From the CEO: Inclusive Holiday Celebrations

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Beautiful family smiling happy. One of them, a young woman with Down syndrome, curving roasted turkey celebrating holidays at home

To quote the infamous Auntie Mame, “We need a little Christmas.” After subdued holiday activities of the last couple of pandemic-laden Decembers, activities are rolling out with renewed zest. I think there are more parties, brighter lights, amplified music, and a veritable barrage of pent-up celebrations.

If you are planning on family and friends visiting during the holidays, consider a few thoughtful elements that could make the visit better for everyone. What can be festive and joyful for one may be overwhelming for the next.

These tips are helpful to the parent bringing a child with sensory issues, but can also be beneficial for the senior with dementia and adults with anxiety or emotional needs. Not everyone is happier in a crowded space with bright lights and a pervasive chaos of people coming and going.

Keep the music moderately low. Consider music that is more background than a feature. If instrumentals with a more consistent timbre are possible, then they can set a somewhat calmer tone. Familiar tunes are best.

Visually speaking, less is more. Who doesn’t love soft Christmas lights on the tree? Enjoy that theme! Stay away from strobes and blinking or flashing lights. If it is crowded and/or children invited, reconsider candle flames. If candles are used, keep them high to avoid bumping or inquisitive hands. Indirect side lamps rather than bright overhead (think Fluorescent) can set a quieter mood as well.

Lock up the pets. They are a part of your family but may be frightening to some who are not used to animals. Allergies to pet dander are common. Service animals are the obvious exception.

Not all appreciate truffles and yule logs. Macaroni and cheese and chicken nuggets may be a preference. Don’t force a child to take a taste of something that they have said they don’t want. Don’t take it as a snub against your hard work. If you can get input from a family member about preferences or allergies, you can be prepared to make more guests leave with a full belly. Label the foods that are served.

Hugs and kisses are not required. Not only does this stop the spread of germs, it also lets everyone know that you respect that it is their body and their control. Perhaps grandma or auntie hasn’t seen that child for months but the child should still have the ability to say “no” to requests for hugs and kisses.

Give the option for a retreat. Whether child or adult, the noise, the crowd, and the festivities can be overwhelming. Plan ahead and provide a side room or porch that is quiet, and then let others know it is available. Whether it is a brief break or an extended time with a comforting distraction, you will find that the entire family may be able to stay a little longer and melt downs can be avoided if a retreat space is accessible.

Minimize the scents. Lavender may be calming to some but to others it can be overwhelming. There will be smells enough with the foods. You might even consider including on your invitation the request that those who attend go scent free. Perfumes can overwhelm. Consider opening a small window to aid circulation of fresh air. The fresh air also helps to keep the room temperature from getting too warm. Smoking, if not restricted, should be outside. A garage or screened porch can meet the need if the weather isn’t cooperative.

Help those who are calmed by movement. A rocking chair or glider is helpful for that fussy baby as well as for a sensory overwhelmed guest. Dancing may be available in an adjacent room or basement. Sometimes there is nothing like a walk around the block to find that needed reset.

Consider removing some furniture. It isn’t just people that will fill up the room. Less furniture can help those who use a wheelchair or walker. Removing tchotchkes from tabletops and other surfaces ensures fewer breaks but also provides for space to hold on when walking or a space to set down a glass or plate.

Don’t read too much into it. Each of us show emotions just a little bit differently. Not everyone gushes and dances at the sight of a present or Christmas tree. You may give a gift and get a simple “thank you.” Children can be blatantly obvious and reply, “I already have this.” For those who are reminded of a loss at Christmas or even the confusion that can come with aging, the emotions expressed may not be what you expected. Give the gift with the love intended.

Surprises are fun…..for some, but not for all. If a “special guest” is anticipated (think red suit), consider letting adults know. Costumed characters can be frightening.

Appreciate the joy that family and friends can bring at this time of the year and, at the same time, know that “joy” is not defined the same by all. If you allow others to tell you their needs, then you can help spread a little more merriment. For some, it may be a brief stay and for those who don’t leave, I recommend giving them a dishtowel and asking them to dry.

Happy Holidays