Christmas can be challenging
For many of us Christmas is a time of excitement and celebration, but for those living with a chronic condition it can be challenging – both physically and emotionally.
In England alone, there are approximately 15 million people living with a chronic illness, which are long-term medical conditions that require treatment and management over a long period of time.
If you have a friend or family member who has a chronic illness, there are some very simple things you can do to help them over the festive period that can make a big difference….
1. Ask them what they can and can’t have at social gatherings
Christmas – as you may have gathered by now – is a time of over-indulgence, with endless rich food and drink. But for some people living with a chronic condition, such as inflammatory bowel disease, it can be a daunting as what you eat can have a direct impact on symptoms. Ian Marber, an independent nutrition therapist, says it’s always best to ask a friend or relative what they want to eat or how their needs can be met. He says,
“The answer is always to ask them how you can help. I have coeliac disease, so when I go to Christmas gatherings there is always someone who says, ‘Oh go on, you can have a little bit’. But if you’re managing your illness through diet or other alternative methods, you may not want to celebrate in the same way as everybody else.”
2. Offer to help with Christmas preparations
Preparing for Christmas Day can be stressful for the most of us, whether it’s buying presents, visiting family or simply managing expectations, but for those with a chronic illness it can be overwhelming. Emma Bull, Head of Helpline Services at the MS Society, says offer to help with any Christmas preparations that they may find stressful. She says,
“Offer to help with carrying and wrapping presents. Fatigue is a common symptom in MS so things that you and I take for granted can seem like an uphill struggle.”
3. Spend time with them over the festive season
People with chronic illnesses often do not tell their doctor or healthcare professional that they are struggling with their mental health, says Nia Charpentier from Rethink Mental Illness. “It can be very hard to distinguish between a symptom of their physical illness and what is potentially depression. Being there for them creates a support network which makes them feel cared for.”
Alternatively, if you know that someone with a chronic condition is more isolated over the festive season, take a laptop or tablet and help them connect to relatives via FaceTime or Skype, or ask them where they would like to go and take them out. Trisha Macnair, hospital physician in medicine for older people, says that isolation is one of the main things that people with chronic illnesses, especially the elderly who are not so mobile, often complain of at Christmas.
4. Offer to bring a dish over
Because someone with a chronic illness can tire more easily, offering to prepare them a meal can go a long way. According to Trisha, they may have been less likely to have got out to the shops or felt like or managed to cook a meal.
Emma suggests a simple starter like humus and crudités or a pre-made dessert. “Even if they refuse, as it gets closer to the day they may find that they’ve taken on more than they can handle. Having a dish ready to go will ease the pressure,” she says.
5. Check they have enough medication over the festive season
Over the festive season, shops will be shut and medical services limited. Roger Henderson, GP, suggests making sure that someone with a chronic illness has enough medication to last over Christmas and into the New Year.
Don’t forget that everyone has different needs
Our needs are very individual, says Trisha, and unless you know someone very well, it’s probably better to firstly let them know that you would like to do something that will help them and listen to what they suggest. “That way your help is likely to have the most impact and you are less likely to offend, upset or overlap with others efforts,” she says.
“Many people with hidden illnesses actually prefer to keep much of the details private and I think a broad offer of help to suit what the person would like is best.”
Ask them how they are and listen… really listen!
Someone may look or appear well, but that doesn’t mean they’re feeling okay, says Emma.
“MS, like other chronic conditions, has many symptoms that you can’t see, like fatigue and pain. Giving someone a chance to talk about how they feel could make their day better and make sure they feel supported.”