How To Deal With Illness and Disability During The Holidays

Whether you’re disabled or chronically ill, or have such a person in your life, here are some tips on getting through Christmas with everyone’s health intact.

by Sarah Wilson

The Holidays can be a challenging time of year for anyone. That goes double for people with chronic illnesses, and often, those who love them. If you’re too unwell to work, money for gift buying, events, and food might be cause for worry. Getting out to events could be difficult. Dietary restrictions might rule the usual festive offerings off-limits. And all of this can be challenging to explain to well-meaning friends and family, who might not understand all of the unique pressures and challenges that come with being sick during the season.

But the Holidays are for everyone. Here are some tips on getting through Christmas if you, or someone you love, is chronically ill.

Remember Christmas Shouldn’t Be About Money

Let’s start with the elephant in the room: money. No one likes talking about it, but there’s no denying it — Christmas is expensive. From presents to travel to food, no matter what your situation, the holidays can create financial stress.

If you have a chronic illness or disability, it may well be that your financial freedom is limited. This is how it is for me, and I feel a huge amount of pressure to travel, attend events, and buy gifts I can little afford. The stress of that social expectation makes my illness worse. It’s a relief when friends and family let me know they don’t have those expectations. That in itself is a gift you could give someone with chronic illness: the acknowledgment that this time of year can be particularly hard on you, and that the only expectation they have of you is that you take care of your health and well-being first. Other seasonal obligations — gifts, visits, and so on — are of secondary importance.

Even so, this time of year is about giving, and the chronically ill want to give gifts too… even if they can’t really afford to. My solution to this is to make gifts that don’t cost much. I’m not a very creative person, so no one can expect amazing artwork or origami unicorns from me: but they will get something that shows my love. And after all, that’s what giving is supposed to be about.

Can’t Travel? Settle For A Card Or A Phone Call

December is a big time of year for travel. If your family lives out of town, or if your friends are throwing festive dinner parties, you might feel pressure to attend. But traveling with chronic illness is a challenge in itself, and the holidays add another layer of stress.

Although many people are understanding that chronic illness means sometimes you have to sit things out, at Christmas, there’s increased expectation you’ll make the effort to be there. There’s increased expectation you’ll stay out longer and later, and enjoy yourself more. It’s as if there’s a belief that the magic of Christmas somehow takes your illness away, and transforms you into someone who can keep up with Aunt Marg, who has been shaking her booty on the dance floor for a good six hours.

Unfortunately for both you and Aunty Marg, that isn’t true. The holidays don’t mean you are not disabled. They don’t mean you are not in pain, or fatigued. In fact, because of the other pressures around Christmas, you might feel worse this time of year, not better.

Again, take care of yourself first… and if you’re a loved one of a chronically ill person, let them know that’s your only expectation of them. Whether you’re giving one or receiving one, a handwritten card or thoughtful phone call to catch up is often just as a good as a visit, particularly when health is at stake.

Adjust Your Expectations

To get through the Holidays with your health intact, it all comes down to this: the best thing you can do is adjust your expectations, and manage everyone else’s, as far in advance as possible.

It might be uncomfortable, saying things like:

“Could we have Christmas lunch, instead of dinner? I get really tired in the evening, and I want to be able to participate.”

Or:

“I’m making gifts this year, it’s a really fun project.”

Or:

“Did you remember that my illness means I can’t eat <insert food here>? So let me know if you need me to bring my own food to the party.”

But it takes some of the sting out of the restrictions we’re dealing with, and it reminds people what our circumstances are, and that our needs haven’t changed just because it’s a special occasion.

And if you’re the healthy person who has a chronically ill friend or family member? It’s time to listen, and adjust your expectations too.

Being there and listening is one of the best gifts you can give. This can be a really isolating holiday for people whose situation means they can’t participate as fully as they might like. A visit from you might be exactly what they need.

When In Doubt, Ask

But, if you want to do something nice for a chronically ill person, ask them first! Everyone is different. Maybe they need an excuse to get out of the house, so heading out for some cake might be just the trick.

Don’t assume that their disability means they don’t want to attend social and family events. For me, the pain is much greater when I don’t receive an invite, than if I do and I’m unable to go. Chronic illness can fluctuate a lot, and on my better days, I might be right out there on the floor with Aunty Marg.

Ask your friend what they need to help get through the next few weeks. Maybe you can drive them to the mall to buy gifts. Maybe you can help them pack their bags to go and stay with family out of town. Or maybe you can help them cook, because what they really want to do this year is host their own dinner party.

Asking can also be the key when it comes to gifts. Yes, it may steal some of the element of surprise, but there will be plenty of things that your friend wants or needs that they may never get for themselves, and asking that question creates a lovely opportunity.

Some Gift Ideas

Finally, when it comes to giving gifts to a chronically ill person, remember that Christmas is a time for treats. While pill organizers or walking sticks can be useful gifts, many people don’t want to be reminded of their illness or disability when they’re opening presents. Steer clear of anything that could be construed as a “cure” or treatment. We get enough of that all year round, and while it is well-meaning, it may not be well received.

Here’s some quick ideas:

  • Delicious condiments or teas. Chocolate sauce, hot chocolate or a fresh tea blend paired with marshmallows and a nice big mug.
  • Hand or body lotions (check that they don’t have any allergies or sensitivities to scents!)
  • Bed linens or sleepwear — functional, because they probably get a lot of use, but also can be luxurious!
  • Heated or weighted blankets — cozy as well as useful
  • Digital gifts — especially helpful for those who spend a lot of time in bed. Subscriptions to streaming services or apps, credit for online games they might play, vouchers for the app stores or platforms

In the end, the best thing you can give to the chronically ill or disabled people in your life is acceptance and compassion. Accept that your friend has limitations, and be compassionate in how you interact with them. Give them love. After all, that’s what the season is really about.


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