Helping a Seriously Ill Loved One Through the Holidays 


September 30, 2005 

Caring for a loved one with a serious disease can be both a deeply rewarding and stressful experience, especially during the holidays. Trying to make the holidays a special and happy time can be overwhelming for the family, and not necessarily what the ill relative wants, according to an expert in such matters at the University of California, San Diego.

“For the person coping with a serious illness, having some control over what happens around them can be a gift in itself,” said Matthew J. Loscalzo, MSW, director of patient and family support services at Rebecca and John Moores UCSD Cancer Center.  “Trying too hard to make the person happy can add stress, not take it away. Caring and respectful communication is always the safest way to bring out the best in people.”

Loscalzo suggests asking the person who is sick specific questions about how they would like to spend their time, for example:

  • What do you feel physically capable of doing?
  • Is there anything we usually do that you prefer we not do?
  • How do we use this time so that it is most meaningful at this time in your life?

Holidays are often times of reflection. It may be that the ill person will want to talk about their illness, their fears, or even death, and will bring it up. Others don’t want to burden family members so may avoid the topics and even try to maintain a false cheerfulness about their situation. In either circumstance, it is most important that the caregiver create a comfortable atmosphere in which these talks can take place if the patient desires.

“Tell your ill loved one you are willing to talk about anything on their mind, whenever they are ready, but that they need to let you know when and how,” said Loscalzo. ” You may also want to tell them that you do want to talk about any concerns they may have, and that talking about deeply personal concerns will make you feel closer to them.”

As a final note, Loscalzo said that while it is important to create the opportunity for pure communication, this will likely not dominate the holidays.

“No one can stare at the sun or illness for long periods of time,” he said. “Small pockets of time, perhaps 15 or 20 minutes, are what most people need or want for talking about their illness. That leaves plenty of time for celebrating the holiday and the time you have together.”

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Nancy Stringer

UCSD Health Sciences Communications HealthBeat: /news/

UCSD Moores Cancer Center

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