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8 Ways to Support the Chronically Ill During the Holidays

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Well, it’s that time of year again. The air is cooler, leaves are falling from the trees and decorations are being displayed.

The holiday season has officially commenced.

For many people, the holidays and all the associated festivities are a wonderful time of year, bringing family and friends together to celebrate.

But for those of us who are chronically ill, holidays can cause an increased level of stress, and often leave us feeling even more isolated and left out from “normal life.”

Some who are chronically ill have all but been abandoned by their family and friends. The dinner and party invites have ceased, and the mailbox is devoid of any cards sending well wishes. It can be incredibly painful to hear about the events they were once invited to or to see their old co-workers on social media at the annual holiday party, snapping selfies and drinking signature cocktails. 

For others, the endless obligations associated with the season can place a kind of pressure and strain on us to push ourselves to appear as able and “normal” as possible — often at great costs to not only our physical health but our emotional sanity. 

Family dinners, ugly sweater parties, holiday events for the kids, religious celebrations and spouses’ work parties monopolize the calendar, creating an environment where no time exists for rest and self-care. In our dizzying effort to show up and participate, our bodies often have their own plans and don’t cooperate, and we experience a flare in pain and other symptoms.

So how can you really help your loved one or friend have an enjoyable holiday season? Here are eight ways:

1. Ask your chronically ill friend or family member how you can help. 

That’s right, good old-fashioned help. People who are chronically ill can struggle with completing basic tasks, and during the holidays, those tasks increase exponentially. The best gift you can give to someone who is sick is the gift of assistance. Stop by and vacuum, drop off a ready-made meal or do a few loads of laundry. Offer to take a carpool shift for the kids or pick up some groceries.

2. Send those invites even if you don’t think we can come. 

As I mentioned earlier, feeling left out is incredibly difficult. Sending us an invite and letting us know there is no expectation of our attendance, makes us still feel included.

3. Remember that financial hardship often accompanies families affected by chronic illness. 

In a lot of circles, gift-giving has gotten completely out of hand. While everyone should be free to give a gift to anyone they like, please don’t take it personally if your chronically ill friend or family member can’t give a gift or their gift is much more moderate than what you give.

During a dinner, a pot-luck or another situation where hostess gifts are often given, let your friend or family member know that you would be happy to have them come without feeling obligated to bring anything — their presence is gift enough.

4. Understand we’re not being rude if we show up late or have to leave early. 

Some people may feel slighted when their chronically ill friend or family member has to duck out early. While those feelings are understandable, please know it has nothing to do with you or your event.

On top of the usual challenges every person deals with on a daily basis, those of us with chronic pain and illness often can’t physically or emotionally tolerate the entirety of the event. Each diagnosis brings its own challenges, and despite the best planning we do, we often can’t be there on time. Flares in symptoms and pain can occur at anytime, and it can set us back while we try to manage them. Please be understanding and reassure us it’s OK.

5. Please don’t criticize or critique our current treatment plan. 

While many of you are coming from a good place, please leave your opinions about how we manage our chronic illness to yourself. Chances are we have heard of the latest therapy, herb, medication and guru. If you have a genuine interest in how we are managing the disease and what we do for it, feel free to ask, but please keep in mind that every case and situation is different.

If you have ideas or suggestions, shoot us an email or pick up the phone at a later time, but please don’t push anything on us at a holiday event. The truth is with the internet and groups on social media, those of us who are chronically ill are some of the most well-informed individuals out there, sometimes even more so than our health professionals. If we’ve made it to the gathering, the last thing we want to do is talk about our health. 

6. Ask us how you can help make it easier or more comfortable to attend your gathering.

Often we decline an invitation because we know the house or venue lacks comfortable seating or has accessibility issues. Some of us are reluctant to ask for minor accommodations because we know how much work it takes for you to host a gathering, and we prefer not to add to your list of things to do. And for others, we often don’t want to draw attention to our illness or disability, so we don’t advocate for ourselves. If we seem reluctant to attend, or decline, ask us if there’s anything you can do to help make us more comfortable. Bringing out some extra pillows, allowing us to lie down in a quiet room if needed or moving furniture so a wheelchair or other assistive devices can navigate easier are some of the simple things you can do to help.

7. Bring the holidays to us.

If we’re struggling and can’t attend a gathering, make special plans with us. Stop by our home with hot chocolate and cookies or grab some take-out and watch a movie with us. For those in the hospital, small decorations, ugly sweaters and gifts are a great way to boost our spirits. 

8. Consider donating to a charity in honor of your chronically ill family member or friend.

In addition to or in lieu of receiving a gift, this is one of the most meaningful things you can do to show support. Ask which charity best serves and supports their specific chronic illness community, then contribute in the name of the chronically ill person in your life. I can attest to the fact that opening up my mailbox and seeing a letter stating someone donated in my honor makes me feel loved and supported.

While I’ve just discussed a few ways how you can support a family member during the holidays, I want to note that once the dishes are done, Christmas lights, menorahs, snowmen and other symbols of the holidays are packed away until next year, those of us who are chronically ill are still here. And like the challenges we face during the holidays, those continue year round for us. 

Being helpful and inclusive all year is the ultimate gift you can give to the chronically ill.

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Image via Thinkstock

Originally published: November 17, 2016
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