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MS lifehacks and workarounds

By Mary Pettigrew

The holiday season is in full swing and along with that comes the hustle and bustle of people rushing at full throttle to plan, shop, and prepare for the festivities to come. The holiday season can be an exciting and joyous time, but this is not always the case for everyone. Many people dread this time of year and they may find the holidays to be difficult, lonely, stressful, and exhausting. This can be especially true for people living with MS or other chronic illnesses and disabilities. When MS keeps us from doing the things we used to do, it can be confusing and disappointing for everyone. Some of us may have family, spouses or partners at home to help out as needed while some of us do not. Many people with MS live alone, so that’s important to keep in mind, especially during the holidays. 

If you have found yourself having trouble doing some of the things you used to be able to do (i.e., hosting parties, cooking, decorating, shopping, or traveling), you might want to think about how you can modify your role and simplify your routine without having to compromise too much or miss out on certain festivities. Maybe it's time to simplify things and explore some alternative options this year. In other words, find a way to make the holidays work for you instead of against you.

Along with the help from a few friends, I’ve compiled a list of life hacks and helpful workarounds. I hope others might find some of these to be useful and will be open to giving them a try. 

Life hacks, modifications, and boundaries

First of all, what is a “life hack?” Many people are probably familiar with this term but they may not know exactly what it means. A life hack is a helpful shortcut (a workaround) designed to make your day-to-day life easier. Life hacks are particularly helpful for people with MS, illness, and disabilities. Not only can they save you time and money, but they can also improve your mood, quality of life, and independence too. 

Have any of you had to modify or even cancel any of your usual holiday activities because of your MS and related health issues? I know I have, many times. I used to think I had to turn myself into Martha Stewart every year and would typically go overboard with everything without any help. I’m a Type-A perfectionist with OCD and anxiety and these traits don’t always go so well with MS. While my personality traits probably served me well in some areas in my life, I recognized it wasn't healthy for me long term – especially with MS. 

With each passing year, I’ve continued to cut back on my holiday routine. I started to simplify everything, set limits, and have implemented some “self-care” boundaries for myself, family, and friends. As long as I communicate my needs to those around me, letting them know what I can or can’t do, my stress is relieved, and I no longer feel guilty or “less than.” 

Setting boundaries and simplifying your holiday routine may seem daunting, but it’s actually quite freeing once you put the changes in motion. Not everyone will understand, but don’t give up. When our loved ones can’t (or won’t) try to understand or consider our feelings and needs, it can be tough. I’ve experienced this myself and it’s not a comfortable place to be. It takes time, flexibility, patience, a lot of communication, and in my case, a divorce. For me, this was a fantastic way for me to let go and live.

Letting go is a daily practice, and the holidays certainly challenge this ongoing effort, but it is possible. Try to focus less on pleasing others and more on your health and happiness. Life hacks and workarounds can save you a tremendous amount of time, energy, and stress in the long run.

Here are a few of my favorite holiday hacks and ideas:
  • Grocery Shopping – Avoid parking problems and large crowds, consider ordering groceries online for delivery. Amazon Fresh is my new favorite. Walmart+ is a good option for large families.
  • Cooking – Evaluate your pain level and fatigue, prepare ahead, use gadgets to make prep easier (I love my tiny Cuisinart for chopping ingredients), try to sit as often as possible. If cooking is not an option, a store-bought dish is a fine option. Consider potluck for other gatherings too.
  • Gifts – I don’t gift anything to anyone anymore because of stress, fatigue, and finances. Shopping can be a nightmare, so if you must buy gifts, try online shopping or gift cards.
  • Travel – Whether by car or air, plan ahead and request assistance as needed. I don’t travel anymore these days, but that doesn’t mean I won’t in the future. 
  • Gatherings with friends and family – If sensory overload is an issue because of loud noise and crowds, plan accordingly. Take your own car or use a service such as Uber if you feel unwell or overwhelmed and need to escape on your own terms. Consider hosting or attending virtual parties and visits with out of towners via Zoom, FaceTime, etc.
  • Small Children – Santa, gifts, school events, and outings require major planning and help from family, friends, or nonprofit organizations. 
  • Decorations – I used to decorate from top to bottom, but now, I keep things simple, quick, and easy to set up and put away.
  • Cleaning – Try not to let things pile up. Clean as you go, one task at a time. Ask for help or consider a professional service if needed before, during, or after your holiday festivities.
  • Be flexible and realistic with everything and everyone, especially with yourself.
  • Communicate your needs and speak up if/when changes arise (boundaries).
  • Create a plan A, B, and C for when the unexpected may arise. 

In summary, here are 10 rules of thumb to keep in mind:
  1. Do not over-schedule
  2. Prepare and bring your own supplies, meds to gatherings or outings if needed
  3. Try to build and maintain a daily routine as much as possible
  4. Take two cars or arrange alternative transportation when attending functions
  5. Communicate and plan activities where there is no expectation as to what you can or cannot do – Keep expectations for yourself reasonable
  6. Try to arrange for extra help as needed
  7. Avoid crowds, heavy traffic, and other sensory overload triggers
  8. Keep calm, breathe, rest
  9. Don’t be afraid to say “no” (boundaries)
  10. Take time for yourself and celebrate your accomplishments

You can get through the holidays if you prioritize your health and self-care. Maybe we’ll never be a Martha Stewart, but then again, who is? When we learn how to cut corners, modify, and simplify things, it can make a world of a difference.

Peace, love, and joy to all.