Life with MS

Take the Daze Out of the Holidays

By Erika Bolin
“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” the old song proclaims. But for many people with multiple sclerosis, the holidays may be one of the most stressful. Purchasing presents and organizing holiday get-togethers is not necessarily easy for anyone. But when you consider the fatigue and other symptoms people with MS face and the medical expenses involved in managing a chronic disease, the period from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day can be an added source of stress that can make living with MS more difficult.

However, many people with MS have found tricks that help them handle the stress from the holiday season and ways to infuse fun into the festivities. MS Focus’ affiliated support group leaders and ambassadors shared their tips, and the MSF has collected them here for you. Apply these great suggestions to make your holidays less stressful and more “wonderful.”

Simplifying Shopping

This year, defeat shopping stress. Or at least combat it from the comfort of your home. Skip the parking, the traveling to and fro, and the long lines. Go shopping online through reputable venues. Sales and specials abound starting in October, and many include free shipping every day of the year when you meet a minimum purchase amount.

Don’t have time to wrap and deliver all the gifts you need to buy? Having gifts shipped directly to the recipient is socially acceptable today, and often allows the recipient to more easily handle returns or exchanges.

Also, you can cut stress into slivers if you start buying and gathering gifts as you see them, rather than setting aside a specific time to buy them all at once.

If you just can’t resist the Black Friday savings, you can still skip the chaos at the stores. Practically all the Black Friday sales are now available online, and sometimes they actually begin on Wednesday. Even many “door-busters” can be snagged into the online “shopping cart” if you are up at midnight or awake at dawn. Those low prices are a simple no-fuss PJ-perused click away!

If you prefer to shop locally, it’s still wise to skip the Black Friday madness. Sure, in a few cases you may pay up to 15 percent more, but you’re worth it – as is your health and sanity!   

Childrens' Gifts
When it comes to kids’ gifts, beware of the allure of clearance items if they are related to characters from television or movies. Children’s toy fads change as fast the movie theater marquee. This means their character adorations may have waned.(Think Frozen. While ubiquitous last year, this giving season, those may not be the most beloved gifts.) Look for sales on the latest craze, or choose timeless toys that are age-appropriate if shopping clearance. The same holds true for teens – the video game, book, or accessory that was on trend last month will be passé by Christmas. While adults may find them impersonal, many teens enjoy that ‘grown-up’ feeling of using a gift card or cash to make their own purchases.

Simple and Homemade Gifts

But not all gifts can be found online. Phyllis Jacks, of the Warner Robins MS Support Group, suggested giving more meaningful gifts, such as baked goods or gift cards for hugs, babysitting, and lunch.

And sometimes, it’s the little things and personal touches that matter most. Cindi Barrett of the North Canton and Southern Summit MS Support Group agrees, “I recall one year, when my kids were much younger and all living at home, when I picked out a specific wrapping paper for each one. I didn’t put tags on the packages, but Christmas morning, I gave them each a card, with a tree, wreath, or Santa cut out of their paper, letting them know which packages were for them.”

Suzanne O’Connell, of the Roanoke Valley MS Support Group said of her group’s holiday gathering, “Group members bring great items that they craft, bake or pick up along the way and share so we add the fun of a great bonus prize – last year a member made a beautiful snowman that was a hot item. At Christmas, Juanita made cute little Santas with a piece of candy inside and an inspiring message. These things make us feel more connected, more like family and when it’s a homemade gift we are also learning more about each other and sharing a piece of ourselves.”

Now You’re Cooking

If you are involved with hosting or cooking Thanksgiving – or any other upcoming festive meal – for your relatives, learn to embrace the power of saying “no,” and delegation. Be sure to ask for help and let others know when you get tired. Just remember, as Pam Secrist of the Valley MS Support Group points out, “Never take on more than you can handle, there is always someone to help. Break down tasks into doable steps, delegate what you can, and don’t try to be perfect – only God is.”

When breaking down tasks, lists are a big help. Make many lists: needed ingredients, shopping, seating, tablesetting needs, how many per person items, a timed schedule (1 p.m.– appetizers out, 12:30 – have table set, 1:30 – dinner, etc.) and so on. Then divide those lists among as many helpers as you can. If you simply must be the head of the feast, shop on Tuesdays or Thursdays (when grocery stores are least busy), and make and freeze what you can ahead of time. Try to make sure you have everything you need ahead of time – the night before a holiday, the store can be a madhouse. If you find you forgot one item, ask a guest to stop on the way if possible.

Make your mantra, “It is good enough.” If something is not as pretty upon a table as you’d like, call it “rustic.” Your Food Network-viewing family members or friends will chuckle. Haphazardly-plated food tastes just as good. Another practical tip is to buy some prepared foods to cut down on baking or cooking. Do you really need to spend hours baking holiday cookies, or would your family be happy with a selection of goodies from the bakery?

If your family just loves your fresh-baked treats, try this suggestion from MSF Ambassador Jessica Petroff. “I'm no longer able to do the extravagant candy, baking, and fudge-making I used to do, but will ask family members to put their orders in early for one thing and I will try my best to provide that special treat. Now that my fifteen-year-old daughter is interested in baking, she helps out a great deal and it is so much easier to get that special treat made. On the plus side, I’m teaching her and we get to spend that special time together.”

If you have a big bustling, understanding family, try a potluck holiday. Ask every attendee that is local to bring a dish big enough to share. Coordinate, or assign a coordinator, to manage who brings what so there are not three turkeys, four green bean dishes and no gravy. You’ll need the table set, but ask everyone to leave with their item and to clear and wash their own plates.

For Susie Silver, of the North Area MS Social Group, it all comes down to three words: “Keep it simple! Establish early on with family and friends what your limits are. Learn to say ‘no’ and speak up.”

And remember, you don’t have to be the one hosting all the time so consider having your holiday event at a relative’s house. Ordering out or eating dinner at a restaurant for a holiday are also options that may help reduce holiday stress.

Party Time

Whether it’s at home or at a support group meeting, gift games are a common and popular way to infuse fun into a holiday event. Many, including Sandra Novak of the Northwest Arkansas MS Support Group, advocate white elephant swaps – sometimes called Dirty Santa (where you can take a gift away). Anonymous gift exchanges (sometimes called “Secret Santa”) can be fun and keep costs low for all the family or support group members involved, since each person is only buying for one other. Holiday parties may also include fun and funny games, sing-alongs, along with dinner and fellowship.

“We decorated a tree then sent it home with a member that did not have one, lives alone, and that was real special when she realized it was going to be hers to take to her little apartment that she otherwise was not going to ‘bother with’ decorating!” said Suzanne O’Connell. Remember that handling the pressures of the holidays may mean choosing some, but not all, events. Make the most of the holidays, but don’t overdo it.

These are just suggestions. Create your own holiday traditions. An understanding family will jump in. An unsuspecting family will think you’ve switched things up, and they’ll adapt. Make you, and your needs, the focus. Starting this season, take your holidays back. Embrace and change the way you all gather and share, and you can truly make the holiday season the most wonderful time of the year.