. This blog article, “11 easy snacks to help you sleep better,”  will get you thinking about nighttime indulgences.
  7. Adult lullabies. Sure, you’re a big adult with big adult responsibilities. But even big adults sometimes need “adult lullabies” to wind down and fall asleep.
  8. Thin, firm or no pillow? Are you a back, side or stomach sleeper? Certain pillows will work best for certain sleepers. Get tips HERE.

Our last small change is….

Have you seen how kids clean their teeth nowadays? They’ve got bags of colorful, flavorful “flossers” to sharpen their fangs. All I got as a child were boring containers of … floss.

  1. Speaking of floss, do it! Flossing helps prevent gum disease, which in turn can lead to a host of health issues. So floss, and you might reduce your risk of heart disease.

A dog may be the key to losing weight

Want to Lose Weight? Grab Your Dog’s Leash

Losing weight is…well, hard! Eat healthy, be more active…you know the drill. But getting started and sticking with it are two of the hardest parts. So, what if you had someone to keep you on track, was always available, and never said no? Would it also help if they were one of your best friends?

If you answered yes, the answer may be just a few feet away from you.

If we’re out of shape, then our pets probably are too. About 54 percent of dogs (and 58 percent of cats) are overweight or obese, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. About 2 in 3 upstate New York adults, meanwhile, are also overweight or obese, according to an Excellus BlueCross BlueShield report. Heavier adults are at risk for serious chronic diseases and health problems. But, did you know that obese pets also face many of the same health problems as humans, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis, urinary disease, skin problems, and breathing problems. Also, overweight pets often have shorter life spans (up to 2.5 years less). Taking steps to stay in shape with our pets may help keep them around longer.

Taking “steps” to be active

In 2015, the U.S. Surgeon General encouraged people to be active and walk more. Strong evidence exists that physical activity has substantial health benefits,” according to “Step it Up! The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Promote Walking and Walkable Communities.” “Walking is an excellent way for most Americans to increase their physical activity.

It’s a simple formula. One overweight adult + one overweight dog = one really good reason (and motivation) to lose weight together. One easy way to get started would be to just go on regular walks together a few times each week.

The Wake-up Call that Saved Brad’s Life

A walk or a run can be great exercise.

Brad, a 6-foot-6-inch former athlete, had a wake-up call in his mid-30s. His doctor said he was at risk for heart disease and other health problems, such as diabetes and stroke, because of his weight and lack of exercise. He adopted Buddy, a black Labrador retriever. ”The energetic dog became Brad’s running buddy and ticket to better health. “  (More on the story of Brad and Buddy.)

Couch Potato to Athlete – The Story of Eric and Peety

Eric, a 57-year-old salesman from Spokane, Washington, says a plump dog named Peety helped turn him from a couch potato struggling with obesity into a slim athlete. Eric weighed 330 pounds. He lived by himself and would often eat two extra-large pizzas (consuming potentially thousands of calories) for dinner. He spent more than $1,000 a month in medications for type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure.

One month before Eric was due to have weight-loss surgery, he was advised to eat a whole-foods diet AND to rescue a dog. The thinking was that having a dog might force Eric to get outside and be more active. (Maybe he’d even meet other people?) Peety, a 7-year-old border collie/Australian shepherd mix, “came into his life and changed it forever.” More on how Eric and Peety changed each other’s lives  (Their video.)

The Tale of Otto the Bulldog

how to help a bulldog to lose weight

Otto the Bulldog started taking longer walks and lost 15 pounds.

Typically you can’t get an English bulldog off the couch, let alone walk more than 50 feet,” says Brittany, a digital marketing manager from Rochester, NY. “Ever since he was a puppy, Otto, our 6-year-old English Bulldog, has enjoyed going on walks.”

As he grew older though, Otto’s vet wanted him to drop from 65 to 55 pounds. Brittany gradually extended their typical route. We often forced him to take breaks, just to catch our own breath!” Combining longer walks with better food, Otto has dropped down to 50 pounds, has a softer coat and is happier than ever. No need for a Fitbit® alarm – Otto reminds us to walk every day with a long, dragged out whiny mumble. What a great way to unwind after work, talk about our day, and get our steps in as a whole family.

Set up a routine and stick with it

The philosopher Lao Tzu had a saying that went something like, “The journey of a 1000 miles begins with one step.” If you’re just getting started, go for shorter walks, gradually increasing them as you feel comfortable. It’s important to set up a routine. Try walking at the same time every day. Dogs like routine and will likely come and encourage you on those days when you may not feel like it (just like Otto).

Also, if your friend or neighbor has a dog, maybe you can walk together.

Keep safety in mind for both of you. Stay hydrated. In hot weather, try going early or later in the day when it may be cooler. In cold and snowy weather, wear good boots and check their paws for snow and ice buildup.

Nutrition is also an important part of the puzzle.

If food were in front of your dog all day, they would likely keep eating. We often have the same instincts. says Janette Westman, a workplace wellness consultant at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. A dog’s food is controlled by their environment. The owner puts it out when it’s time to eat and controls the amount. We could create a similar environment for ourselves. By reducing how much food is constantly in front of us, we could be less tempted to snack all day long as well. Also, planning ahead is another way to make healthy eating easier.”

You can also try modifying some of your habits using the “Five Rules for Eating” from Stephen Cook, M.D., MPH, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center. If you do choose to snack during the day, there are healthy options that can give you a boost between meals. Try keeping a banana, apple, or a handful of almonds handy. Pat Salzer, a registered dietician for Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, has suggestions for healthy snacking throughout the day.

What about healthy eating for my dog? According to the American Kennel Club, there are things you can do to prevent them from packing on unnecessary pounds, like establishing a regular eating schedule, limiting between-meal snacks, and choosing low-calorie treats.

Don’t already have a “workout” buddy?

Consider adopting/rescuing a dog. Check with your local animal rescue organization if interested in pet adoption. Some will allow local volunteers to come and walk their dogs. That can also be an option if you’re not quite ready to adopt.

Please consult with your doctor before beginning any diet or exercise regimen for yourself and a veterinarian for your furry friend.

Twinkle, Twinkle Little UGH. Solutions for Parents who Hate Kids’ Music.

Becoming a parent stirs up a lot of fears. Will I be a good caretaker? Who will take care of my child when I go back to work? How do you keep one of these things alive? You mean we can just take them home?!

And that’s just the stuff you talk about publicly.

The Creepiness of Children’s Music

One of the secrets I’ve harbored in the deep recesses of my mind is a disdain for kids’ music (and those weird music videos!). The chipper, high voices. Bright primary colors. People singing while wearing spandex.

I’ve tried to get on board. I attended a newborn story time at our local library,* where they handed out lyrics to  kids’ songs and taught interactive movements. A totally cool idea, and very helpful for someone like myself who hasn’t been around kids that much and has no idea where to start with such things. Story time was met with marginal success:  my baby slept on my lap while I sang and clapped. My mind kept wandering along with the ridiculous lyrics we were singing. The song “Hickory Dickory Dock” reminded me of a Hickory Farms summer sausage gift basket. Ants marching one by one in the house are usually met with the sole of my shoe, because I’m the resident exterminator. And spiders? During a discussion of “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” my brother texted, “I hate spiders. Why would I sing about them?” Well said, sir.

Then the time of reckoning arrived. A beautiful, innocent, googly-eyed baby staring up from the crib, longing for some parental interaction. When I opened my mouth to croak out something, I didn’t know what to sing other than “Happy Birthday.” That experience showed me the need to create some playlists that wouldn’t be too terrible to sing along with over and over again. Because what is more fun in life then creating your own soundtrack?

The Positive Effect That Music Has on Children Makes It A Must

Solutions for People Who Hate Kids' Music

Studies have shown that music can have a really positive impact on childrens’ development.

I appreciate and support the benefits that music (even lullabies like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”) can have on child development. I have Sesame Street records and sing “Row Row Row Your Boat” and “Buzz Buzz” like it’s my job. Study after study has shown so many positive effects that music and music therapy can have on a child at any stage, even in-utero . While listening to music, premature infants in the neonatal intensive care unit  show signs of improved breathing and heart rates, along with advances in neurological development, weight gain and appetite..

It’s just that the entire universe-altering shift to parenthood is so overwhelming that it’s hard to let all facets in at once and the preordained music playlist, well, sometimes it just hurts. So you try to preserve some small semblance of your past that you want to share with your little one.

Playlists That Don’t Suck

There is nothing revolutionary here and obviously you can put any music you like on your soundtrack.  I’ve been known to sing the jingle from the Cellino & Barnes commercial when desperate. Sleep deprivation causes things like an inability to remember your once-favorite songs, the words to the ABCs or those melodies earmarked for kids. I’ve found it helpful to have playlists queued up so I can spend more time interacting with our little one instead of racking my brain for songs to sing.

Playlist for bouncing, clapping & tummy time:

Listen to this playlist on Spotify

  • Ophelia, The Lumineers
  • Take it all Back, Judah and The Lion
  • HandClap, Fitz and the Tantrums
  • I am the Walrus, The Beatles
  • Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song), Otis Redding
  • Budapest, George Ezra
  • Home, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
  • Welcome Home, Radical Face
  • Dog Days are Over, Florence and the Machine
  • I Feel the Earth Move, Carole King

Playlist for mellowing out:

Listen to this playlist on Spotify

  • Three Little Birds, Bob Marley
  • Here Comes the Sun, The Beatles
  • Morning Song, Avett Brothers
  • In the Dark, Nina Simone
  • Hello My Old Heart, The Oh Hellos
  • The Circle Game, Joni Mitchell
  • Our House, Crosby, Stills and Nash
  • Mercedes Benz, Janis Joplin
  • Half Acre, Hem
  • Lullaby, Lord Huron

Playlist for loud crying (either the baby’s or yours):

Listen to this playlist on Spotify

  • Renegade, Styx
  • Crying, Waiting, Hoping, The Beatles
  • Ain’t Too Proud To Beg, The Temptations
  • Helter Skelter, The Beatles
  • I Bet My Life, Imagine Dragons
  • New York, Alicia Keys

*Looking for a kid’s story time in your community? Check your local library. Here’s a place to start:

 

How I Learned to Avoid Drive-Thrus and Eat Healthier on a Budget

When I moved off campus my junior year of college, I was excited to have an actual kitchen to cook in and a place to eat that I didn’t have to share with hundreds of other students.
That feeling quickly faded when I remembered how much time and money it takes to cook and grocery shop when you’re a broke college student and also going to classes, club meetings, working and seeing friends.
Staying up late was normal for me. Some nights I’d leave work at 1:30 a.m., or I was up late studying or hanging out with friends. There was no way I was going to take the time to cook myself an actual healthy meal. Even if I wanted to cook, I probably didn’t have anything in my fridge to make it.

I saw fast food as my only option.

Drive-Thru Voodoo

Frequenting fast food drive-thrus became a regular habit for my friends and me. They were the only places open late at night and the cost seems cheap when you can get a meal for only a few dollars. If I did go to the grocery store, I’d buy chips or microwaveable meals that were easy to make. I probably used my oven a handful of times over an entire semester.
But the truth is, with a bit of planning, broke college students and young professionals can eat healthy without spending a lot of time or money. Pat Salzer, registered dietitian and workplace wellness consultant at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, shares eight tips to help you save time while eating healthy on the cheap.

8 Tips for Healthy Eating on a College Student’s Budget

  1. Have group meals. Find friends who like to cook and make your meals together. Having a group of people working together to make dinner is more fun than cooking alone and will help you avoid fast food restaurants.
  2. Don’t grocery shop when you’re hungry. This might seem like an obvious tip that you’ve heard a thousand times, but it’s true! When you’re hungry, your willpower goes out the window. Everything will look good, especially the things that don’t take long to make.
  3. Buying in bulk isn’t always a good thing. Bulk can be good if you know that you’ll eat all of it. However, it’s not worth buying large quantities, especially produce, if you’ll just stress about not eating it all before it goes bad.
  4. Have a plan when you shop so you’ll get what you need and only what you really need. You won’t overspend if you stick to a grocery list. This strategy might also help you avoid filling your cart with junk food—like those little pints of Ben & Jerry’s chocolate fudge brownie ice cream that I love so much!
  5. Be realistic about what you will eat. I would always buy Greek yogurt because I knew it was healthy. Only problem was, I don’t like Greek yogurt. I tried to force myself to like it, but it wasn’t happening. The yogurt would sit in my fridge until it hit the expiration date and then I’d have to (thankfully!) throw it out. There’s no point in spending your money on something that you know you won’t eat.
  6. Prepare big batches of healthy, delicious foods that’ll leave you with lots of leftovers (and unlike in tip #3, you know you’ll eat it). Whatever you make for dinner, you can also eat the next day for lunch. It’s also a good way to keep yourself from overeating at a meal if you know that you need to save some for the next day.
  7. Buy fruits and vegetables that are in-season. Not only will that sweet Red Delicious apple you bought in the fall taste better, but it’ll likely be cheaper, too. Try different types of produce—you might be surprised by what you like! I was shocked (shocked) to learn that I actually liked the taste of broccoli!
  8. Stash affordable, healthy foods for snacks—yogurt, string cheese, cottage cheese, peanut butter, etc.—around your apartment, house or dormitory. These foods will help satisfy late-night cravings and deter you from embarking on fast food runs.
Finding the Right Gym in 2017

7 Steps to Finding the Right Gym

If you’re like me, you ended the year celebrating the holiday season just a little too much and you’ve started the new year looking for the perfect gym to undo the damage of rich desserts and not enough activity.

Finding the right fitness facility can be tricky if you’re looking for more than just the lowest-cost option.

treadmill upstate ny

A treadmill is great for running in the winter months.

“You need to assess your fitness goals before selecting the best gym for you,” said Janette Westman, workplace wellness consultant, Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. “Do you want a basic gym with treadmills for a daily run or walk, for example, or do you prefer one with a variety of classes or state-of-the art equipment to keep you motivated?”

My needs as a gym buff have evolved over the years. When I was a broke, recent college graduate, I went with the cheapest option. All I needed was a place to run in the winter—at the lowest possible price!

Spinning Class Upstate NY

Select a gym close to your job.

As I earned a little more, I gravitated toward facilities that also had early morning spinning classes. But once I had kids and was paying daycare bills (yup, I was broke again!), I gravitated toward the free workplace gym.

Given my holiday weight gain, I’m now also hunting for a fitness facility to use on the weekends, when I don’t want to trek into work to work out. I’m considering a  gym or a facility that also offers classes, such as kickboxing.

Westman, a former personal trainer, offers the following tips for finding the right fitness facility in the new year:

  1. Location: People often stop exercising because they lack the time. If you exercise after work, select a gym close to your employer. Weekend warriors in the battle against the bulge may want a facility close to home.
  2. Hours of operation: The gym should be open when you plan to exercise. Early birds, for example, may need a fitness center that opens at the crack of dawn to allow for the 5 a.m. swim before work.
  3. Classes: Ask if classes such as spinning and yoga cost extra. If you’re solely interested in classes, a studio instead of a fitness facility may be a better option.
  4. Equipment quality: Ensure the cardio and weight machines are clean and in good condition.
  5. Staff: Are staff members friendly and qualified with the right certifications? You may want a gym with fitness trainers and dieticians to help you get healthier.
  6. Free trial pass: Test the gym during the times you’ll likely exercise. Is it too crowded? Are the classes, equipment, and atmosphere right for you? Are showers and changing facilities up to par? Is the parking convenient? Will you feel comfortable asking staff for advice or posing questions, such as how to use unfamiliar equipment?
  7. Cost: Ask if the gym will waive the enrollment fee so that you’re only responsible for the monthly dues.

Important Tip:  Some health care insurers may offer a benefit that helps pay for a gym membership. Be sure to check your policy to see what’s available to you. Don’t leave money on the table!

Fighting Cancer: A Teenager’s Story of Courage

Being a teenager and going through high school can be difficult. There are classes to keep up with, sports commitments and demands for your time from family and friends. And, for Brittany McNair, a cancer diagnosis.

McNair was diagnosed with osteosarcoma June of 2005, the end of her freshman year of high school. She went to the doctor after not being able to walk and after several tests, found out that she had cancer in her right leg.

The former three-sport athlete went from running daily for soccer and indoor/outdoor track to relearning how to walk. She didn’t think she’d run again.

The high school years are a time when your peers are constantly judging you. Because chemotherapy treatments caused her hair to fall out, McNair feared having her picture taken or being asked to remove her hat. She also learned to get creative to avoid the dreaded hospital visits. (More on that later.)

With the help of friends, family and a local nonprofit, McNair found a way to keep some of the normalcy of her teenage years. Her family also emerged stronger and closer as a result of it.

A Teenager's Fight Against Cancer

Brittany McNair on her 16th birthday while in the hospital for cancer treatment.

A Visit to Her Hospital Room

In August of 2005, surgeons replaced the bones in McNair’s right leg with a metal prosthesis. At the same time, they removed her calf muscles and performed knee replacement surgery on that leg. She was 15.

As she recovered in the hospital, McNair received a visit from Lauren Spiker, executive director of 13thirty Cancer Connect, formerly known as Melissa’s Living Legacy Teen Cancer Foundation. Spiker had formed the organization three years prior after her daughter, Melissa, died of cancer, and was running it from her home.

On the wall at 13thirty Cancer Connect is Melissa’s request of her mother before she died, “If you have learned anything from me through all of this, do something with it to make a difference – to make things better.”

Spiker explained her daughter’s request.

“When Melissa was going through treatments for cancer as a teenager, we noticed that there weren’t many support groups for teenagers or young adults.”

Spiker visited McNair in the hospital to invite her to join their support groups, including a popular pancake breakfast at Spiker’s home with other teenage cancer survivors. A few weeks later, McNair participated in a photo shoot for a brochure for the organization. From that day, McNair has continued to attend 13thirty Cancer Connect events.

“13thirty Cancer Connect helped me in ways I couldn’t even begin to describe,” said McNair. “I’ve made lifelong friends there, and I am so thankful for them.”

The organization welcomes individuals ages 13 to 30 who have cancer and their families. A few years after McNair joined the group, 13thirty Cancer Connect began offering fitness classes to give people who have been diagnosed with cancer a chance to exercise with the supervision of a physical therapist and get their strength back.

“Our program was able to recently expand, thanks to a $3,000 grant from Excellus BlueCross BlueShield,” said Spiker.

It was through this program that McNair started to run again.

Brittany with Lauren Spiker, executive director of 13thirty Cancer Connect

Brittany with Lauren Spiker, executive director of 13thirty Cancer Connect

Friends on the field

McNair was lucky to have friends who worked hard to keep her connected to high school (and all the drama!).

Her soccer teammates and their families took turns decorating and filling a box of goodies for McNair to have before she went to the hospital for chemotherapy on Fridays. She found the box on her front porch every Thursday.

“I would be in the hospital all weekend and my teammates would give me everything from candy to DVDs in that box,” said McNair.

McNair’s favorite? A barf bucket. (The chemotherapy made McNair pretty sick!) It was decorated with different words and phrases related to barfing.

After her diagnosis, one family gave her a laptop to help her keep up with school, but she also used it to keep up with her friends and high school happenings.

“AOL Instant Messenger was the big thing then, and I would be on my laptop all the time talking to friends so I was kept in the loop,” said McNair.

Her friends also would visit her at home and in the hospital. As often as she could, McNair would go to basketball games to watch her sister cheer, and she’d also sit on the bench and help her coach during soccer games.

A birthday to remember

McNair really wanted to be in school with her friends on her 16th birthday on Dec. 23, 2005. Usually her birthday falls during winter break, when there’s no school, but that year was an exception.

On the morning of her birthday that year, McNair’s mom – Jennifer Arnold – noticed that her daughter felt hot. So Arnold took her temperature. If McNair had a fever, that meant she’d have to go to the emergency room and would automatically be in the hospital for 24-48 hours. When Arnold came back, McNair’s sister was in the room.

“I didn’t think anything of it,” said Arnold. “I figured they had just been talking before Brittany’s sister went to school or something.”

Arnold looked at the thermometer and it read a normal temperature. Arnold made McNair take her temperature again, but this time she didn’t leave the room.

“The thermometer said she had a fever just like I thought,” Arnold said. “Brittany’s sister took her own temperature, and the girls tried to trick me!”

McNair’s friends ended up visiting her in the hospital and celebrated her birthday there.

It wasn’t the first time her friends or family were willing to intervene on McNair’s behalf.

 “I don’t know why it was such a big deal.”

When McNair walked into the school cafeteria to take her regents exam, the proctor wouldn’t let her in because she was wearing a hat.

“I don’t know why it was such a big deal,” said McNair. “I guess they were worried I was going to hide notes in my hat or something.”

McNair refused to take off her hat. She didn’t want to tell the proctor that she was embarrassed of her bald head. Eventually, one of her friends stepped in and explained why McNair wanted to keep her hat on. The proctor let her into the cafeteria to take her test.

After she sat down, a different proctor also asked her to remove her hat. Again, she refused. This time, a math teacher intervened and said that she could keep her hat on.

That night, Arnold attended a basketball game to see Britany’s sister cheer. The same math teacher approached her and apologized. He hoped that her daughter did well on the test.

“Brittany hadn’t told me that anything had happened at the regents test so I was trying to think of what could have possibly happened,” said Arnold, adding that she was also thinking , ‘Well I’d be more concerned that she didn’t do well because of all the work she hasn’t been doing.”

It wasn’t the first time McNair fought requests to remove her hat.

Learning to embrace her bald head

Like most 16-year-olds, McNair was eager to get her driving permit. She went to the DMV to take the written test and after passing it, stood in line to have her picture taken for her license. The photographer told her to remove her hat. McNair refused.

“My dad started arguing with the people at the DMV to let me keep my hat on and eventually they did and took my picture,” said McNair. “After that, when people looked at my I.D., they were confused to see that I was wearing a hat.”

McNair was determined to learn to drive during her sophomore year. Since she was still relearning how to use her right leg, used two feet instead of one to apply the brakes or use the accelerator.

“Looking back on everything from when I was diagnosed and going through chemo, I would tell other people going through the same thing to take pictures and rock the bald head,” said McNair. “Those are the two things I wish I had done.

Non-traditional Christmas

Arnold thinks back fondly on Christmas that year. It was a few days after McNair’s birthday fever and she was still in the hospital. She and her husband agreed to bring both McNair and her sister three presents to open at the hospital; they could open the rest when McNair returned home.

“My husband and I made two trips from the hospital to the house and back to pick up more presents because the girls didn’t want it to end, they were having so much fun,” said Arnold.

Brittany, her father (David), and younger sister (Alexis) on Christmas Day. Alexis is now a Pediatric Oncology nurse at Golisano Children's Hospital. She was inspired by the nurses who cared for Brittany.

Brittany, her father (David), and younger sister (Alexis) on Christmas Day. Alexis is now a Pediatric Oncology nurse at Golisano Children’s Hospital. She was inspired by the nurses who cared for Brittany.

When McNair came home on New Year’s Eve, her parents said she and her sister couldn’t open the rest of their presents until the next morning. They wanted the girls to have that feeling of waking up and seeing presents under the tree.

“The girls went to bed at 3 a.m. on New Year’s Eve and then woke up a few hours later to open presents,” said Arnold. “It wasn’t a traditional Christmas, but we made the most of it and that’s what made it so special. “

Changing the family dynamic

Mother and daughter smiled and laughed as they recalled those special memories. “Brittany’s cancer diagnosis definitely changed our family dynamic for the better,” said Arnold. “We’re all incredibly close and I love it.”

Brittany with her mother, Jennifer Arnold in September 2016.

Brittany with her mother, Jennifer Arnold in September 2016.

McNair, now an avid runner, made her athletic comeback October 2014 running the Bandana Bolt 5K at Seneca Park, thanks in large part to 13thirty Cancer Connect’s fitness program. Her mom joined her for the race as a fellow runner.

“With this new awesome fitness program that I’ve been doing for a couple years now, I’m slowly regaining my strength in my leg, regaining confidence and regaining the old me that was that former athlete,” said McNair.

18 Places to Ski & Snowboard in Upstate New York

ski-article-3Living in upstate New York, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll end up trying to learn to ski or snowboard at some point. In my case, I had a boyfriend who grew up near a ski resort and raced his entire life, so I really didn’t have an option not to ski.

I started learning to ski at the ripe old age of 22. I clicked my boots into my first pair of skis as he showed me the ropes at our local ski hill, Toggenburg, in Fabius, Onondaga County. I was not a stellar student and a wee bit apprehensive. But after about six weeks, I perfected my “wedge”—the beginner stance in downhill skiing.

Feeling confident that I could handle anything with my practiced wedge, we ventured out to Utah with six friends. On our first day, we went to Snowbird, an absolutely beautiful ski resort. At 11,000 feet, it’s a big mountain! By comparison, the elevation at Toggenburg is 2,000 feet. As the skiing newbie, I trusted my crew of friends and my then boyfriend (my first mistake) as we started the first run at The Summit and a trail called the Cirque Traverse.  The sign screamed “Cliffs Ahead-DANGER!” which should have been a big clue that I was in way over my head.

The Cirque Traverse was basically a single track trail at the very top of the mountain with a steep cliff to the left—not my preferred way down. To the right and my only way down was what skiers call a “bowl.” A bowl is basically a big, wide open, ungroomed, snow-covered cliff. Super!

Needless to say, there were a few choice words thrown around. I asked my beloved boyfriend, “How do I get into the bowl?” His answer: “You jump!”…. “I WHAT??!!!”

I figured my time on this planet was likely over. So, being the last one standing, I jumped into the bowl with my awesome wedge stance and was met with a lot of soft, fluffy snow. I had a blast, but I’m not sure I left much snow on the mountain. I quickly learned that the wedge stance works great on our hard, eastern coast snow, but it wasn’t the thing for thigh-deep powder skiing! After a lot of laughter and many falls later, I made it to the bottom and decided I’d let my boyfriend live.

This is a picture half-way down the upper Cirque bowl:

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I married that nutty guy and had two kids who were also bitten by the ski racing bug. Over the past 15 years, we’ve spent a lot of time traveling around New York state and enjoying many of the local ski areas!

 

 

 

 

 

How to Get Started in Skiing and/or Snowboarding

Skiing and snowboarding are both excellent options to get you outside and active during the long upstate New York winters. Snowboarding is different from skiing in that you strap both feet into a single board to get down the hill. It melds skateboarding, surfing, skiing and sledding all into one.

Required Equipment

For skiing: skis, ski boots, bindings, poles, goggles and a helmet.
For snowboarding: a snowboard, snowboard boots, bindings, goggles and a helmet.

To go down the hill, you also have to get to the top beforehand! Depending on the ski area, you’ll be brought to the top by a chairlift, t-bars or tow ropes. Bigger ski resorts, like Whiteface in Lake Placid, have a gondola lift. Chairlifts and gondolas let you sit and rest while going up the hill and allow for a pretty, scenic view.

ski-article5

How to Know Which Downhill Trails to Use

The downhill trails vary from beginner to expert. These markings tell you the difficulty of each trail and are the same at all ski areas:

ski article downhill trail markings

Green Circle: Easier
Blue Square: More Difficult
Black Diamond: Most Difficult
Double-Black Diamond: Most Difficult, use extra caution
Orange Oval: Freestyle Terrain

Ski areas are now going beyond traditional ways to get down the hill and are even providing terrain parks to challenge skiers and boarders with different obstacles, such as jumps, rails and half pipes. I’m in awe of people who ski and board in the terrain park, because they make it look so easy! If I attempted any of these, I would definitely be on the ground and all of my equipment strewn around me on the hill—what we call a “yard sale” in skiing.

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New York State has more than 50 ski and snowboarding areas. Most provide equipment rentals and lessons for skiing and snowboarding. These can be group lessons or private lessons. All you need to bring is yourself and your winter coat, snow pants, gloves, hat and a wallet.

In upstate New York, there are a number of excellent areas where you can ski and snowboard.

In the Buffalo area:

  1. Holiday Valley, Ellicottville
  2. Peek‘n Peak , Clymer

In Rochester, you can enjoy:

  1. Bristol Mountain, Canandaigua
  2. Hunt Hollow, Naples
  3. Swain, Swain
  4. Brantling, Sodus

In Central New York:

  1. Toggenburg, Fabius
  2. Labrador, Truxton
  3. Song, Tully
  4. Greek Peak, Cortland

Near the Utica area, the Adirondack Park includes:

  1. West Mountain, Queensbury
  2. Whiteface, Lake Placid
  3. Gore, North Creek

A little more local to Utica includes:

  1. Snow Ridge, Turin
  2. Woods Valley, Westernville

A little to our south, The Catskill Mountains have:

  1. Windham, Windham
  2. Hunter, Hunter
  3. Belleayre, Highmount

For me, there’s nothing better than arriving at the top of a mountain on a crystal clear, sunny day in winter and enjoying the view! Even after my husband and kids have ditched me and are racing down the hill, I am completely content to take my time and enjoy the scenery. I’m glad that I added skiing to my winter activities and learned to ski. It gets me outside and exercising with my family and I’m able to experience some of the most stellar views in our state.

If you are looking for something fun to do during our long, snowy winters, head to your local ski/snowboard area. Just be prepared to fall.

11 ways to save on health care

Save on Health Care: 11 Ways to Put More Money in Your Pocket

I’m a bit obsessive about looking for new ways to save money. When I buy a new car, I research it to death. Consumer Reports® is my friend. I work hard for my money and I want to stretch every dollar so that I can save for retirement, take nice vacations and be able to buy gifts for my loved ones.

Don’t get me wrong; I know that you get what you pay for, but if making smart choices puts money in my pocket, I’m all for it.

Take health care. There are lots of ways you can save on prescriptions, “earn” money by practicing healthy behaviors or get health care services for free. Here are a few things I do to keep more money in my pocket.

Healthy Is as Healthy Does

  1. Be healthy. Earn $$. Does your insurance company have a way for you to earn money for practicing healthy behaviors? Mine does. I can earn up to $500 a year and my spouse can, too, for completing a health assessment, recording how much I exercise daily and practicing healthy behaviors, e.g., not smoking. (Many health plans cover smoking cessation programs; New York has a Smokers’ Quitline.)
  2. Money for the gym. Some insurers may offer a benefit that helps pay for a gym membership or kits to workout at home. Check your policy to see what’s available to you.
  3. Weight-loss help. My company also offers a free weight management program. Last year, I decided to bite the bullet and lose the extra 20 pounds I’d been lugging around the last 15 years. Thanks to the program’s support and tools, I met my goal. I’m delighted that I can now wear clothing that’s two sizes smaller and that losing the weight means less stress on my knees. Under your health insurance plan, you may be eligible for weight-loss counseling. Many companies offer weight-loss programs and classes in nutrition.

Free Is Better

  1. No-cost services. Most insurance plans cover flu shots at no cost. Some companies offer free flu shots to their employees and even provide them in the workplace. The cost of not getting sick? Priceless.

For a list of no-cost preventive health services specific for adults, women and children, check out HealthCare.gov. All Marketplace health plans and many others must cover specific preventive services without charging a co-pay or co-insurance, even if you haven’t met your yearly deductible.  However, these services are free only when a doctor or other provider in your plan’s network covers them.

TIP: Breast-feeding? See our article on Hidden Ways to Save on Breast-Feeding Gear.

Pay Me to Be Healthy

  1. Try employer wellness programs. Some companies offer financial incentives to participate in preventive care programs. These may include lower premiums, lower deductibles, a contribution to your health savings account or gift cards.

My company provides an annual free health screening that uses a simple blood test to check my cholesterol and lipid levels. I have the results sent to my personal physician so she has a copy.

If I meet my yearly goal, I get an extra $20 in my biweekly paycheck.  That’s $520 a year to offset my health insurance premium. By participating in the screening, some employees have been alerted to serious health problems, such as diabetes or metabolic syndrome. Those who have taken the knowledge to heed are working with their personal physicians to improve their health.

Medicine Meets George Jetson!

  1. FaceTime your doc. The Jetsons was one of my favorite childhood cartoons. The space-age TV cartoon with its video phones seemed so cool and so far out of reach. Today, talking “face to face” via smartphones and computers is commonplace. Even a doctor visit by Skype™ or FaceTime is possible. Last year, my insurer began offering a telemedicine benefit.  If I have a minor illness or injury and can’t see my personal physician right away or it’s after hours, I can talk with or video conference a board-certified doctor who participates in our telemedicine program. My plan’s co-pay for the telemedicine visit is not only less than a doctor visit or urgent care center co-pay, but a lot less than I would shell out for an emergency room visit.

The cost of an emergency room visit for a minor condition like a sinus infection, for example, can be 15 times the cost of a telemedicine visit, according to research from Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. Unless you have a serious medical emergency, who wants to wait for hours in a crowded ER and be exposed to who knows what germs?

Convenient? You bet! I’ve used telemedicine twice—once for a cut on my thumb that was slow healing and again for a skin rash. Because I used FaceTime, the doctor could see my cut and rash. Both times, the doctor faxed the prescriptions to my local pharmacy where they were available in an hour.

I wish telemedicine had been around when my son was a child and subject to frequent ear infections. I remember taking him to the ER for an earache in the wee hours of the morning. How much easier it would have been to use telemedicine instead of waiting for hours for the ER doctor to examine him. (“Cry louder, Andy, maybe that will get the doctor in here sooner.”) Did I mention it was in the middle of winter so we not only had to go out in the dark of night, but also had to bundle up and fight the snow?

Even if your health plan does not offer this benefit, you can still use a telemedicine service. If you’re paying out of pocket, check to see how much a one-time visit will cost. Considering the convenience and time saved, it may be worth it to you.

Of course, seeing your personal physician is preferable, but if you can’t, telemedicine is a great alternative.

Drug Savings ‘R’ Us

  1. Take your medication as directed. The savings may not be obvious at first, but in the long run, taking your medications as your doctor prescribed can save you money, not to mention your life. The World Health Organization says the No. 1 problem in treating illness today is patients’ failure to take their medications correctly. Not adhering to your medication regimen may cause you to become sicker over time. Your quality of life may be adversely affected and you may require additional and more expensive medications and treatments—even hospitalization. (Check out Medication Adherence.)

So, do as I do. Get a pill minder and fill it every week. Then, I don’t have to wonder, “Did I take my pills this morning?” If I’m not sure, I might skip that day’s dose or take a double dose—either way could be harmful to my health. So, if it’s Tuesday and my pill “slot” for that day is empty, I have one less thing to worry about.

  1. Consider generic drugs. I’m also one for using less expensive store brands, say Wegmans paper towels over Bounty. Same holds true for prescriptions. If I can get a generic alternative to its brand name counterpart, count me in.

Generic drugs are as safe and effective as the brand, but usually cost less. The difference in co-pays can be substantial, especially if you have a chronic condition, such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol.

Next time you visit your doctor or pharmacist and are placing or refilling a prescription, ask if there is a generic alternative. You might want to try the substitution for a month to make sure the generic version is right for you. Most insurance plans have pharmacy benefits representatives who can help you find ways to get your prescriptions at the most economical cost. (Here’s what the FDA has to say about generics: Savings From Generic Drugs.)

  1. Have your prescriptions delivered to your home. Home delivery of your prescriptions is not only convenient but may save you money. Often, you can fill three months’ worth of prescriptions for the cost of two. Check with your insurance company to see whether they offer this benefit and if you would save money The savings can really add up—I like to figure out how much on a yearly basis. So, if my co-pay is $25 and I’m getting 12 months of pills for the cost of eight, I’ll be ahead by $100 a year. Cha-Ching!

Talk Is Cheap

  1. Avoid unneeded tests, drugs, and services. Smart health decisions start with a discussion between you and your doctor. A nationwide initiative developed by the American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation, Choosing Wisely promotes conversations between doctors and patients about the most appropriate care based on an individual’s situation.

Choosing Wisely has more than 400 health care recommendations that can help you become a more informed patient.

In the meantime, here are five questions to ask your doctor before receiving any treatment, procedure or medication:

Five Questions to Ask Your Doctor

  1. Do I really need this test or procedure?
  2. What are the risks?
  3. Are there simpler, safer options?
  4. What happens if I don’t do anything?
  5. How much does it cost?

The Gift of Health

  1. Ask for healthy gifts. I’m at a point in my life where I don’t need more “things.” In fact, I’m trying to get rid of stuff. So when family members ask me what I’d like for my birthday or Christmas, I suggest gift certificates to my massage therapist or yoga studio or gift cards I can redeem for yoga apparel.

What Ways Do You Save?

Use our Comments section to tell us and other readers how you save money while staying healthy.

tell me how you want to die

No Pie Until You Tell Me How You Want To Die

Our family’s unique Thanksgiving tradition has little to do with food or football. It has everything to do with our values, beliefs, and goals.

After we finish our turkey, and after the dishes are cleared, we talk about how we want to die.

“No pumpkin pie until you tell me how you want to die!”

I know it may sound morbid and it’s often uncomfortable.  But it’s necessary. Thanksgiving is actually the perfect time to have conversations like these. It’s a holiday that almost everyone celebrates, and it brings the family together from far and wide.

My mom started this family tradition in 1992. She wanted to explain why she picked some of her children and not others as her health care proxies – the person who’ll make your health care decisions if you’re unable to do so.  She talked about factors we should consider when deciding what to do if she was incapable of making her own decisions.

My mom was brilliant in her approach to discussing a difficult topic during an uplifting holiday gathering. I hope her tips help you have similar conversations this Thanksgiving.

4 Tips for Discussing a Difficult Topic

  1. Begin by discussing what matters most to you. My mom didn’t start with a cold list of whether she wanted a certain procedure like a breathing tube. She began by discussing what made her life worth living. To her, it was being a “Babci” (grandmother in Polish) for her grandchildren.

She loved being a grandmother. She wanted to be present and able to interact with them. If that wasn’t possible, she wouldn’t want certain life-saving procedures.

  1. Discuss your values. As a Catholic, she wanted ordinary – and not extraordinary – measures to save her life. She wanted a natural death. If her heart stopped beating, for example, she wasn’t in favor of resuscitation.
  1. Come from a place of love. Serving as a health care agent is a huge responsibility, and it’s not for everyone. You’re grieving for your loved one, yet need to be clearheaded and practical when deciding what this person would want at the end of their life. Often, you’ll have to manage potential conflict among family members. It requires a delicate balance of involving everyone in the discussion while ensuring the final decision is based on what matters most to your loved one. Each of us only dies once.

My mom knew that two of my four sisters would be too emotional to handle this responsibility. At the dinner table that Thanksgiving, my mom told those sisters that, “I didn’t pick you because I love you too much to put you through something you can’t handle. It’s a hard job and I don’t want to put that kind of responsibility on you. I love you too much to do that.”

I was named my mom’s health care agent, and my other two sisters were named as backups. My mom explained to my sisters that my role was to stand in her shoes when making decisions and to keep the whole family in the loop and involved in the entire process. She wanted to ensure that any decisions would be based on her values, beliefs, and goals for care.

Here’s one more tip that helped my family navigate these difficult conversations over the years:

  1. Talk about stories in the news. We’d reference news stories and discuss what we’d do in these scenarios.

I remember discussing the case of Christopher Reeve, the Superman actor who became a quadriplegic after falling from a horse and breaking his neck in a riding accident. My son said he’d be OK living as a quadriplegic as long as he was able to think and interact with others. My daughter, however, wasn’t so sure since Reeve benefited by having a lot of money to help make his life functional!

Resources to Help Guide Conversations

As you’ve realized by now, these are difficult conversations. (To help, there are a variety of resources and tools available at CompassionAndSupport.org)

One of the resources is a document that lists what to keep in mind when choosing a proxy.  The person, for example, must be willing to talk to you NOW about your wishes. If the person is uncomfortable talking about it now, then he or she won’t be able to do so when you need it the most.

During our Thanksgiving talks, we also take the extra step to review our individual Advance Care Planning documents to make sure they reflect our current feelings. We have blank forms on hand in case new documents need to be completed and witnessed.

For individuals with serious or advancing chronic illness, there’s also a document called Medical Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment (MOLST), and an electronic version called eMOLST. MOLST is recommended for those who want to further define their wishes for medical interventions, including resuscitation. The MOLST form is legally approved and has to be followed by all health care professionals including emergency medical services (EMS) personnel across New York State.

Regarding that first Thanksgiving talk, I still have a funny photo of my sister’s husband. He had a hand to his head and a “what are these people talking about!” look on his face!

But it turns out these annual Thanksgiving conversations were invaluable as he suffered through his own terminal disease years later. He was seriously ill, undergoing aggressive treatments, not very mobile and living in a nursing home. He recalled these Thanksgiving talks, and how he discussed the importance of living his life to the fullest in the end. Additionally, he wanted to spend time with his son. That’s how he decided to leave the nursing home and switch to treatments that were less aggressive. Making these choices helped him enjoy what he had left of his life.

I encourage your family to adopt our Thanksgiving tradition.  Save your family possible heartache and turmoil in the future by discussing and documenting each family member’s thoughts and views on a difficult, but necessary topic.