Safer Holiday Plans for Older and Vulnerable People

It should come as no surprise that observing the holidays will be different this year.  Here we outline important considerations about holiday gatherings during COVID-19 times, with special consideration to the health of older and more vulnerable relatives and friends.

First, leaders from Johns Hopkins Medicine are urging caution this holiday season.  In a recent memo to faculty, staff, and fellows, they provided the following guidance:

“As you consider participation in various forms of holiday gatherings, please be thoughtful and exercise great care to protect yourself and your loved ones, especially those who are elderly, have underlying medical conditions, or are otherwise more vulnerable to severe consequences from the infection.”

As we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to increase dramatically in the US, and throughout many places worldwide. With winter upon us, everyone is spending more time inside with poor ventilation and dry air—ripe conditions for viral community spread.  At the same time, many people find themselves suffering from Pandemic Fatigue (or COVID-19 Caution Fatigue), and yearning for connection with family and friends.  Though we long to return to normal holiday rituals, it is so important for the health and wellbeing of our older friends and family members that we redouble our resolve to keep ourselves and our loved-ones safe.   Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) warns that “small household gatherings are an important contributor to the rise of COVID-19 cases.”  By finding alternative ways to celebrate and reconnect with those dearest to us, we may be able to have safer holiday plans for frail, older, and vulnerable populations.  Below are the CDC’s assessment of lower to higher risk holiday activities:   

Lower Risk: 

  • A small dinner with the people in your household
  • A virtual dinner with family and friends
  • Preparing food for family and neighbors (especially those at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 who are physically distancing), and delivering it to them without person-to-person contact
  • Shopping online rather than in person on Black Friday and Cyber Monday
  • Watching sports events, parades and movies at home

Moderate Risk Activities: 

  • A small outdoor dinner with family and friends who live in your community
  • Visiting pumpkin patches or orchards where people are taking COVID-19 safety precautions like using hand sanitizer, wearing masks and maintaining physical distance
  • Small outdoor sports events with safety precautions in place

Higher Risk Activities: 

  • Going shopping in crowded stores just before, on or after Thanksgiving
  • Participating or being a spectator at a crowded race
  • Attending crowded parades
  • Using alcohol or drugs
  • Attending large indoor gatherings with people from outside of your household

As difficult as it may be, there are some individuals whose health conditions should preclude them any gatherings. The CDC advises the following people should not host or attend in-person holiday gatherings outside of their household; including anyone who:

Please see CDC guidelines here to help celebrate Thanksgiving more safely.

Safer Alternative Holiday Planning:

The reality is that socializing during Thanksgiving is likely going to be very limited in real life and may only include those in your household, but the potential for virtual or telephone connection is abundant for almost everyone. This social connection is especially important for our frail and isolated relatives and friends. If you would like to get ideas for hosting a virtual Thanksgiving, you will be pleased to know that the AARP has put together excellent suggestions, which you can find here as well as a “how to” guide, which you can find here.  As noted in a recent NIH Director’s blog, breaking the traditional way we observe Thanksgiving allows the opportunity for something new to emerge and blend in with time-honored traditions.  Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Don’t like Turkey?  Make a dish you love instead! 
  • Love cooking?  Ask for signature dish recipes from you family and friends and share yours! (Here’s a pecan pie recipe my grandmother made every Thanksgiving.)
  • Have you put on your COVID 19lbs?  Mask up and take a Thanksgiving walk and be mindful of nature, and maybe stroll with your pod maintaining physical distance
  • Missing family and friends?  Call them over the weekend on the phone or a video chat service, or write them a note.
  • Need to be more thankful this Thanksgiving?  Start a gratitude journal—it is really good for your outlook and mental health.
  • Want to go somewhere?  Visit a place virtually.  Plenty of venues and museums offer virtual tours these days.  Some of them have programs for children, such as the Baltimore Museum of Art’s opportunity to meet Matisse’s dog, Raoudi, and learn about Matisse’s art.
  • Feeling nostalgic for Thanksgiving pass times?  Fortunately, some aspects of Thanksgiving were pretty much virtual all along.  Here’s the Thanksgiving NFL schedule.  The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is still happening—which you have probably already virtually attended in the past from the comfort of your own home! In my household, watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” was a given, as well as playing board games.

Perhaps the one thing we can all be grateful for this Thanksgiving is how swiftly coronavirus vaccine research has been progressing, and the hope that this may be the only COVID-19 Thanksgiving we must endure.  We must be grateful for our good health.  And protect it, and the health of those most vulnerable.  Know that we are in solidarity with each other this holiday season in this regard, and that we are in good company in that sense; click here for a message from Dr. Anthony Fauci, world-renowned infections disease expert:  “My Thanksgiving is going to look very different this year.”