After eight weeks as a rural Covid-19 red zone, my community’s Homecoming was canceled: A positive test on our two-district combined high school football squad quarantined some players, and there weren’t enough left to field a team. It wasn’t the first and won’t be the last disappointment in this crazy Covid year. But it has left many wondering: How do we celebrate the holiday season without putting those we love at risk? And how do we protect our loved ones without making them feel shunned? 

The answers might seem obvious to those who live in milder climates. Throughout the spring, summer, and fall we’ve learned to gather in small numbers for socially distanced porch visits, picnics, and campfires. But as winter settles in the “Up North,” it’s hard to keep everyone we want to see comfortable outdoors — even when you’re used to dressing for cold nights on stadium seats and cold days of ice fishing. And the current surge seems to make clear that even smaller gatherings are not as safe as we might’ve hoped and “the kitchen table is a place of risk.” 

Indoor visits are even riskier in winter. Viruses seem to love the season’s low relative humidity and dry nasal passages. The habits we’ve been cultivating in recent months — frequent cleaning of high-touch surfaces, frequent hand washing or hand sanitizer, keeping hands off our faces, covering coughs and sneezes — may not keep our loved ones safe in winter.

Vulnerable elders with circulation problems and mobility concerns may prefer to risk the virus indoors rather than face months of isolation with no holiday gatherings to look forward to. It’s hard to disappoint them. But that might be preferable to the alternative. It feels selfish to ask your aging parents to behave because you’re already stretched to the breaking point. But if the consequence of a gathering could be weeks or months of infirmity and extra needs, it might be prudent to explore other options.

So here are a few ideas for helping those elders in your family and community feel included in the spirit of the holidays if you can’t celebrate in traditional ways:

Caroling, Caroling. Don’t wait for Christmas to sing outside homes you can’t or shouldn’t enter. It doesn’t matter if it’s football fight songs, cell phone karaoke, or holiday carols in three-part harmony: We love joyful voices lifted in song. Have the kids call in advance to ask what songs older family members and neighbors sang when they were young, and learn those tunes. Search for song lyrics online, or download a karaoke app for your phone. Keep your concerts short, so that elders standing at the door don’t chill or tire. Be sure to mask and socially distance — even outdoors, and especially if your choir includes singers from outside your covid bubble. Remember to take requests for your next performance. 

Livestream Togetherness. Many families are used to visiting via FaceTime or other apps. But some of our loved ones have been left behind — often at their choosing. So ask the young adults in the family for help getting those folks ready for a holiday Zoom or whatever. If the elders don’t have WiFi or a cellular plan, figure out who has an old iPad and a data plan that can be used for the occasion. Beware of system updates that may occur when an unused device goes back into service — that’s not something you want an older new user to have to deal with. You may have to explain to the youngsters that a written tutorial printed out would be greatly appreciated by someone who isn’t skilled at flicking from screen to screen. I can’t imagine a greater gift than the time a young person might give to do a few short practice sessions before your family’s virtual Christmas Eve.

Take in the night lights. Even elders who still drive may not get out at night to see the Christmas lights on their neighbors’ homes. Such an outing during Covid takes a little planning and effort, but it’s doable. Wipe down high-touch areas like seat belts and window buttons beforehand, especially if the vehicle regularly transports children. Make sure your car’s heater is not set to recirculate. Advise your elders to dress like it’s a sleigh ride — bundled up and with blankets — because you will crack windows to increase air exchange. The air noise may be a problem for hearing aid wearers, so maybe they want to turn those off. Check on their comfort with a quick thumbs up or down occasionally, and pull over to turn on cabin lights when you want to talk more. Seat passengers in the back, with fresh face masks on everyone so you can sing carols if the spirit moves you. 

Plan daytime outdoor fun. One of the perks of rural living is there are all kinds of fun spots you can drive to, even in winter. So get your cabin-fevered elders there, even if just for a short time. Take the same precautions as above, plus fill the tank so you can keep the engine running if they need the heater. This way they can be part of the sledding party or whatever reason you’ve found for tailgating. Go old-school on the food in their honor: Who remembers cooking hot dogs in a Thermos by covering them with boiling water? Or serve hot cocoa and cookies while the kids build snowmen. Even a trip to the end of the driveway while your kids shovel snow is a treat when you’ve been cooped up — especially if someone gets the car warmed up first and there’s a baggie of Christmas cookies on the seat.

Enlist their help. At every age, it’s good to feel needed. So ask your elders to help spread the holiday cheer. If they stopped sending holiday cards because of the expense or the effort it takes, drop off cards already addressed and stamped so all they need do is sign and maybe write a line or two. Remind them to call a friend or two each week just to visit. Help them, if you can, with holiday traditions like donating to the food pantry or the giving tree or Shop With A Cop.

Plan meal alternatives. With a bit of flexibility, you can honor some food traditions and may find it easier than accommodating your cousin’s vegan teenager at a traditional holiday feast. For example, prepare the Thanksgiving meal you would have shared together but package or plate it for delivery to their door in time to eat while watching football together with phones on speaker. If you’re too far away to make delivery work, check with the deli where your loved ones get groceries to see if they sell Thanksgiving meal packs for pick-up ahead of time to reheat. Those may have to be ordered in advance. If the store does curbside pick-up, ask for details to help your loved one navigate a service they may not have used before. Sign a gift card, “I don’t want to hear if their stuffing is better than mine.” 

Set expectations early. If you won’t be hosting the big holiday meal, or traveling to visit, or able to accommodate guests from outside your immediate family or bubble, let your loved ones know now. Putting it off doesn’t help anyone, and especially not the older host who started baking pies and cleaning two weeks ago. Get it over with so you can move on. And then live like you’re potentially contagious — not just to them but to everyone. It may hurt a little less to know the party’s canceled than to feel like everyone is having fun without you. And when you show up outside their door singing football fight songs, they’ll know they haven’t been forgotten.

Donna Kallner writes from Langlade County in rural northern Wisconsin. If you’re interested in how to expand your family’s “covid bubble” for the holidays, Baylor College of Medicine has helpful information here.

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