Category Archives: Sickness & Health

Overwhelmed With Worry

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

What can I do to help a friend who has just been diagnosed with ALS?
Her health has been declining for the past two years. She has gone
from a vibrant public figure to a woman who needs a walker to get
from her recliner into her wheelchair. Her husband is overloaded
already caring for his 98-year- old mother. She has no biological
children, but does have adopted grandchildren (long story). I am her
friend and neighbor and usually run quick errands for her like library
books (my office is a block away) and specialty items from a favorite
store. But now she needs more and more help every day, and I’m
concerned the people who have been bringing her meals etc during the
most recent spate of testing and treatment may fad away with this
news. She is very appreciative for help but also very frightened, and
there is so very much to do around the house and in the bigger
picture.

Overwhelmed With Worry

 
Dear Overwhelmed:

There are two levels of support people who have received a terminal
diagnosis need. And be clear, even if it is a slowly progressing form of
ALS, there is no cure at this time. That doesn’t mean that any one of
her friend or family might not go first, but the prognosis is of
progressive decline until death. So the emotional level of support,
among family and the inner circle of closest friends needs to be
addressed first. Because the disease is not linear or predictable, it is
useful to first establish big criteria of needs: assists with meal
preparation or companionship in the house in the earlier stages,
compared to assists with bathing, eating, etc in later stages.

 
Fortunately there are many websites set up to support exactly this
kind of situation. One I know best is caringbridge.org, though I am
sure others are also good. It allows people to identify specific tasks
(e.g. a gluten free vegetarian dinner for two on a specific date, of two
hours of housecleaning) and friends to sign up to provide them. These
sits also allow the patient to give medical updates to people who care
about her welfare. Ask your friend if she wants help setting that up,
and perhaps offer to be her site manager (or recruit one). You are
right that a long haul will wear folks down. But it takes a village to
support us all in hard times.

The Good Daughter

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

My brother is addicted to pills, though will just get drunk if that’s all he
has. He has now lost her room in the house she was staying and her
fourth job as a nursing aide in a year. He relocated to my city to live
with our other, who is in the last stages of a terminal blood disorder,
though Mom has already outlasted the doctor’s predictions by almost
two years. Two points: (1) Mom is not supposed to drink, but often
they do that together; (2) David is “exhausted” from the move, and
wants to “take a month off to recuperate” before he looks for work. I
think he should not get a vacation but start putting out resumes today,
but both of them loudly told me off and said I was being “controlling
and judgmental.” I’m the responsible daughter who has to pick up the
pieces when they break things. Is there any way to avoid this train
wreck?

The Good Daughter

 
Dear Good Daughter:

In a word: No. You can try to ban alcohol from the house but addicts
always find a way to get their fix until they get clean and sober. You
can try to scare your mother with mortality, but if she’s already past
the doctor’s predictions she probably figures she can do as she
pleases, and who knows, maybe she is right. But it sounds like the
codependence will not help your mother as much as your brother.
Regarding the proposed vacation, your suggestion makes sense to me,
unless he needs the month to prepare for a pee test that would likely
be required to get a job. But even so, getting his resume together and
sending out letters and applications seems like a basic reality check to
reinforce the idea that he is there to help your mother, not live off her.
It might help to start with optimism when you speak to them, even if
you get heartburn and grit your teeth. But short of a miracle I think
you will be in this soap opera for a while.

Penny Pinching

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

I was very good friends with a couple who moved to Hawaii twenty
years ago. We kept up a long-distance friendship for a long time, and I
even went there to visit back in the 90s. But for years it has waned to
the point of non-existence. If you’d asked me, I’d still say I liked them,
but I don’t think I’ve had two phone calls in the last five years.

 

Yesterday I heard from the wife, saying the husband had died of
cancer, after a year-long battle. It was a warm email, though in
retrospect it feels like she may have sent it as personal email to a
great many people, just changing the salutation. When I went to the
memory site (with photos and stories and places to post the same,
each page had a very large “Contribute” button at the bottom, to help
defray medical expenses. I’m sure the medical bills were large, but I’m
on a tight budget too. Am I obligated to contribute?

Penny Pinching

 
Dear Pinching:

If you are truly down to counting pennies you are 100% off the hook,
assuming the idea that you have not sent even $25 doesn’t keep you
up at night. If you do make charitable contributions to non-profits, you
could divert a little to send your former friends. But if you are truly so
bust that you cannot afford to contribute, then send a nice personal
note, and an apology for being unable to help out at this time.
Friendships ebb and grow over time. It’s not uncommon for people
who have seemed incredibly important to one’s heart to fade with time
and distance. There’s no shame in having drifted apart. Do what feels
right, and send a heartfelt note. If you have memories or pics to post,
do it. And say kaddish for your friend.

Shell Shocked

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

I worked with an abusive boss for 26 years. I am finally free of
working directly with him, but we’re both employed by the same
company. People who do still work with him come to me to vent, and it
causes all the same responses it did when I suffered more directly.
Just thinking about him causes an anxiety spike. It’s a physical
reaction in my body: twisting in my gut, racing pulse, shallow
breathing. All the classic fight or flight responses. I’m not even
discussing my mood, which plummets. My wife encouraged me to
unplug from him, but I cannot afford to quit, and at 58 am unlikely to
find a job as good as this one. What’re some things I can do, other
than avoiding him and conversations that include his name? It’s a form
of PTSD I am eager to finish healing.

Shell Shocked

 
Dear Shell Shocked:

What you are describing is indeed a form of PTSD. Also classic
Pavlovian conditioning. You need to switch off your responses to the
stimulus. Avoiding direct contact with his person and conversations
about him and his abusiveness is a great start. But better is to
cultivate relaxation responses, because you’re still in an orbit that
includes many old cues.

 

Start by identifying a code word for yourself that is your new
command to set the process in motion. Make it something silly and
unrelated to work: tofu, bozo, or papaya. The minute you start to feel
yourself respond in old ways, say the word and start imaging yourself
getting up from a chair at a table where he is sitting, walking out of
the room, and closing the door behind you. If you still hear his voice in
your head, image turning down the volume dial on a radio until it
fades to silence. See yourself walking into the sunlight and going to
meet your wife at your favorite restaurant at a vacation resort. See
yourself sitting at a table with her, looking at an incredible view, with a
plate of tasty tidbits and flight of beer or wine. If thoughts of him
reappear, start over: say your cue; close the door; turn down the
sound; and have another slosh of anesthetic. Do this often enough and
he will fade into your past.

 

PS if you start to develop a drinking problem, change the imagery and get
a therapist.

Off Duty Please

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

Can you help me design a “staycation?” My husband has had a raft of
medical problems. Sadly they include orthopedic problems, which
means that our normal hobbies of hiking and mushroom picking are
completely off the table. I’m a teacher and have a few weekends left
and then a long summer. I’m not expecting a two-week period at
home where I have no responsibilities, but I would like to design a
plan where I can get several days in a row to indulge my desire to
write. I have an idea for a children’s book, actually a series of them,
and a good friend who is an artist who can collaborate. My husband is
retired, not to mention grumpy from months of medical aggravation.
So he is lonely and looking for company. I don’t want to be unfriendly,
but I’m stressed by his condition also, and need my summer to
recharge.

Off Duty Please

 
Dear Off Duty:

You need to balance out the mix of responsibility with creativity.
Anyone who works at home will confirm that simply walking into the
kitchen to get a cup of coffee can trigger many hours of
procrastination and distraction, especially if one’s creative work isn’t
flowing. So you will need to set clear boundaries about when you do
what, and get an agreement from your husband to help you reinforce
them, and to keep out of your way in your creative time zones.

 

You don’t want him to think that your time together is all about work.
Getting him engaged in household maintenance before you get your
creative staycations is a deal he will have to agree to. Put a carrot in
the stick and make plans for a big date at the end of each one. For
example, Monday and Tuesday are together days doing home care.
Wednesday, Thursday and Friday until 3:00 is your creativity zone.
Then weekend is playtime together. Part of your prep is to have your
“creativity bag” ready to go: a tote with a dedicated set of materials
including laptop, clipboard, drawing paper, dictation device, whatever
you need all packed and ready to grab. Then on Wednesday morning,
head out to a coffee shop and set up for creativity. In the house, have
a special flag or sign that says, “The Writer is Out” which hubby should
agree to respect, house fires or broken legs notwithstanding.

Sick of Being Sick

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

Long, ugly, medical story made short: I had ankle surgery that went
bad and I was on too many meds for too long. Even after I got off the
opioids I was on anti-inflammatories for a long time. Two weeks ago I
landed in the emergency room with an attack of diverticulitis.
Apparently the meds had inflamed my gut in bad, and hard to
remediate way. My birthday is in two weeks, fortunately one ending in
a 7 not a 0 or a 5. In my social circle most people like to take the
birthday gal out to lunch. But right now food is sweet potatoes,
steamed vegetables, rice, broth, and applesauce, with an occasional
treat of oatmeal. I’m not eating gluten, sugar, dairy, salads, pizza,
alcohol, or a host of other delicious things. While it’s making me
healthier it is also very boring and unequivocally not very festive. As
people are asking about taking me out to celebrate, I sound like an old
wet blanket. Do you have an idea about how to enjoy being the center
of attention without destroying my tender tummy?

Sick of Being Sick

 
Dear Sick:

I have two ideas and suggest you employ them both. Idea number
one: Tell folks what you can and cannot eat and a safe set of
restaurants you can go to. Explain that what’s much for fun for you
now is doing and experiencing rather than eating. Suggest that your
friends invite you to a movie or a show, with a light bite or cup of tea
before or after. Say the pleasure of their company should not be
overshadowed by the after-effects.

Idea number two is to spread out the joy. Explain that your system
is on overload, both from the medical events and the number of folks
who want to express their love. Ask if you can take a rain check until
your gut is healed, and set a specific date on the calendar that feels safely
far off. Good friends would understand either option, and you can give
them a choice. Sound appreciative for whatever they say yes to and focus
on getting healthy. By next birthday I hope you are eating everything that
you enjoy and that’s good for you.

Feeling Annoyed

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

For the past two years I have played ping pong for exercise. The club
has about 100 members and at the time I play, 9:00 am, many retired
folks, some of whom are completely out of my league excellent and
others welcoming and helpful. I was a newbie for a while, but got
pretty good, certainly mid tier. One of the very regulars is a man in his
80s, who had eye surgery that seems to have failed utterly. He used
to be mid-pack but now couldn’t hit the ball if it were the size of a
basketball. In addition he tells long stories and jokes to cover up his
frustration, which just slows down the game even more. I like him,
and I feel sorry for him, and I know this will happen to us all. But for
me this is exercise time, and I cannot give it all over to kindness, even
though I feel guilty saying that. Is there a gentle way to convey my
need to rotate with other players without offending someone who was
kind to me when I needed it?

Feeling Annoyed

 
Dear Annoyed:

There’s a certain amount of kindness and grace that’s required from us
all, in every situation. Here’s your chance to step up. When you play
with him, gently suggest that stories are great and interesting, but
they slow down your need to keep in motion, something your own
doctor has said is essential. Say you’re happy to hear them but could
he please keep playing while he talks. If he complies, hooray. If not,
try to rotate to a different table after a politely appropriate amount of
time.

 

Most clubs have some kind of manager or facilitator. Quietly take that
person aside and ask if s/he has noticed to decline in this person’s
play. Say that you like him and are happy to keep playing with him a
little while each time you come. But that given the large number of
players, there should be a rotating pool of people to help care for the
elders. Ask him if he would be willing to speak to the man directly,
suggesting that he schedule a follow-up with his eye surgeon. The
difficulties might be temporary, or they may presage something that
requires more medical attention. No matter what, stress your
willingness to be a good person. You’ll need the same grace someday,
as will we all.

Buddy

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

When is the right time to stage an intervention for a friend? It’s food,
not alcohol or drugs but her bad habit is going to kill her just the
same? She’s in her 60s and weighs well over 300 pounds. She has for
a long time, except for the year she lost almost 100 lbs by living on a
very strict anti-inflammatory regimen. She glowed from good health
and compliments, but then various issues in her family life resulted in
her taking in a very embittered relative who made her life a living hell
for more than a year, until she finally told her husband he had to
choose which of them was going to move out. The regained all the
weight and hasn’t looked back.

 

Now she is rapidly losing many forms of self-mobility and care as her aging
body copes with what’s simply too much for it to handle. The docs cannot figure
out a diagnosis or cure for her various ailments, and all of her friends are
concerned that she’s going to keel over, which would be a loss to us all. We
think bariatric surgery could be a great help, if her body could sustain it.
How can we say this to her without making her angry? She is fierce
when she feels cornered.

Buddy

 
Dear Buddy:

Once things involve doctors it is very difficult for what friends might
consider rational advice to hold sway. The person in question can
always say, My doctor says… as a defense. And while I cannot imagine
a doctor who would say 300+ pounds is a healthy weight, it sounds
like there are enough complications since the original weight loss that
the time for bariatric surgery may in fact have passed.

 
Rather than a formal intervention of several or many people, I’d
counsel one or two of you sitting down to have a heart-to- heart.
Explain how terribly concerned you are, and ask how you can be
supportive of her becoming healthier. You can offer to connect her
with nutritionists, health coaches, or even go on the same diet plan
that was once successful. Then listen very well, because she is the
woman who raises a fork to her lips, not you. And no intervention
short of incarceration will work if she is not as committed as you are.

Stressed

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

I have a husband with a long-term disability that is healing but not yet healed.
There are two issues. The first, which is medical, is that he has to NOT DO
certain things that might push his healing backwards. We have had several fights
about this during his convalescence. He thinks he is more fit than the doctors do,
and has many times too often done what I consider risky behaviors. That usually
involves trying to fix things around the house and yard, things he would have
been able to do in his sleep before his injury, but that are on the list of forbidden
activities (for example climbing on ladders).

 

The second issue is that he feels emasculated by my attempts to set up boundaries,
even though they are fully in line with the doctor’s instructions. He doesn’t get that
if he goes down again, everything falls to me. I am a working professional and already stretched thin, especially after six months of caretaking. This has impacted not just our intimacy but emotional trust. Can you help?

Stressed

 
Dear Stressed:

The practical side is far easier than the emotional side. Write up a checklist of
activities and submit it to the doctor (or more likely to his nurse). It can be really
simple: two columns headed by “allowed to do” and “not yet.” When you get the
list back, put it on the frig with a magnet and extract a promise that he will not do
anything more physical than daily life without consulting the list; if an activity is
something he is not yet ready for, the two of you will agree on a plan to get it
accomplished.

 
As for the emotional stress, you need a marriage/couples counselor. Most
marriages would benefit from this kind of tune up on a regular basis, but usually
folks wait until they’re in deep trouble to get help. If they wait too long, the bonds
are too fragile to sustain the pressure. In your case, if his illness is the primary
culprit, and is time-limited, you probably have a great chance to recover
communication and trust. But someone who is skilled at helping people on an
ongoing basis would be a real asset to the two of you. Ask discretely among your
friends and you will get names. People don’t tend to advertise when they have
seen a counselor, but your situation is one they will be able to relate to, and you
will find referrals.

Grieving

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

This is complicated. My father divorced, then remarried, so ended up
with two families, separated by a twenty-year gap between eldest and
youngest of his children. He died just shy of 100, and, though he was
an amazingly good-spirited person, had some quirks that defy
understanding. One of them was a will that left his assets to his
children, and then, in the event of demise, their children, not his
children’s spouses, and in a ratio of who had provided more
grandchildren. He also invested in real estate, which helped provide for
him and my mother, now deceased, very nicely in their aging years.

 

Among the four sibs/half-sibs, there are of course four points of view
about what to do. They are roughly: honor his wishes and leave
everything as is, dividing the monthly income from the real estate; sell
everything now quickly before the economy tanks; share the proceeds
only among the children, not the grandchildren; and variations on
these themes. The arguments split between the natural sibs, and a
discussion (that sadly began while we were sitting shiva!) led to such
discomfort that people fled to various rooms of the house. It was
painful and disturbing. Is there a solution that won’t enrich lawyers at
the expense of the family? To make it more complicated, we are
spread among Massachusetts, Montana, Florida, and California, and he
died in New York.

Grieving

 
Dear Grieving:

I cannot imagine a solution that does not involve lawyers and that also
changes a hair of what is written down. Frankly, I can’t imagine a
solution that simply enacts what’s written that doesn’t also involve
lawyers, if there are four siblings that don’t agree on simply doing
what your father wanted. I would start with his attorney, who may be
privy to information, and certainly is most well-versed in New York
law, which is operative in this reality.

 
I’m not only not a lawyer, I have a healthy respect for them. The
easiest path, by my common sense point of view, would be to
distribute all the assets fairly while all four sibs are alive. If there’s an
approach that gives the ones who want cash the money and the ones
who want to manage property, so be it. But if not, then everything
should be monetized (i.e. properties sold, stocks cashed out etc) and
distributed to the four surviving heirs. Then each can work with their
own attorney to determine if their paternal lineage should somehow be
treated differently than other marital assets. If you accomplish this
before any spouse dies (or is killed or maimed in the inheritance
struggle), you’re home free. But common sense and inheritance law
likely overlap in very few places, so my smart money says you are
probably stuck with your father’s will unless, and even if, all the sibs
can agree on how to move forward. May his memory be for a blessing,
and may each of you appreciate him for leaving you an inheritance
instead of debts.

Furious

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

I’m married to a guy who’s ten years older, but he’s always been
extremely fit and active. He made a living as the head of facility
operations for a multi-site addiction recovery non-profit. Translation:
he was the internal handyman responsible for crawling into, under, or
on top of many buildings that were like apartment houses. He also
helped rehab our older home. He ended up with a bad back and bad
hips, both of which needed to be replaced, with back surgery pending
if the pain didn’t go away after the two hip surgeries. Surgery #1 went
fine and he recovered well, though was in increasing pain before
yesterday’s Surgery #2. An hour before the surgery, while they were
shaving and prepping him, the surgeon asked me in to consent to a
change in procedure: still a hip replacement, but a method that he’d
learned over the weekend at a conference, that is used by the other
top-flight ortho clinic in town. He admitted that my hubby would be his
first, but said that all the nurses were very skilled, as they assisted the
other docs regularly. Surgery #1 took one and a half hours. Three
hours into Surgery #2 I started asking questions. It wasn’t until hour
five! that I got any answers and they weren’t good. The surgeon had
broken my husband’s femur and had to send out for a different
replacement hip. Apparently this happens once in one hundred
surgeries. B U T…I think the odds are higher than that when it is the
surgeon’s first try. And I don’t think we were given nearly enough time
to make an informed decision. I feel angry and railroaded and now we
are facing much longer recuperation, lots more pain, and possibly a
much less robust recovery. What should I do or say, or not do and not
say?

Furious

 
Dear Furious:

I’m neither a doctor nor an attorney. And if you offered me 99 out of
100 odds I’d probably take them. But if you told me I was going to be
the first guinea pig for my surgeon to practice a new procedure I
would almost certainly refuse the honor. To me what’s key is the lack
of time for you to make an informed decision. When you buy a car or
refi a house you usually get three days to change your mind. A
decision that involves carving up body parts should certainly get more
than an hour’s notice.

 
What to do: Make it clear to the doc and the hospital that you are not
satisfied with the surgical outcome. Say that your immediate concern
is your husband’s health and comfort during recovery. But also stress
that you are nowhere close to done asking questions. First among
people to talk should be to the hospital administrator or director of
peer review. Ask what standard procedures are for informed consent
and also to review bad surgical outcomes. Insist the answers come in
writing. Take the answers to a malpractice attorney for a consult. Let
that conversation guide your next steps.

In Recovery

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

I’m the single woman in her sixties who wrote you about preparing for
knee replacement surgery. I live alone, assuming you don’t count my
cat, who has been reluctant to do a lot of the heavy lifting during my
recuperation. My wide circle of loving friends has stepped up to help
me walk the slow road to recovery. I know every case is its own
unique world, but your advice was helpful to me, so I wanted to give
some tips to other readers, based on my experience.

 
Things that make recovery easier: Buy or borrow a good electrically
powered recliner. (Emphasis on electric to save stress on your back,
and twisting or leaning over hard to operate it.) In addition to a place
to sit, the recliner will become your haven especially in the wee hours
when you cannot sleep comfortably on your back in bed. Sleep
opportunistically every chance you get. Don’t be afraid to unplug the
phone and take naps, from catnaps to deep, long ones. If insurance
and/or Medicare will not cover it, invest in one of the continuous flow,
cold water pumps that when filled with ice and water will bathe your
aching knee in a velcroed wrap of soothing comfort. Ask your friends
to text or email rather than phone. Post or email group updates of
your condition. Be realistic and optimistic, but don’t candy coat the
tough stuff. Allow your friends to set up a food supply. Your appetite
will be diminished and your taste buds may be altered. A few servings
of homemade soup every other day, and simple foods like applesauce
and muffins will feel like gourmet fare. Stockpile chicken broth in your
freezer. Encourage visitors to bring a book and sit with you or in
another room, rather than draining your energy with chatter. Wear PJs
or a nightie when you are home to remind yourself you are a patient.
Know that everything will take twice as long as you expect it to, and
will tire you out more than you think it should. Set up all your physical
therapy appointments well before surgery and have a friend coordinate
transport for you. Don’t be shy about acknowledging your limitations.
Say Please and Thank you often, with true sincerity. This is a humbling
and humanizing experience. Be kind to everyone who helps you, and
do the same for others when you recover. We’re all going to need
more of this kind of community support.

In Recovery

 
Dear In Recovery:

Thank you for the helpful specifics! I hope you are out walking soon
and dancing not long after that.

Eeeek

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

I’m terrified. I’m headed to Detroit tomorrow to have The Talk with my
82-year- old mother. She’s lived independently or semi-independently
her entire life. My father died when she was 50. For the last 10 years
my youngest sister has been living with her, but she’s ready to move
out and make her own life. My sister’s been a safety net for all of us,
making sure her mom took her meds, driving her to appointments
(Mom turned in her own license when she felt unsafe!) and generally
being around so none of us had to fear every ring of the phone. Mom
is intelligent, spry, and relatively healthy. Other than the fact that she
can’t drive she is very self-sufficient. But I know that could change in a
minute, and I live two thousand miles away, as does everyone except
my sister. How can I have The Talk, which every child dreads having
to have, to prepare for the inevitable living-in- a-group- setting, so we
don’t have to make rushed or bad decisions in a time of crisis?

Eeeek

 
Dear Eeek:

There’s no easy way for this one. Everyone dreads it, no matter which
side of the conversation equation they are on. And if she knows your
sister is planning on moving out, you know she knows that The Talk is
part of your visit. So she will likely be apprehensive and afraid, even if
she does her maternal best to hide it. Start out having as good and
casual a visit as you can, at least for the first day or two. Come from
the airport with flowers and plan to take her out for a special one-on-
one dinner. Try to assess how she’s doing without making her feel like
she’s under the microscope. Even if she knows the conversation is
inevitable and looming, she will be on her best behavior. But don’t be
surprised if tears follow. It is going to be hard, but it is important and
necessary to do.

 
Take the role of her advocate, as in: Mom, how do you want to handle
the future? What’s your idea of the best and safest way for you to live
after [sister name] moves out? Then listen. Don’t confront her, and
avoid pushing her into a place of resistance. She might surprise you by
saying she is ready, or that she knows a move is inevitable. Most likely
she will argue that it should be deferred. Listen to her arguments one
by one; see what makes sense and what doesn’t. Ask her if she’ll
come with you to one or two of the closest and best assisted-living
facilities that perhaps, God willing, one or more of her friends is
already living in. Help her see the better points about them and also
help her recognize that if she has a health crisis she could end up
somewhere far less optimal, and that planning is a far better process
than making a bad decision later.

 
You have a lot of homework to do to pull off the eventual transition.
Your local sister will be a big help in getting the house packed up and
decluttered. But you need to carefully assess financial resources,
weigh options, and learn about waiting lists and long-term treatment
options. There’s a big difference between an independent living
situation, and a facility that offer progressive “step-down” options
when your mother begins to fail. Assume that this process will take
three to six months and try to work with your local sister to keep her
involved. But the nest thing you can do is to make sure your mother
knows you love her, and that this is about keeping her safe and
healthy for as long as possible. The Talk should focus on care, not
punishment. Good luck.

Concerned

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

I’m trying to figure out how to help a friend who is in chronic pain. She
did a rehabilitative surgery and hasn’t bounced back like we all
thought she would. Previously she was outgoing, funny, always ready
to make plans, and generally seemed far younger than her age. Now
she shuffles along like a woman twenty years older, seems timid and
afraid of her own shadow, and has become, if not a shut-in, at least
very different from the lively and charming person I’ve known for
decades. I’ve watched her bounce between physical therapy,
acupuncture, hypnosis, new age therapies I can’t pronounce and don’t
believe in, and far too many pain meds. It’s not just missing my
friend. I’m worried about her life moving forward. How can I help her
realize that she’s spiraling down fast and hard?

Concerned

 
Dear Concerned:

I doubt your description would tell her anything that she doesn’t
already know and is probably far more concerned about that you could
possibly imagine. The phrase “old before her time” is terrifying if one is
the “her” in question. Anyone who’s survived a major surgery knows
how fragile and vulnerable they feel afterward, and in reality are. The
true definition of health should include not merely recovery from the
original malady but should acknowledge that until one lives without
second-guessing every action, and without fearing any and all possible
negative consequences, one is not truly free of the dis-ease process.

 

Things you can do for her: Be patient and kind. Be positive not
negative or impatient. Ask her what she needs to be comfortable and
to feel safe. Listen to her answers and take them seriously; do not
discount them because you want her to be more well than she is. Help
her not isolate. Invite her for short excursions, whether it’s offering a
trip to Costco to stock up on paper goods, or to go out for a cuppa tea
or a movie. Ask her if she wants to talk about her healing and
vulnerability, either with you or a professional counselor. Encourage
getting off pain meds that can become a source of addiction. They can
be soul-numbing and personality-altering. Stay patient and kind and
keep reassuring her that time will improve almost everything, and that
she’s close to rounding the corner on the worst of it.

Hobbled

Dear Jewish Fairy Godmother:

I am about to have my third rotator cuff surgery. The surgeon botched
the first try, a matter of a vivid dispute between my insurance
company and his malpractice lawyers. But I’m the one who had to
endure a second operation. It helped, but not enough, so now I am
undergoing a second corrective procedure. My problem is that some of
my friends, though they try to sound well-meaning about it, are
undercutting my mood, my self-confidence, and my general sense of
independence by making all sorts of remarks, like: “I hope you try
harder with the physical therapy this time.” “Gee this is taking so
much longer than my friend so-and- so.” “Are you sure you are really
pushing your limits with pain?” It makes me feel ashamed, vulnerable,
like I cannot ask them for help, like I want to just stay home and hide,
and generally emotionally and physically fragile. Needless to say the
docs are cautious around me, because the word gets around that you
are “the kind of patient who will get you sued!” How can I let people
know that I too long for the days when I can drive myself to the
market, get back into the yoga studio, and walk my own dog. At age
55 it is a scary foreshadowing of what old age could be. And there is
nothing about it that I like!

Hobbled

 
Dear Hobbled:

As the old saying goes, No way out but through. So you need to push
on, yes through the pain, but also through the emotional difficulties of
not being understood by either doctors or friends. Statistics will tell
docs what’s likely to happen. They’re based on the aggregate of
human experience. But you have only your own rotator cuff to work
with, and if it&'s not cooperating with the surgeon’s expectations, he’ll
have to adjust and cooperate with yours. That does for your friends as
well.

 
Shaming is a lousy teaching technique, for age 5, or 55, or 95. We all
deserve to be recognized for our efforts. And especially in times of
great stress and pressure, we should be supported not chastised. I’d
consider sending a group email to your friends (or writing it once and
sending it individually to people). In it you can explain how grueling
and stressful this whole process has been for you, how terrifying it is
to imagine not having full use of an arm for the rest of your life, and
how extensive, expensive, and exhausting it is to be coping with a
medical issue you had been hoping would be long resolved. Without
naming names, you can say that people who have tried to “encourage”
you with negative feedback have had the opposite impact, and that
what you most need is support and encouragement. Let folks know
that you are appreciative both for their physical help and their moral
support. And tell them that on the other side they’ll all be invited to a
fabulous party to celebrate healing and recovery. But in the meantime,
if they can’t get onboard with what you need, they should feel free to
demur when you ask for help. You’ll soon learn who your true friends
are.

 
PS You should consider doing counseling to deal with medical trauma.
Just having a place to scream and weep without judgment may be
exactly the safety zone you need.