As one of eleven siblings, Charity Hoffman is used to spending Christmas with dozens of relatives at her parents' home in Lansing, Michigan. This year is the first Christmas of her 7-month-old daughter and the second Christmas of the family without her brother. She says she has "a big, loving family," and being together helps them come to terms with the loss of their brother.
But while she's had many socially distant porch and backyard visits over the past summer, Dr. Hoffman, who is 35 years old and lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that she will not be spending Christmas with her extended family for the first time and that she has chosen to be with only her husband and daughter. In addition to wanting to keep her baby safe, "we want to protect our community and not contribute to its spread," she said.
While some families have enjoyed the opportunity to gather in backyards or other outdoor areas with relative safety this spring and summer, the approach of colder weather makes fall and winter celebrations a much tougher proposition, especially for those who don't have a pandemic bubble or pod have formed. Elderly people, who are very susceptible to the coronavirus, were particularly isolated during this time. New evidence from the University of Michigan National Healthy Aging Survey, a recurring, nationally representative household survey, found that as of June, 56 percent of people over 50 said they sometimes or often feel isolated from others, more than twice that much like the percentage of respondents who felt this way in a similar survey in 2018. "Not being able to see your grandchildren because of the pandemic and protecting yourself and your loved ones – that was really difficult," said Amy Goyer, AARP's family and caregiver expert.
Time spent with family is seen as a major source of meaning and satisfaction, according to two 2017 Pew Research Center surveys. Still, disputes arise as family members have different ideas about how to be safe – and avoid exposing others to the virus. Different approaches lead to "family tension and judgment," said Vaile Wright, senior director of healthcare innovation for the American Psychological Association.
Some families may be more or less risk averse when it comes to making decisions that could potentially put others at risk of contracting the disease. There are gray areas, like whether it's safe to eat indoors with those who don't live with you or send kids to school, said Dr. Wright. "They are questions with no clear answers."
For Dr. Hoffman told her that the situation was difficult to negotiate because family members disagree on the level of precautions to be taken. "What is too risky for someone is overly cautious for someone," she said. She added, "It's not that anyone doesn't believe we need to be careful. It's just how we interpret conflicting messages from our leadership. So it's not even like there are two sides, just different degrees of risk reduction. "
Vacations can be stressful even under normal circumstances. In many family conflicts, experts advise compromises. But this may not be the right approach here as indulging in another relative's desire for a traditional feast at the dining table can be too risky for other family members, especially if they had to mingle with people from parts of the country that are hot Spots are.
Dr. Wright said you shouldn't expose yourself to family members if you feel that they are not following protective behaviors. However, this can be a delicate situation that leaves some family members feeling hurt or rejected. Here are some expert suggestions on how it works.
Make a plan
Developing a plan, clearly communicating expectations, and discussing it with family members can now help relieve tension, said Robert E. Emery, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Children, Families and Law at the University of Virginia. Check that your guests are happy with your proposed plan and be flexible about changing it if there is an easy way to keep everyone safe and comfortable.
Even if it seems uncomfortable to bring up the topic, it avoids a situation that could be more uncomfortable later.
Ms. Goyer suggests having clear guidelines on how to wear masks and how far apart you should go. Dr. Emery said if invited it is okay to ask the host about the plans but not to dictate. "You can't insist on someone throw a party your own way," he said.
The hosts should discuss the protocols and expectations before the event, said Dr. Wright. "What if you had a smoke-free home and a guest inside started smoking a cigarette?" She asked. “You probably wouldn't mind asking her to go outside or leave yourself. Wearing masks and social distancing must be thought of in the same way. "
Dr. Wright suggested opening the conversation about your decision in a non-judgmental way with "I-statements" that put responsibility on yourself.
If you'd like to forego family vacations this year, you could say, "I think it is in my family's best interest to be stricter so we don't go to Thanksgiving." That kind of language, she said, makes the other person less defensive because it doesn't come across as, "You're not doing the right thing so I can't come over."
Ms. Goyer said to evaluate whether extended family members are following the same safety protocols that you follow. The top priority should be safety and wellbeing. Gentle language can help relieve tension, she said, such as, “We all have the same goals to keep loved ones safe. That's how we make decisions. "
If you decide to skip the family reunion, Dr. Emery suggested keeping the message positive: "Express how much you enjoyed the meeting and you will miss it and look forward to years to come." He said it was important not to say anything of value about your hosts when you choose not to leave and respect the decisions of others when you are the host and your guests are saying goodbye this year.
Create new traditions
It can be helpful to approach this Christmas season with the expectation that it will look different than it has been in the past, said Dr. Wright. But instead of looking at the downside, she encouraged him to look at it as an opportunity to initiate new traditions.
Anyone who decides against a personal celebration can virtually take part in a joint activity. Ms. Goyer suggested using apps like House Party that would allow you to play together even when you are apart. You can bake your vacation with others who are geographically far away, or you can unwrap gifts together via Zoom. Dr. Wright added that holidays should be a time of gratitude and blessings. "So think about reflecting on this in a way that really matters." For example, families who choose not to meet on Thanksgiving could still video call each other to take turns expressing what they're grateful for, she said.
If you're creative, you may be able to find ways to see your loved ones in settings that are still safe. Ms. Goyer plans to drive from Phoenix to Indianapolis before Thanksgiving to hang out with her older aunt and uncle. But instead of staying with cousins who live in the area, she will choose a hotel and they will gather in her aunt and uncle's garage. Another option is to rent a large room – like a lodge – so family members can gather in socially distant ways. And those who have outdoor spaces may be able to stay warm with fire pits or heat lamps – even if they're hard to come by.
49-year-old Ken Schwartz is considering taking a 2,700-mile drive from his home in Arlington, Virginia to Port Hueneme, California in December to spend part of the Christmas vacation with his 71-year-old mother. He last saw her in November 2019. He believes that driving a car is safer than traveling by plane for now, and he wants to take every precaution as his 21-year-old daughter, who lives 25 minutes away from him, is pregnant and due in January.
"I'm nervous to see mom, but also nervous about going back and making my daughter sick," he said. If the infection rates go up "and the flu got involved and got worse, I wouldn't go," he said. His mother, Pauline Gates, understands the situation, but she said the prospect of not being able to see her son, who is their only child, is depressing. "I miss him terribly."
Ultimately, it might be most helpful to remember that this situation is only temporary, said Dr. Wright. "Neither of us can predict the future, but at some point we'll be able to get back together."