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Networking family and friends to plan your reunion

By ELLEN MILLER | The Indianapolis Star

There's no place like home for the holidays, but when someone can't make the family gathering, a little planning, imagination and technology can create the next best thing to being there.

Kin connections can be forged through e-mail, Web cams or a simultaneous toast across time zones. But 95 percent of Americans prefer to use the old-fashioned phone to communicate with family, according to a December 2002 survey by Harris Interactive.

With 14 adult siblings, assorted spouses, 52 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, the entire O'Brien clan can't always attend holiday gatherings at the Indianapolis home of parents Tom and Joan O'Brien.

"If someone can't come," says Tom O'Brien Jr., "we always call them and pass around the phone so everybody can talk to them. It's usually pretty hard on them emotionally when they can't be there; there aren't that many occasions where the entire family gets together now."

Creativity, even more than phone lines, can link a missing loved one to family festivities.

Heather Zeigler, a 2002 Purdue University graduate and Navy ensign, made her presence felt at her parents' 30th wedding anniversary party in Marion, Ill., even though she was on the USS Fitzgerald heading to the Persian Gulf.

Her sister set a framed photo of Heather in uniform at the head table, and an aunt read a letter Heather wrote for her parents before her ship sailed.

"It was a wonderful thing, real touching," says Debbie Zeigler, Heather's mom.

Ninety-six percent of Americans feel strongly that spending time with immediate family is a priority, and 83 percent want to attend gatherings of extended family and friends, according to the Harris Interactive poll.

"But the reality of life is that not everybody can always come," says Edith Wagner, editor of Milwaukee, Wis.-based Reunions magazine.

Grown children in relationships must choose which relatives to visit. Elderly or sick loved ones may not be able to participate as they once did.

"Celebrating the people who aren't there, being in communication with them, is a great idea," says Wagner.

Ione Vargus of the Family Reunion Institute at Temple University in Philadelphia agrees.

"Most everyone needs to have a sense that they belong and that others care for them," Vargus says. "This is a primary and major function of the family.

"In African-American families, the elders are considered to be very important. It is not unusual for family members to find ways to pay for an elder's trip to a family gathering or to arrange the gathering in a location so that an elder can be there."

Families need to be sensitive to changes in older or ill relatives, says Mary Guerriero Austrom, an associate psychiatry professor at the Indiana University School of Medicine who works with IU's Center for Aging Research.

"A cognitive problem, like with a stroke, Parkinson's or Alzheimer's, makes a large family gathering very difficult," Austrom says. "They are too chaotic. The person cannot filter out all of the noise.

"I've watched families go to a lot of trouble to have the perfect Thanksgiving dinner, and they go and get Grandpa and bring him in, and he's there 10 minutes and says 'Take me back. Take me home.'"

It's important to adjust expectations and traditions to accommodate ill or aged loved ones, she says.

"I suggest families talk about this and take turns visiting Mom or Dad or Grandpa and not exclude him," Austrom says. "Instead of a big, complicated dinner, you might go out and enjoy breakfast.

"Assign things: At Christmas, maybe somebody can do breakfast with Grandpa and help him get ready for church, then sit in the back near an aisle, in case he can't cope with the crowd. At the big family gathering, send the kids to do video games, then bring Grandpa over for coffee and dessert."

If you want to use technology to help keep an older or ill loved one connected, she says, consider their condition and comfort level.

A "talking" picture frame or photo album that plays a recorded message at the push of a button can delight one person but frighten someone with dementia.

"But very healthy older people are incredible with new technology, with e-mail and video streaming," Austrom says.

For those open to using the computer to connect - and 74 percent of Americans are interested, says Harris Interactive - the technology is more accessible than ever, says T.J. Terry, manager of The Apple Store in Indianapolis.

When he couldn't join his parents in southern Indiana for his dad's birthday July 3, Terry used his computer, with camera mounted, to see and talk to his father.

When his parents and in-laws couldn't attend their grandson's first day of kindergarten, Terry set videos and photos to John Lennon's "Beautiful Boy" to create a three-minute movie.

"I sent the grandparents a DVD in the mail," he says. "They called us and cried."

Austrom says linking loved ones is crucial, no matter how families do it.

"I work with people at the end of the life span," she says, "and it's one of those things that are people's greatest regrets: 'I wish I had connected with my brother; I wish I had seen my sister before she died.'

"No one really feels guilty about not cooking more or not cleaning more or not working enough. It's the human connections we tend to miss."