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August 2005

Planning for Christmas

Lisa Sampson
Playwright, Director, Producer and Performer
Free Radical Enterprises

Christmas ornaments

Christmas is a happy time. Or is it?

In countries like Australia, where nationhood and identity is bound up with ideas of Christianity (or at least, Christian traditions), there is a popular view that Christmas time brings joy, peace and love. Families come together, disagreements are set aside, journeys are made, cards are sent, presents are exchanged. Celebrations occur.

I spent many years working with people with disabilities in group homes, boarding houses, institutions, day centres and community based activity programs. Most of the people I spent time with had an intellectual disability or a severe mental illness. Many also had physical and sensory impairments. When Christmas-time loomed, staff used to rush around buying presents, contacting families to arrange holiday visits and celebrations. Some people didn't have anyone special who came to see them. Staff-bought presents were the only indication that someone cared. People who did see their families would express their love with significant intensity. Many people with disabilities and their families found it difficult to see one another. And staff, it being the end of the year, were frantic amidst the inevitable reflection that the passing of another year brings. Why? It boiled down to what I call the "pressure cooker" effect.

So, as a service provider, how can these mixed feelings on all sides be positively re-framed?

Christmas decoration

The key is to plan

The earlier you start to plan, the easier it will be all-round.

Even if you think you're a laid-back person, have a massage or do something relaxing and self-soothing before giving emotionally to others.
The adage is true: you can pay someone to provide support but you cannot pay someone to care. If you are reading this article, you are someone who does care. When you are supporting a person or family system - or perhaps many people and families - you have to dig deep. What you put in the well of your heart to draw upon is up to you. The best well-springs are fed with time and care. So take some time out for you. You'll work more effectively and wisely over the Christmas period.
Make a Christmas wish-list with the people you support.
Bring new ideas to the table and discuss different options.

Christmas tree

Decide on a series of activities which mark the countdown and double the fun!
These are the 'safety valves' on the Christmas 'pressure cooker'. Perhaps as one of your early activities, to mark the time as one of giving, you could assist your clients to set up and decorate a Christmas Tree in the local shopping centre. An individual or group could make a poster to be displayed beside the tree telling the public that this is your clients' gift to the community. Talk to your local shopping centre management, they have to set up the tree or trees in late November/early December anyway! It could be the start of a whole new community relations program that catapults your organisation and your clients' needs to the top of the local community planning agenda. And every time your clients walk past the tree they erected and decorated, while doing their Christmas shopping, they see the results of their own hands. You will have watered the seed of soul-deep self-worth and accomplishment that you tend every day as you support people to go about their daily lives.
Facilitate levels of contact between people and their families that leads everyone up to Christmas gently.
It may be that you can assist a person to initiate a series of phone calls with their family with the express purpose of planning different facets of a Christmas event, week by week. Food one week. Decorations the next. Then presents. You know how it goes. This also respects the fact that many people with intellectual disability or severe mental illness focus on one thing at a time. Make the phone calls building blocks.
Make the contact outcome focused; gear it towards a concrete outcome.
What sort of "outcomes" are we talking about in relation to Christmas? Let's take an event as an example. A service on the New South Wales (Australia) Mid North Coast run a weekly drama group. The group has written a Christmas play for which the players have started making costumes and sets. Rehearsals will start soon. People not in the play (because they can't remember lots of lines or are too shy) are arranging to sing carols in groups or perform short skits. The important thing is that people have been empowered to focus, work towards a goal and star in their own lives for their family members and others to see. The service can look back over the year and see what it has achieved with its client group.
But putting on a Christmas play is not for everyone.
What else can you do? If you are helping someone to arrange a visit to a relative's home over the Christmas period, try to suggest present choices which reflect both the giver and the receiver. Maybe you always buy family Christmas gifts on behalf of the person you support. This year, think about assisting the person to make a scrapbook style photo album which shows them engaging in things they enjoy. The album need only be 10 - 12 pages, with a page size a little larger than a 4 x 6 photo; lots of scrapbooking shops sell attractive "accordion" albums made from cardboard and decorative paper for $10 or less. Remember, lots of families only have photographs of the person as they relate to the family and never see them as a self-styled individual identity outside the family. Completing this project over a 6-8 week period in the lead-up to Christmas will help the person remember the enjoyable things they have done this year, ground them in their unique personhood and produce a gift that is priceless. Your clients can start collecting and taking photos now - use a disposable camera! That means that when she is sitting on the lounge with Mum on Christmas afternoon, she can present the album as a gift and also use the photos as talking points.
Make Christmas last by creating memories that last.
January is often viewed as downtime. Support people you work with to re-live their Christmas joy. Help make a time capsule. Make up a Christmas Memories scrapbook album. Help edit a video of Christmas fun enjoyed by all. Basic editing applications can be found in Windows and Mac Office program suites or add-on with minimal extra cost. It doesn't have to be brilliant film making, just splicing bits together. Use some of the dried flowers you used in the door wreath to make a hair clip ornament. I just got a slim little book from Spotlight ($2.99) which explained in 1 page how to do this with a hot glue gun, a big hair clip, some artificial flowers and some feathers. What a memento. Heck - the possibilities are endless!

Christmas bell


Dancing at Christmas

This article was written by Lisa Sampson, Playwright, Director, Producer and Performer. Lisa has written a show called Dancing at Christmas which facilitates the genuine interaction of people with disabilities. The show tells a story about four people caught between two time zones, under pressure at Christmas each must decide what they would do for love. The story includes original music from hot Sydney composer Rebecca Kypri and is punctuated by brilliant magic illusions. There's a tango to die for, superb acapella and orchestral arrangements of many popular songs. You can find out more about the Show by calling Lisa on 02 9797 7152 or by visiting the Free Radical web site.

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