Valentine’s Day is coming in just a few days so this is a good time to talk about a few ways that brain injuries may affect Valentine’s Day for injury survivors and ways in which a brain injury survivor can make his or her Valentine’s Day experience a more successful one.
For survivors with speech deficits (generally referred to as “aphasia”), Valentine’s Day can be particularly stressful. On Valentine’s Day people say “I love you” to loved ones and survivors with aphasia may find it frustratingly difficult to reciprocate, as effecting this once simple vocalization is for them no longer simple in any way to achieve. They know what they want to say but cannot get the words out. Some survivors may feel let down that they are not able to adequately express this heartfelt sentiment. Speech therapists often work with survivors struggling with aphasia in order to help them to say important phrases like “I love you” and it is generally a good idea for those survivors to practice repeating these useful phrases on a daily basis. Many survivors with aphasia can say simple phrases if someone starts to say the phrase with them or just accompanies them through the entire vocalization. For instance, the survivor may be able to say “I love you” if his or her loved one helps him or her to initiate by saying “I lo….”. Even if it takes some help getting the words out, most brain injury survivors will feel good about the accomplishment of having said the full phrase correctly. Even if the survivor cannot quite get the words out, he or she is clearly trying to express his or her love. Loved ones should accept and acknowledge the emotion behind the attempt. In the end, it is truly the emotion that counts.
Another big Valentine’s Day change possibly seen in a survivor’s post-injury life relates to the way in which the holiday may now be celebrated. For example, many survivors are accustomed to arranging for loved ones extensive meals, large events or extravagant celebrations on Valentine’s Day. They may be used to purchasing huge bouquets, pricey wines or expensive chocolates. After a brain injury, survivors and their families are often forced to adapt to a considerable decrease in potential household income and just as often struggle with substantial medical debts. Some survivors may feel guilty that their injuries cause this change in holiday celebrations. Many survivors that are hospital-bound may feel like they have ruined the holiday with their injuries. From the perspective of those family members though, the joy of simply being able to celebrate another holiday with the survivor after the survivor’s near-death experience is greater than any gift that could be purchased. There are a number of helpful ways in which to approach these issues. Survivors may need to be reminded that they did not ask for the brain injury to happen, so they should therefore not blame themselves inappropriately. Instead of purchasing items, they may be encouraged to make a gift or a card for their loved ones. Families often appreciate hand-made items at least as much as (if not even more than) purchased items. In cases in which survivors do purchase items, loved ones may wish to take special care to reassure those survivors that a small item purchased is appreciated just as much as a larger such item would be. In some situations, such as when a survivor is spending time as a patient in an inpatient rehabilitation facility, that survivor may need a friend or family member to purchase on the survivor’s behalf an item the survivor intends to give as a gift. Most importantly, loved ones may need to help the survivor focus on what everyone values the most. Above all else, those involved should never lose sight of how precious the opportunity to celebrate their love together is. That this opportunity for shared appreciation was very nearly permanently lost as a result of the injury suffered should only emphasize its incomparable value.
Sometimes there are dietary issues that may be brought to the fore when engaging in Valentine’s Day festivities. Valentine’s Day gifts tend to involve copious amounts of chocolate and sweets. For survivors with diabetes, eating large amounts of chocolate and sweets is invariably accompanied by significant risk of serious health complications. Loved ones may want to give non-food gifts like flowers or other such items to diabetic patients. Also, people tend to go out to eat for Valentine’s Day meals. Any instructions by speech therapists such as using thickener to make drinking liquid less of a hazard or adhering to safe swallowing techniques need to be carried out in restaurants just as they would be at a home or at a rehabilitation facility. It may not seem romantic to thicken a drink during a candlelit dinner at a white tablecloth dining establishment, but there is certainly nothing romantic about contending with an identified swallowing issue leading to a serious problem such as aspiration pneumonia.
As mentioned above, many people like to go out for Valentine’s Day. This may include going to restaurants, movies or plays. As Valentine’s Day tends to be a busy day for these venues, there are a few issues that may need to be considered as regards a brain injury survivor’s participation. If a survivor has physical mobility issues, that survivor and his or her loved ones need to hold accessibility as a key aspect of any venue selection. Though all public buildings must by law meet a minimum threshold of accessibility, some venues are simply better suited to the needs of those with significant mobility issues than others. One relevant question to consider would be which restaurants have wider spaces between tables allowing greater ease in wheelchair navigation. Is there a separate accessible entrance that a survivor can use to make it easier to enter the venue? As an example, many movie theaters have separate entrances for those with mobility deficits so as to make it easier to enter and leave while avoiding the normal crowd of movie-goers. If a survivor would do best with a particular seating arrangement (such as being closer to the door to limit the distance he or she will be required to walk), venues will almost always assist in such a scenario as long as they are contacted in advance. A simple phone call to a restaurant can often guarantee that the most appropriate seating will be reserved for the survivor and his or her loved ones. Survivors and loved ones may also want to consider patronizing any of these establishments at off-peak hours. This can not only mitigate challenges faced by those with mobility issues, but it is also usually the best choice for survivors that have a tendency to become easily agitated when in large crowds. Some survivors may do best with a home-based or facility-based celebration rather than going out into the community if they have too significant a difficulty with mobility or managing agitation. Others may do best by celebrating Valentine’s Day a day early or a day late so as to avoid the holiday rush and stress.
One oft-ignored issue is that many brain injury survivors simply do not feel attractive faced daily as they are by ever-evident knowledge of permanent changes their injuries have wrought. They may look at themselves and see body parts that do not move, now necessary constantly present aid devices, prominent scars or other injury-related alterations to their physical appearance that make them feel ugly. In almost all cases, loved ones will still feel strong love for and a powerful sense of connection to the survivors. Sometimes, contending with life in the aftermath of such an injury will have the effect of even increasing these feelings. It is vital for loved ones to express their feelings to the survivors and to be sure that they let the survivors know how much the survivors are loved. Survivors may need more encouragement and reassurance of their attractiveness than they needed in the past. Further, survivors should be encouraged to dress as they normally would have (or as best as they can now manage given their needs). For instance, if a survivor normally wore make-up prior to her injury, she should be encouraged to still wear make-up. We tend to feel better when look better, even when we do not have an injury. When we see ourselves in the mirror looking our best, we are more likely to feel our best.
I hope this post helped to explain a few of the issues that may accompany Valentine’s Day celebrations and offered some useful suggestions to aid brain injury survivors in maximizing their holiday experiences.
Learn about brain injury treatment services at the Transitional Learning Center: tlcrehab.org