We all huddled together three years ago amid lockdowns, household bubbles, and self-isolation, but not everyone is back to traditional holiday celebrations. Some people, like me, have an illness or disability that makes participation in holiday celebrations difficult, even impossible. A car accident left me with a traumatic brain injury and sensory sensitivities. People with neuroatypical patterns like stroke, ADD, ADHD, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and certain types of autism, may have similar issues.
Relatives isolated by illness or physiology can easily get lost in the buzz of family gatherings, but there are some things family members can do to ensure everybody is included. Let’s call them “new traditions.”
1. Schedule Events Carefully
Many illnesses or disabilities demand more sleep and earlier bedtimes. Others make an afternoon nap an absolute necessity. Scheduling mealtime slightly earlier can help us all enjoy ourselves a little longer.
2. Smaller Dining Tables and a Quiet Room
For some neuro-divergent types a large table with everyone talking at once can be overwhelming. Last year my family thoughtfully set up three tables in different rooms, so members could travel between settings to visit. A quiet room with the smaller dinner table can be a sanctuary. I personally like to settle into a big, comfy chair after the meal, so visitors have more quality time together with me.
3. Be Mindful of Noise
Some people have trouble with extraneous noise. Quiet rooms help, but lowering the volume or removing unnecessary background music is an appreciated touch. Some people with neuro-divergent conditions are compelled to pay constant attention to whatever music is playing, which cuts into the attention we’d prefer to give you. Crosstalk can also a problem, so one person speaking at a time is very helpful. If possible, a verbal turn-taking strategy like a “talking stick,” can even be passed around to maximize concentration.
4. “Experience Surrogates”
I used to love driving around and seeing neighborhood decorations, but that just isn’t an option anymore for me and possibly some of your relatives, too. This year my son drove around and used his phone to take pictures and make short video clips. He edited them into a longer video that the family watched on TV. I still miss driving around, but I love sitting and sharing experiences with loved ones. Reconnecting people with happy traditions make a difference.
5. Decorative Changes
Sadly, flashing lights can be a problem for some people, so my family kindly did away with them, as well as funny—but startling—"dancing elves” and motion-sensing decorations that jiggle and gyrate when you approach. House railings wrapped with garland are a hazard for people who have trouble navigating stairs. And our cute holiday-themed rug is now a wall decoration because it became a tripping hazard on the floor.
Reducing or eliminating exposure to chemical smells like perfume, cologne, and cleaning products can make a bigger impact than you think. Even overwhelming, pleasant odors can be a burden to people with sensory issues.
7. Offer Precut Food
Some people have trouble managing their food, and they may not want to tell you. My family works with my new dexterity issues by making special preparations before putting my plate in front of me. The idea is to avoid cutting my food for me at the table because it often makes people feel like a child. It's another one of those little things your family member might not tell you.
I love my dogs, but be careful that pets don’t startle or trip guests. Even the sweetest, most bouncy pup can be a major cause of falls for seniors and people struggling with mobility.
9. Warm Slippers
Understated, sweet gesture of the season! I try to remember to bring my snuggly slippers with me on trips, but I don’t always have them. Cheap or disposable guest slippers for people to wear in the house goes further than you could possibly imagine for some people.
Ecuador resident Melody Wright is a business content writer who also runs an abandoned dog sanctuary for more than 50 dogs.