But with a little planning and creativity, nurses are able to make the holidays enjoyable for patients and for each other.
Jennifer Chapin, RN, of CovenantCare at Home in Turlock, Calif., has worked many holidays over the course of her nursing career.
“When my children were younger, I would tell them Santa was coming on the 21st or whatever day I was off,” Chapin said with a laugh. “When I worked in the hospital, we would celebrate the holidays of different cultures. For example, during Diwali, India’s biggest holiday, Hindu and Sikh nurses would bring in culinary treats and colorful lights to celebrate.”
When scheduled to work on a holiday, Kira Dimitrijevich, BSN, RN, a surgical intensive care nurse at Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee, said she looks forward to celebrating with her “work family.”
“We have a potluck and play Christmas music and make it feel as festive as possible,” she said. “Sometimes carolers will go from room to room, which is nice for both patients and staff.”
Potlucks are a popular holiday ritual at Children’s Hospital, as well, said Jace Vargas-Weisser, BSN, RN, CPN, who works in the post-anesthesia care unit and ambulatory surgery recovery center at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles.
“Everyone, including management, signs up and brings their favorite holiday dishes to share, and we’ll have a holiday stash of candy for the occasionally needed sugar bump on a stressful shift. In the days leading up to holidays, we’ll also share favorite dishes, usually family recipes,” said Vargas-Weisser, who brings in orange- and clove-steeped apple cider for his colleagues.
Brandon Cloud, MSN, RN-NAC, clinical case manager for Aetna MNS and clinical director of nursing services for LCCA, of Phoenix, said most long-term care facilities try to focus on involving patients’ families during the holidays.
“A family night holiday meal is usually planned prior to both Thanksgiving and Christmas in order to give family members a chance to spend time with their loved ones,” Cloud said. “In my last job, we worked in conjunction with local churches to get blankets and clothing for those patients that didn’t have family.”
Cloud said the facility’s activities department made sure each resident had at least two gifts for Christmas and that gift trees – where staff, visitors and volunteers can choose a patient to surprise with a gift – were a common practice.
“Decorating cookies, gingerbread houses and creating ornaments are simple activities that help patients and staff get into the spirit of the holidays,” Cloud said. “Contests such as holiday door decorating also can be fun.”
While the holidays can be a happy time, they can be bittersweet for patients who are hospitalized or in poor health.
“Keeping patients’ spirits up is extremely important during the holidays, especially for kids that are on long-term stays,” Vargas-Weisser said.
“Our Child Life team identifies those kids that need a little extra attention, and we do as much as is within our power to boost their mood because no child, or adult, wants to be in the hospital,” said Vargas-Weisser, “especially during the holidays.”
Chapin, who has worked in hospice and home care, said she’s found practicing active listening can go a long way in helping patients feel understood.
“People who are elderly or homebound often get depressed over the holidays because they are isolated,” Chapin said. “If possible, spend a little extra time with these patients, listen to them, show empathy and allow them to vent.”
Cloud said recognizing holiday depression early is important to find medicinal and therapeutic approaches to combat it before it worsens.
“Not all patients have family that are available and making sure that they don’t feel excluded is important,” he said.
Whether it’s wearing holiday-themed scrubs or making Christmas trees out of rubber gloves, nurses are creative at bringing the holiday spirit to their patients. For children, Vargas-Weisser said creating a sense of normalcy is important, since some will be spending the holidays hospitalized in an unfamiliar environment.
“We sometimes wear silly hats or accessories, such as necklaces with Christmas lights, along with our holiday scrubs,” Vargas-Weisser said. “It helps to brighten the mood with the kids and aids in building a quick relationship before we have to start that IV line or give them an ‘icky tasting’ medication.”
In addition to visits from Santa and Christmas-themed activities, there is a holiday talent show for patients and their families, and volunteers are available for story times during which they read holiday-themed books to young patients.
“We have various teams that work with kids to offer age-appropriate activities to boost spirits (coloring pages, book reading, random toy giveaways from the volunteer department),” Vargas-Weisser said.
“While there are no specific guidelines for nurses to identify and offer additional care for these kids during the holidays, nurses know both from report and from assessing the kids which of them need just that extra bit of attention,” he said. “The more seasoned nurses tend to lead the newer staff in showing that it’s OK to give a little extra attention to those patients, whether it’s watching a cartoon with them while you both eat a popsicle, or sneaking them a cookie from the staff potluck (if it’s OK in their diet orders).”
Freelancer writer Linda Childers contributed to the research and writing of this article.