Holiday Survival Tips For Families with Special Healthcare Needs

Holidays provide a mix of social situations and emotions, and the COVID-19 pandemic adds elements that look a little different for every family. This article provides ideas for celebrating and finding points of joy, with specific tips for those impacted by special healthcare needs.

Here are the quick takeaway topics:

  • Break the routine: Although travel or a gathering with extended family might not be possible, take a break from everyday routines to share moments that feel special.
  • Plan and save surprises too: Mix up the activities so the children can help with some planning but there are also surprises.
  • Wise men staying afar? Get creative to create social contact through media and other means.
  • Handle with care: If you travel, make a careful plan for health and safety.
  • Families need a village: Asking for help from those who also care for your child can strengthen the ability to cope and enjoy the season.
  • Gratitude keeps giving: Moments of thankfulness calm the mind.

Read on for more detail!

Break the routine, but keep the comfort

Families have been home a lot in 2020, so staying home during the holiday might feel like more of the same. Seek ways to add sparkle to the holidays by doing some things the family does not always have time for: cooking or baking together, singing, story time by the fireplace, games, checking for signs of Santa or sending notes to the North Pole or other special places.

WestEd.org, a California-based nonprofit committed to equity for learners of all ages, provides a guidebook with practical support for family caregivers during stay-at-home orders. Caring for Young Children While Sheltering in Place provides quick links to activity videos (story-based yoga, for example, with winter and holiday themes), easy-to-learn songs, arts-and-crafts, sensory play, cooking with kids, and much more. Choosing a couple of developmentally appropriate ideas for each special day might add just the right amount of sparkle to a holiday staycation!

Some families struggle to keep children nestled all snug in their beds in any season. Maintaining a sleep schedule can certainly minimize challenging behaviors. However, if appropriate, a “Holiday” sleep schedule with an extra hour of special family time before bed might add a fun flavor of flexibility for some families. For others, sleeping in or staying in jammies longer than usual might create a relaxing holiday feel. Be sure to call out these relaxed rules as holiday specials so everyone understands they are temporary changes and part of the “break.”

Silver bells, strings of streetlights and some of the holiday hustle is still happening. Drive through light shows and virtual celebrations for Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa are popping up online. One tradition that has always been virtual is the NORAD Santa tracker, which keeps tabs on Santa’s business on Christmas Eve and has kid-centered games and songs.

Finding the “just-right” amount of holiday celebrating can be tricky, so keep the Three Bears/Goldilocks principle in mind. For children who understand this theme, families can use the classic story to talk about how everyone makes choices about what is the “just right” amount of celebrating, eating, screen time, sleeping….

Plan and save surprises too

A theme for the year can add a new flavor to family traditions. Here are a few suggested themes:

  • How I celebrated when I was a kid
  • Christmas 1820, 1720, etc.
  • Holiday food, decorations, stories, music, etc. from another culture

The family can research the theme together to come up with ideas and activities. A theme night might include a chance for each family member to share something or lead an activity. On story night, each person might share a favorite holiday memory or a made-up story. If extended family want to participate, a video conference might be an added element to the evening.

Adults can set aside a few ideas to save for in-the-moment surprises to sprinkle in. A prize, special treat, well-told joke, customized family game, or a surprise “guest” on the phone are a few ideas to plan out in advance.

Wise men staying afar?

If the household is staying isolated from family and friends to slow the spread of COVID-19, getting socially connected might require a bit of creativity. Of course, video teleconferencing or video phone calls are options. Letters and cards can be sent and received by mail, email, text, video…

Someone might drop by to deliver a singing telegram from a safe distance. Special messages can get written on front windows or shared by signs placed strategically inside or outside where someone will look. In-the-car parades or celebration drive-by events work for some people, while others can meet safely in outdoor spaces.

Consider who needs to connect, what messages need to be shared, and how to make the contact meaningful, whatever the format.

Handle with Care

For families choosing to travel, bags with medication and equipment need to include plenty of masks, hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes. Plan extra supplies to accommodate unexpected delays and follow health and safety guidance related to the COVID-19 crisis.

If plans include planes and trains, be sure to let agents and attendants know about a family member’s special accommodation needs. Washington travelers can make preflight preparations from Sea-Tac Airport by sending an email to: customerservice@portseattle.org. The phone number for the Spokane Airport Administrative Offices: (509) 455-6455. Amtrak provides a range of Accessible Travel Services.

Sugary treats might impact planning for children with diabetes: An insulin pump might help during the temporary splurges so a child can enjoy the holiday without feeling too different or overwhelmed.

Visions of sugarplums might need a different flavor for children with specific allergies or food sensitivities. Being prepared with substitutions may prevent a child from feeling left out. If someone else is doing the cooking, be sure to share about any severe allergies to make sure utensils and mixing containers do not get cross-contaminated.

Families need a village

No holiday is ever perfect, and unrealistic expectations can cause a celebration to sour. As always, ask for support from family, friends, doctors, and therapists—perhaps virtually—to reinforce positive messages and realistic expectations. Saying no can be nice, so choose what works and toss the guilt if the family needs to pass on a tradition or an invitation.

As always, remember to plan self-care, whether it is a soak in the tub, a special movie with popcorn, or simply a few pauses for five steady breaths. A caregiver is always stronger when that oxygen mask is well secured!

Gratitude is a gift

Gratitude helps the mind escape from stress-thinking and move toward feelings of peacefulness and grace. Taking a few moments to mindfully reflect on something that brings joy, beauty, love, sweetness—anything that feels positive—can create a sense of ease. An agency called MindWise Innovations provides five tips to practice gratitude during the holidays, including this one: Make a list of things you have instead of things you want. 

Families experiencing loss or grief may need more outside support. The Dougy Center, Stoney Brook, and New Hope Grief provide resources to help children and families manage loss and grief.

“Remembering the person who died is part of the healing process,” the Dougy Center site advises. “One way to remember is simply to talk about the person who died. It’s okay to use his/her name and to share what you remember. You might say, ‘Your dad really liked this song,’ or ‘Your mom was the best pie maker I know.’”

Talking openly about the loss might add an important element to a family’s unique and heart-felt holiday.

Summer 2020 Recreation and Staycation Options

Summer activities might look different in 2020 because of measures to slow spread of COVID-19. Here are some links and ideas for accessible staycations and other recreation options. This list is subject to changes and updates. Have a suggestion to add? Send us an email: pave@wapave.org.

Please note that these resources are not affiliated with PAVE, and PAVE does not recommend or endorse these programs or services. This list is not exhaustive and is provided for informational purposes only.

Virtual Options

  • Crip Camp 2020: The Virtual Experience
    Join fellow grassroots activists and advocates this summer for a virtual camp experience featuring trailblazing speakers from the disability community. All are welcome, and no prior activism experience is necessary to participate.
  • Youth Leadership Forum
    A Facebook group called Friends of YLF provides the most up-to-date information about plans for a weeklong virtual camp in July 2020.
  • Visit your local library system
    This site provides contact information for Washington libraries. Many libraries offer online activities and options to make summer reading fun and rewarding.
  • Creativity Camp
    Register for a free week of writing, drawing and storytelling classes from award-winning author/illustrator Arree Chung. 
  • Camp Korey
    This 15-year-old program honors the courage, strength, and determination of children with serious medical conditions by providing a camp environment with specialized medical support. 2020 programs include virtual camps and campfire Fridays.
  • Taste of Home catalog of Free Virtual Museum Tours
    From the safety of home and for free, visit the Louvre, SeaWorld, the Winchester Mystery House and many more museums. For example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art provides a free 3-D tour of its exhibit halls.
  • National Parks Virtual Tours
    Insider provides links to virtual tours of 32 national parks, including the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Arches National Park.
  • NASA Kids’ Club and NASA STEM @ Home
    The NASA Kids’ Club offers video-style games and opportunities to learn about the work of NASA and the astronauts. The STEM @ Home programs provide interactive modules in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) for grades K-4, 5-8, and 9-12.
  • Sesame Street Caring for Each Other
    Favorite Muppets provide sing-alongs, interactive games, and other ready-to-use materials to spark playful learning for the whole family during COVID-19 and beyond.
  • Storyline Online
    Have you noticed that there are a lot of famous people reading books? Storyline provides a place to find many of them in a virtual library.
  • Nomster Chef
    Picture-book recipes for Kid Chefs and added tips for grown-ups are designed for families cooking together at home.

In-Person Options

Please note that scheduling may change based on COVID-19 restrictions. Please check each program website for the most current information.

  • Spectra Gymnastics
    Programs are designed to support individuals with Autism, sensory issues, and related disorders, ages 2-21.
  • Aspiring Youth  
    Summer camp opportunities with in-person and online options. Camps provide opportunities to explore theater, art, climbing and more. 
  • Camp Killoqua 
    These Camp Fire programs are open to all — including youth who are not members of Camp Fire. Camps strive to be inclusive; acceptance and participation is open to everyone regardless of race, religion, socioeconomic status, disability, sexual orientation, or other aspect of diversity.
  • C.A.S.T. for Kids
    Catch a Special Thrill (C.A.S.T.) provides fishing events for kids with special needs. Check the interactive map and calendar for summer events near you.
  • Blue Compass Camps
    Sea Kayaking in the San Juan Islands is among the offerings for youth with high-functioning autism, Asperger’s, and ADHD.

Low-Tech Fun

  • Pirate Treasure Hunt: Dress up as pirates to follow clues that lead to a bounty of treasure! Decorate the house, offer goldfish- shaped crackers as snacks, and design an X to mark the spot where the treasure is found!
  • Under the Stars:  Stay up late to learn about astronomy. No cost apps like Sky Map and Star Walk help locate planets, stars, and constellations with ease. Make it fun on a warm night with a blanket on the grass to keep you comfy while you gaze up!
  • Unplug and get off the grid: Make a point to unplug and tune into fresh air, exercise, and nature. If you don’t already know an outdoor spot to explore, All Trails can help you find hiking or walking trails.
  • Check out PAVE’s Lessons at Home videos: We’ve got short, curiosity-inspiring projects that require limited equipment for those “I’m bored!” moments.
  • Practice being Mindful: Need a breath and a moment of peace? PAVE has short videos for creating mindfulness that are accessible for almost all ages/abilities.
  • For more ideas and information, PAVE provides two resource lists to help with learning at home and to support families navigating the national health emergency: