A gift of health

I don’t what to get my grandmother for Christmas, Denise told me. “She's in a wheelchair after her stroke and has everything she wants or needs. Still, I want to let her know she's special.”

“What about the gift of health?” I asked. She replied, “The doctors can’t restore her ability to walk. She’ll never be healthy again. Plus, if I were to give her the gift of health, what would I give her? Vitamins?”

You can enjoy optimal health even when facing medical challenges. Health means your body is in top running condition, like having your car well-tuned. A well-tuned VW van with 200,000 miles will never perform like a sports car; yet, you can tinker with the van so it gets its optimal performance.

We also know you can influence your health with interventions that extend beyond medication and surgery. The evolving science of the mind-body connection tells us that everything we do or think has health consequences. Letting go of resentment can have health benefits measured on the same scale as giving up smoking.

Here are some ideas for giving the gift of health. Maybe you'll find something appropriate for your aging parents who have everything, or your partner who may be celebrating his last holiday season or a friend who is recovering from a cancer operation.

Laughter as medicine

Gelotology is the study of the health benefits of laughter. You know from your own experience that laughter breaks stress and tension. Evidence suggests that laughter enhances the function of your immune system and stimulates pleasure centers in the brain.

How about renting or buying the CD of a funny movie? Or browsing the bookstores for a funny book? Maybe it’s even a book of corny even knock-knock jokes. Or re-tell your own stories that bring tears of laughter to your loved one's eyes.. Whenever I have some disaster, I console myself with how funny the story will be at the retelling.

Get moving

There is a tendency to become increasingly immobile as we face illness, particularly with an aging body. Yet, physical activity may be the closest thing to a magic bullet to optimizing health. Anything that you can do to help your loved one be active is a true gift. Here are some questions that will point you in the right direction. What activities bring your loved one true joy? Walking in a beautiful garden? Swimming?

What keeps them from doing it? Don’t have a swim suit? Lack transportation? Don't know where to go? Overcome the obstacle.

You’re never too old to try something new. I just started taking ballroom dancing lessons, and one of my partners is an elderly man with a tremor.

Manage your stress

A healthy life is one in which stress is managed. Laughter and exercise are good interventions. Sometimes keeping the hands busy calms the mind. How about worry beads or knitting needles and yarn or a “squoosh ball” for the hands? Running arthritic hands through the curly hair of a poodle or petting a lap cat raises the good brain chemicals. Don’t underestimate the healing power of a dog or cat, even if the pet is visiting in the home only for a short time.

Stay connected

Isolation and loneliness increase the risk of illness and make recovery more challenging. Help your loved one stay connected to others. Maybe you can give a box of cards, easy-to-use pens and stamps. Maybe you can give telephone calling cards. Maybe you help your loved one learn how to use email!

Exercise your mind

A busy mind helps supports health. How about a book of games or puzzles to keep the mind sharp? Adult handheld video games are becoming more popular. Or simply sit and fill out a crossword puzzle together.

Stay informed

Knowledge is power. How about a subscription to a favorite magazine or newspaper? Attend an author reading at a bookstore. A holiday concert. A children’s play.

Know your health story.

You will get better medical care if you know your health story. I feel so passionate about the importance of keeping copies of your medical records that I created a product that helps you do just this - the Personal Health Journal You don’t need to buy this as a gift; your gift can be the offer to collect and organize medical records. If your loved one wants to know what to give you, ask for the gift of family stories, including your family's health history.

Protect against cold and flu.

The best way to stay healthy this holiday and flu season is to WASH HANDS. Consider a holiday gift basket that includes soaps, decorative paper towels and hand sanitizer. Skip the antibacterials in the soap which make the house riskier rather than safer. Do away with the hand towel near the sink. It's a catch-all for bacteria.

Tell a story.

I have saved my best for last. Offer a note or video or photo album that captures why this is a special person in your life and how he or she has made a difference to you. Caregiving is a way of saying “I love you.” Create a gift that’s a physical representation of this love. I promise that this will be the most treasured gift you could ever offer. Plus, the price is right.

Islander and author Vicki Rackner M.D. can be reached at

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