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Health & Balance

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Chronic Illness and the Holidays

Experts describe strategies to let people with chronic illness enjoy the holidays.

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"Holidays act like a lightning rod where all the physical and social concerns around chronic illness get really highlighted," says Patricia Fennell, MSW, LCSW-R. She explains that the demands and expectations around holidays can "out" people whose conditions were hardly noticeable. During the year, they spend so much of their energy working and handling the daily chores of living that they have little time left for socializing. Come the holidays, they're expected to show up and contribute.

"Many chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, depression, arthritis, fibromyalgia, etc., are 'invisible,'" Fennell says. "People go to work or volunteer or shuttle kids to school. Most of the time, they don't look sick. When illness flares up, their pain is invisible. Or they have bone-numbing fatigue, so bad that they can't take a shower and go to the store in the same day. There's a cultural misperception that says you're not sick unless you look sick. They need to make their illness visible by talking about it."

Fennell, who is president and CEO of Albany Health Management, Inc., in Albany, N.Y., coaches patients on how to negotiate needs. "People don't know how to ask for what they need. They'll stay home from a holiday party because they can't stand that long. We need a new social etiquette for people with chronic illness."

Party Strategies: Ask for What You Need in Advance

Fennell describes a typical holiday scenario. "You're invited to Aunt Jane's. Let her know that you'll do your best to attend her party, but that if your illness flares up, you may have to bow out. Ask her how much lead time she needs. She'll say, 'Anything's fine.' Tell her you'll call her 48 hours in advance to let her know. Uncle Bob will still be annoyed if you don't come, but if you predict that you're unpredictable, people will generally handle it better."

She advises stating your needs in behavioral rather than general terms. "Don't just tell Aunt Jane you'll have to leave early. Tell her you've been feeling fatigued and can stay only two or three hours. Also tell her that standing tires you out, and ask her to have a seat for you. Putting it in behavioral terms makes it easier for Aunt Jane to conceptualize and to accommodate."

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