The holidays are fast-approaching—and so is your chance to have heart-to-heart conversations with far-flung family members who you may not see often. Though it can be difficult to mention certain topics, this "together time" may make it easier to address tough issues and talking face-to-face will help make communicating clearer than it tends to be by phone or email.

What conversations might you want to have during the holidays? Think about the kinds of issues that you may have put off dealing with. Depending on your family circumstances and dynamics, the following topics might help you organize your thoughts on potential discussions:

Family Health History

It's important to know your family's health history so that your doctors can assess your risk of certain conditions and provide you with the best care. Use time over the holidays to ask parents, grandparents, and other family members questions about their medical history. Be sure to ask about common hereditary diseases—such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes—and rare diseases like hemophilia, cystic fibrosis, and sickle cell anemia. Take notes on the details so that you can give your healthcare providers accurate information.The "My Family Health Portrait" tool from the Surgeon General is an easy and accessible way to document and update your family's health history.

Risky Health Behaviors

If a loved one is engaging in unhealthy habits such as smoking cigarettes, drinking too much alcohol, or showing signs of an eating disorder, you may need to speak up. Talking to family members about their choices and helping to lend the support they need to improve their health may literally mean the difference between life and death. Be careful when choosing your words, as people who have particularly unhealthy habits can get defensive when confronted. Be sure to let them know that you're speaking up out of concern, and not out of criticism. Be honest about how the person's behavior is affecting you and how you feel it's harming them, but avoid placing blame on them or making them feel guilty.

Addictive Behaviors

One step beyond risky health behaviours are addictive behaviours. If you suspect a loved one may have an addiction, it's important to take action right away. Sometimes a direct conversation can start the road to recovery, but often dealing with addiction requires a more structured approach, such as intervention. An intervention involves joining forces with other family members and professionals to get your loved one support to fight the addiction. For more information about how to help a loved one overcome an addiction, visit the Mayo Clinic's website.

Mental Illness

If you're concerned that a loved one may be showing signs of a mental illness, it's important to get help. It's often difficult to distinguish normal mental health from mental illness because there's no single test to determine if something is wrong. The following signs may suggest a mental health condition, but if in doubt, work with a mental health provider to assess your loved one's symptoms:

  • obsessive or irrational behaviour
  • deep, ongoing sadness, euphoria, or anger
  • delusional thinking (such as believing that something outside of yourself is controlling your mind)

Caring for Aging Parents

Going home for the holidays can make a family member's physical or mental decline more apparent. Though challenging for all involved, it can be worthwhile to start a conversation to address your elderly loved one's changing needs. Depending on the situation, some possible areas for discussion include:

  • your loved one's fears, needs, and wishes
  • financial concerns in relation to long-term care
  • medical care decisions
  • healthcare power of attorney (which appoints someone to make healthcare decisions if your loved one is incapacitated)
  • housing options if your loved one is unable to remain living at home

Initiating dialogue sooner than later may allow for a deeper exploration of your loved one's preferences and priorities and a wider review of the full range of options.

Although having any of these conversations can be hard, initiating them is usually the hardest part. However, the support of loved ones and the togetherness experienced during the holidays may be just what you need to take the first step towards better health for yourself and your family.