Social Work Manager: Being Social and Safe During the Holidays

By Linda Haymes

“Instead, it is a matter of public safety,” he told blood cancer patients during a recent virtual support group meeting.

Dean is co-facilitator for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society – Arkansas Division’s monthly Little Rock Blood Cancer Support Group meeting.

During his Zoom presentation, “COVID-19 and the Holidays: Considerations for Blood Cancer Patients,” he discussed how cancer patients with compromised immune systems can be both social and safe during the holiday season.

“The rain falls on the just and unjust, which is another way of saying that sometimes bad things happen to good people,” he said. “Many of you can relate to that with your diagnoses.”

“Cancer is not a respecter of persons and neither is COVID-19,” said Dean, who has worked in oncology social work for more than 27 years and as a field liaison for the University of Arkansas at Little Rock School of Social Work for the last 20 years.

He serves as president of the board of directors of the Association of Social Work Boards and on the Board of Oncology Social Work Certification.

Dean began by reviewing the basic steps to reduce the risk of COVID-19 — wearing a mask, keeping at least six feet from others, frequently washing hands, avoiding touching items in public places, disinfecting high-contact areas such as doorknobs and light switches, and avoiding touching eyes, nose and mouth.

“A common sentiment I’m hearing is that people are tired of hearing about and worrying about COVID-19, but with so many holiday traditions centered on spending time with family and friends, we have to stay alert and remain vigilant. We need to be more mindful of how we celebrate.”

Everyone, especially cancer patients, needs to be their own best advocate for their health care, Dean said.

“Do not be embarrassed or timid about being concerned. These are your relatives and friends and they should all understand if you decide not to participate,” he said. “When you are deciding whether to attend an event you need to ask yourself whether it is worth it to potentially put yourself at risk by getting together with a large group of people.”

Those who are going to bow out this year should let relatives or friends know now so they will have time to accept the decision and allow the person declining time to prepare for a new plan, Dean said.

Maybe this is the year to start new traditions with something like trying a new recipe.

Dean recommended scaling back or celebrating a little differently this year and those planning to shop in stores for gifts should consider doing so now before the holiday crowds begin.

“Even better, shop online or maybe this year, give gift cards,” he said.

During a time of social distancing is a great time to consider sending out holiday cards and letters. The advent of email led to a decline in the number of holiday cards sent through the mail.

“Personal correspondence is very special,” Dean said. “Whenever I receive a personal card or letter I don’t open it immediately but wait until I have time to sit down and really experience and savor it.”

Consider other variations from tradition, too. Maybe you will decide you won’t decorate as much as you usually do, but if decorating is important, do whatever makes it feel like the holidays for you.

Dean also recommended playing music during the holidays.

“Choral music is something a lot of people enjoy during the holidays, but we know that is one way COVID-19 can spread, so live events won’t be an option this year.”

Instead, there are several CDs of choral holiday concerts available and performances can be found on YouTube and other places online.

Those wishing to socialize with others can consider doing it virtually via zoom or FaceTime.

“You could even each prepare a nice meal in your individual homes and sit down to a meal together virtually.”

Setting a pretty table and getting dressed up can also help.

“I always feel better about myself when I put on my best face. You don’t have to save an outfit for a special occasion. If you feel like getting dressed up, do so.”

When you do gather in person, be very mindful of socially distancing, beginning with how we greet our family and friends, he advised.

“Our automatic response is to hug or shake hands, but you really need to give virtual hugs and handshakes instead.” He discouraged even fist and elbow bumps for cancer patients since that requires being closer than six feet.

“Remember that bigger, isn’t always better,” he said, suggesting small gatherings of just spouses or a couple other people. Ordering prepared meals can also reduce the stress of the holidays.

With a smaller gathering, maybe you can splurge a little more and instead of having the usual turkey you might choose to have filet mignon instead.

Limit the number of households attending and gather in a larger space than you normally would or even outdoors, if possible. Make sure everyone wears a mask, except while eating, and make sure extra sanitizer is available.

If dining together, it is best if just one or two people wearing masks and gloves serve the food. Use disposable dinnerware and utensils. Better yet, encourage guests to bring their own food and drinks.

Beware of overindulging in alcohol, which can cloud a person’s judgement and lead to participating in risky behaviors, said Dean.

Try to adopt an attitude of gratitude and remember that every cloud has a silver lining. Focus on the things for which you can be grateful, Dean said.

“During a time when there is so much isolation and uncertainty, celebrating the good wherever you find it, from good news of a friend to a good report from your doctor is one of the ways we can get through the difficult times of this pandemic.”