Rosalind Joffe, MEd, once hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for 22 people at her house. She planned it months in advance. She hired someone to clean. She created a menu and delegated various dishes to guests. A friend came over the day before the holiday to set the table. Relatives were assigned jobs to serve dinner and clean up afterwards. Joffe has the planning sense of Martha Stewart. She also has multiple sclerosis (MS) and ulcerative colitis.
While it was challenging to host Thanksgiving, she says she'd have felt worse if she hadn't. "The key was advance planning," she tells WebMD. "What I've learned is if I ask for help in advance, even with my own family, people don't feel put upon. They feel they're a part of the event."
Joffe is among the many people living with chronic illness -- defined as lasting more than three months, being persistent or recurrent, having a significant health impact, and typically being incurable. So, with Christmas and Hanukkah at hand, times when everyone is supposed to participate and feel cheerful, what are some strategies for coping?
Do Holidays Make Chronic Illnesses Worse?
There's always the temptation to abandon healthful living routines around the holidays. Eating too much, not getting enough exercise, staying up late, worrying about family members getting along -- all these things can make you feel worse. But do they negatively affect your health?
Joffe, who coaches people with chronic illness in the Boston area to thrive in the workplace, says it depends on the disease. "With diabetes, heart conditions, or epilepsy, for example, you must take care of yourself or the disease gets worse. With autoimmune diseases, such as MS, fibromyalgia, or lupus, your symptoms will get worse but not the disease itself.
What about the holiday blues? Do the holidays really bring on episodes of depression? Michael Thase, MD, during a WebMD Live Event, said geography could play a role. "As people living in the northern hemisphere, we seem to be somewhat more prone to development of depression in the fall and winter months. The fact that this period of risk coincides with our holidays is kind of like a bad coincidence. For example, I'm not sure that I've encountered any writing about the holiday blues in New Zealand, Australia, or South Africa."
"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."
Many hosts and restaurants have become accustomed to considering various dietary needs for guests who have heart disease or diabetes or another condition that requires a restricted diet. "They should be offering options for people," Fennell tells WebMD. "If you don't know what's being served, carry a large handbag with snacks and water, or offer to bring a dish that can be shared with others."
When you're the host, whatever you do don't wait till the last minute to ask for help, says Joffe. "You may not get the help you need. And if people do help, they might resent it. Become an expert at planning. Asking in advance allows people to help gracefully."
Managing the Handicap Parking Space
Shopping and gift giving present special challenges, not the least of which is managing the mall. If your illness is invisible, the challenge can start when you get out of your car. Some less-than-jolly shopper who parked way out in left field will let you know that you have no business parking in a handicap space. Try to think of a humorous retort, like that of a cancer patient who plucks off her wig and smiles.
Joffe advises not letting presents and errands get out of control. "Many people with chronic illness aren't in the best financial situation but don't have the energy to shop for bargains. Plan in advance. Take a day off work so you can shop yet avoid the weekend crowds. The key is what matters most to you. Is it going into your bank account? Would a simple note do? Don't go into lock-step motion."
Ways to Relieve Holiday Stress
An article in Arthritis Today offers three tips for managing holiday stress:
Daily rest and relaxation. Don't get stuck in a never-ending to-do list. Do a crossword puzzle or take a walk or a nap. The mental and physical break will rejuvenate you.
Prioritize. Decide how much shopping, cooking, or partying you can do and stick to it. Ask for help.
Volunteer. Take toys to the Marine Toys-for-Tots Foundation, take food to homebound seniors through Meals on Wheels, or provide goods and services for Hurricane Katrina victims. It will boost your spirit and remind you what the holidays are about.
Patch Adams, MD, the real doctor whose life was the basis of the Robin Williams' movie, would agree that volunteering is good for you. He heads the Gesundheit! Institute in Arlington, Va. It's the umbrella organization for his work to raise funds for a variety of projects, including the building of a free hospital in rural West Virginia.
He tells WebMD, "My best advice for someone with chronic illness coping with the holidays is to work out with their families not to give presents, but instead to give money to local families who are poor, and consume half of what they normally consume. Make it about the spirit of giving."
The numbers of people with chronic illness are growing, and that's not necessarily a bad thing, says Fennell. "People are living today with heart disease and cancers that were once considered terminal illnesses, not chronic illnesses."
The growing numbers also mean you're not alone. Next time you go to a holiday party, look around. Some of those healthy looking people may have chronic illnesses, too.