While the rest of the world ho-ho-hos their way through the holiday season, those with chronic illnesses might be quietly struggling to keep everything together. Add to that the stress of decorating, attending parties and shopping for gifts and you’ve got a recipe for a holiday-themed disaster.
Luckily, your sick loved one doesn’t need Santa to turn winter around. All they need is you and their crew of family and friends to pitch in and help out. And you know what? It’s not nearly as difficult as it sounds.
Whether it’s just you or you’re leading an army of do-gooders ready to make a difference, there are scores of ways you can hit the holidays out of the park—for you and your loved one. Here are our top nine ideas for how to support an ill friend during the holiday season.
1. Prep friends and family members before gatherings
The holidays are the time of the year when far-flung friends and family get together. That often comes with lots of explanations about how you’re doing, especially when you’re chronically ill. To help your loved one head off these conversations, ask for permission to explain the circumstances ahead of time, either in-person before they arrive, over email or the phone.
2. Check in more frequently
…and not just about their illness, either. The holidays bring lots of stress and sickness that aren’t related to chronic illness at all, and those can absolutely contribute to how they’re dealing with day-to-day life. But don’t forget that they’re still a person during the holidays, dealing with the same things you’re dealing with. Gripe about traffic and share sales you’ve seen on must-have gifts—you know, like friends do.
3. Pick up basics while you’re at the store
If you’re already at the grocery or pharmacy, why not pick up a few more items? This can be particularly helpful for sick loved ones who have trouble going out on their own for odds and ends. Perhaps they have severe anxiety, perhaps they don’t have reliable access to transportation, perhaps it’s difficult for them to leave the house. Whatever the reason, ask while you’re at the store—or see if you can set up a shared shopping list that your friend can add to and you can check off while you’re out shopping.
4. Bring by meals in disposable containers
Making soup? Just cooked up a casserole? Baked a batch of their favorite dessert? Pack up a serving or two or five in a container you don’t need back, so that your loved one doesn’t worry about cleaning and returning your dishes. If possible, pack the food so that it’s ready to freeze. When you have a chronic illness, it’s common to have good days followed by terrible days. If life takes a nosedive, it’s a blessing to have delicious food ready to go in the freezer.
5. Offer housekeeping or childcare help
Between work, family and friends, we all have a lot going on 24×7. It’s easy for any of us to be overwhelmed by chores and rowdy kids eyeing a long winter break from school. With a chronic illness, the dynamics of cleaning and childcare can physically be too much sometimes. If you have 15 minutes to tidy up or a few hours free to watch the kids, head to your friend’s house and help out. Even a brief reprieve is a blessing.
Alternatively, if you don’t have the time to lend a hand personally but you do have the finances to spring for a gift, consider this: Book a deep-cleaning with a housekeeping service or a few hours with a babysitter to give them a break. You could even go in with a group of friends, rather than each purchasing smaller, less expensive presents.
6. Help them handle the weather
The cold, snow and ice that accompanies the holiday season can be rough on people with chronic illnesses. Whether they’re short of breath, have trouble getting around or are in more pain than usual, an offer to shovel a sidewalk, salt a driveway or clean off a car can lift an enormous weight off their shoulders.
7. Fill them in on party menus
Lots of chronic illnesses come with dietary restrictions, and dietary restrictions can cause anxiety. Help your sick friend or family member feel a little less stressed about coming over by giving them the low-down on the menu you’re planning so that they can prepare themselves accordingly. A heads-up allows them to decide to eat before they come, or to bring food they can eat with them. If you both intend to attend a mutual friend’s event, consider playing the middleman on this front to take one task off your loved one’s plate.
8. Put a smile on their face
A pricey present is far from the only way to make your sick friend grin. Show them that they’re never far from your mind by remembering the little things, like when a song you danced to at a high school reunion comes on the radio or when you hear a joke you know they’ll appreciate. Drop “thinking of you” cards in their mailbox or give them a quick call when you just have to tell them a funny story. Every tiny thing counts.
9. Invite them to something that’s not holiday-related
Burned out on Rudolph and his four-legged friends? Tired of tinsel? Your ill friend probably is, too—maybe even more than you are. Sometimes, people with chronic illnesses suffer a little more from the holiday blues than the Average Joe. They’re more likely to be depressed and bad experiences during the holidays, including limitations they experience while celebrating the season, can exacerbate that.
To escape it all for a few hours, go out (or stay in) for a little non-wintry celebration of your own. Throw a beach-themed mixer with fruity drinks or a pedicure party, even though it’s definitely not sandal season. Make a rule that there is to be no discussion of Christmas trees, gift giving or peppermint-flavored recipes. This moment—and every other idea on our list, come to think of it—is all about you and your friendship. Make the most of it by being there for each other when you most need support.