A gift for the holidays: Knowing what matters most


Do you know “what matters most” to you in life? Do those who care about you know what you want them to know?

Holiday seasons are full of family and friends. The shared joys of holiday gatherings remind us of memories and relationships we hold dear. These gifts of togetherness are among the greatest gifts in life. They are wrapped in smiles, and often celebrated with hugs.

This year, the year of COVID, will be different. To preserve future togetherness, we will need to forgo the hugs. Being “together” may well mean being Zoomed together on a computer screen. Yet the smiles will shine through. The love of families and the devotion of friends adapt to whatever they need to do. Being safe need not mean being somber. One’s presence for another is always a great gift.

For too many of us, though, the realities of the pandemic have left an absence in our lives. We have lost those whose lives for us have had great meaning. Most of the victims of the COVID pandemic left this life quickly, with little warning. That makes their loss even more poignant. The sobering fact of a pandemic like this for each of us is that it is predictably unpredictable. We all hear stories of how even the most cautious and careful of people have become infected. Safe behavior can dramatically decrease our risk. But in an environment like the present, the risk can rarely be reduced to zero.

Being prepared is a key way to reduce our personal risk. Avoiding social gatherings, especially indoors; washing our hands; wearing a mask; and maintaining a safe physical distance must continue to be our habits until the pandemic subsides. These behaviors are gifts — gifts of the wish for good health for us and for others.

There is another important gift that we suggest you give this holiday season. This gift is sharing “what matters most” to you with those who matter most in your life. In doing that, you will bring them more closely into your life, and enable them to speak with your voice if the pandemic or another health tragedy takes away your ability to speak for yourself.

A sad, sobering, and very unfortunate fact is that only about 16 percent of the residents of Martha’s Vineyard have designated a healthcare agent for themselves. A healthcare agent is a person we choose to speak for us, and to advocate for us if we become so ill that we cannot speak for ourselves. Those of us who have chosen a healthcare agent know how good it made us feel to do so. And we have heard from those we have chosen how honored they were to be selected by us. 

We know from personal experience that talking about what matters most to us in life and what we would want when we are on the verge of leaving this life is one of life’s most important and satisfying conversations. Far from being morbid, the sharing of such important thoughts demonstrates a trust that brings us closer together. This closeness is a joyful gift.

Since families will gather in this time of COVID in unique ways, we believe that it is very appropriate to have important conversations. The Conversation Project is a national program designed to help people choose a healthcare agent, and have a conversation about what matters most in their lives. Their online publication Being Prepared in the Time of COVID-19: Three Things to Do Now is a short, simple, practical guide that would be a great gift for the entire family. Everyone over the age of 18 should designate a healthcare agent. All of us should let those we choose to know what our wishes are, just in case we find ourselves in the circumstance that we cannot express them ourselves.

Healthy Aging Martha’s Vineyard, in collaboration with Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and many other Island organizations, is committed to helping all our neighbors designate a healthcare agent. In Massachusetts, you do not need a lawyer to do so. The forms are free and self-explanatory. And we at Healthy Aging M.V. are ready to help answer any questions you might have.

We wish you a joyous and healthy holiday season, and a Happy New Year.

Dr. Laskowski is a retired geriatrician and healthcare executive, and an active member of Healthy Aging MV.

Online resources:

Being Prepared in the time of COVID-19: bit.ly/MVConversationProject

Massachusetts Healthcare proxy (agent) form: bit.ly/MVproxy