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More than health care gets us through a year

Your Christmas cards won't come from Congress.

By Susan FitzGerald

It was the year of the "ologist" for my father: cardiologist, pulmonologist, gastroenterologist, nephrologist, urologist, and ophthalmologist, and then there were the vascular surgeon and the family doctor, too. It seemed as if practically every part of my dad's 86-year-old body was scoped, scanned, or operated on.

Maybe it was this battalion of doctors that kept my dad alive in 2009. But I got another idea when I visited him the other day and saw his dining room table covered with Christmas cards, envelopes, and scraps of paper with addresses written on them.

My father is an artist, and each year he designs his own Christmas card. He had 30 copies of this year's version stacked on his table, ready to be mailed or hand-delivered to friends and relatives.

That number - 30 - struck me as relevant. My dad has 30 connections that, at the age of 86, keep him going and looking forward to another new year. While the health-care reform debate rages in Washington, and Congress considers who will get covered and at what cost, a key point has been lost: Good health and long life are due to much more than the medical system we're fighting over.

It's the connections, the people in our lives, that keep our minds vibrant and our muscles moving. My dad's life is a good example. He lives in the same house he and my mom had built in 1955, and he goes to Wednesday devotions and Sunday Mass at the parish were he was a founding member.

That's not to say that his life hasn't changed. He requires kidney dialysis three times a week, relies on Meals on Wheels, pays a helper to drive him places when family members can't, and has relocated his art studio from the basement to the ground floor to avoid the stairs. But with each adaptation, he found new ways to connect.

"I have the best neighbors I could ever ask for," he told me during my visit. I was surprised by the statement, because nearly all his old friends from the neighborhood are in retirement homes or dead.

He showed me an 8-by-10 photograph of the season's first snow that his next-door neighbor Bob had dropped off. "He knocked on my door the other morning and said he hadn't seen me," Dad said. "He keeps an eye out for me." The Meals on Wheels people do the same: If Dad isn't in the kitchen, the volunteer makes sure he's in his art studio at the back of the house.

Jim, who lives on the other side, is another lifeline. Every day, my dad reads the Wall Street Journal, puts it back in its plastic wrapper, and then tucks it into the fence along his drive. Jim retrieves the paper, reads it himself, and then faithfully carries the next day's edition from the bottom of the driveway to Dad's doorstep. Jim, who is at least 75, also clears the snow for my father.

A friend of mine who works in social services says that winter is often a time of great decline for the elderly. After months of cold weather, they emerge frailer and less sure of themselves. As Washington works out the details of health-care reform, we all should do our part to promote good health by reaching out to an elderly relative, neighbor, or ex-colleague. Let's recognize what really keeps us healthy: safe homes, nourishing food, and ties to friends and family.

When I was a kid, the weekend after Thanksgiving was reserved for making Christmas cards. My dad designed the card, and the whole family would silkscreen prints. My dad had this year's card - a real beauty - printed at a store, but he addressed the envelopes himself with a fine-tip, black pen. I always loved his signature because it wasn't perfect in the way the nuns taught us to write, but it had a flair that was artsy and energetic.

Even though my dad's handwriting is shaky now, it still looked beautiful on his 30 Christmas cards. As he put the stamps on, I prayed that each card would strengthen a connection that would carry him through winter and on into another spring.