As COVID-19 vaccination rates increase and infection rates decline across Georgia and nationwide, many local adults, including seniors, are cautiously planning to gather with family members for the holiday season.
In 2020, caution was the focus of holiday gatherings, with older adults being at the greatest risk of severe illness or death from COVID.
After spending the holidays apart last year, will 2021 see families’ holiday plans return to normal pre-pandemic celebrations?
“We might hug for the first time in over a year”
Prior to the pandemic, former university administrator Carol Gee, 71, of Stone Mountain, and her husband Ronnie Gee spent the holidays hosting research assistants and student workers, many of whom were unable to travel home for the holidays. In 2020, the Gees adjusted their holiday plans.
“With my husband having a number of health issues, it was just the two of us last year,” Carol Gee said.
Although fully vaccinated, the Gees plan to take precautions again this year, just in case.
“We will probably meet friends to exchange gifts. Last year we wore our masks, met (another couple) at a restaurant for lunch, exchanged gifts and picked up our meals. Both couples ordered food and parked side-by-side in our cars,” Carol Gee said. “We talked via speakerphone while our food was prepared. Other friends either dropped off our gifts and picked up theirs or they stopped by to exchange gifts, enjoying a brief visit while wearing our masks.
“Not ideal but we all still enjoyed our traditions, albeit in a creative way.”
Due to their ages and her husband’s health conditions, Gee said she intends to be careful this year too, and she’ll ultimately defer to her friends as to how to celebrate.
“We’ll see what they prefer, and continue to enjoy the holidays, just a little bit differently. As they are both vaccinated and about the get the booster, this year we might hug for the first time in over a year,” Gee said.
Larger families downsize some gatherings
The pandemic presented unique challenges for larger families.
Sandy Beaumont-Cash, 58 has ten adult children and ten grandchildren with her husband Andy. Sandy’s cancer diagnosis in early 2020 provided a unique perspective as the pandemic began.
“I didn’t want to miss any time with my kids or grandkids,” especially during the holidays, she said. “We’re living life as normal as we can and making the best of the situation.”
They celebrated Christmas in 2020 with children and grandchildren but canceled a larger traditional gathering of extended family, which typically includes up to 40-50 people traveling from several states.
This year’s holidays will resemble the 2020 holidays for the Beaumont-Cash family. They are not sure if or when they will ever re-instate the larger annual extended family gathering.
“There is not one Christmas that we have ever missed being together,” said Jennifer Formaro, of Winder.
She and her two adult sons are very close.
“It’s so important we never miss a chance to unite. And that rang true for Christmas 2020,” Formaro said.
Between January and May of 2020, three family members passed away, including her father.
While they did not die of COVID, Formaro said “it was the hardest year we’d ever had.”
Therefore, the family decided not to cancel their family holiday celebration.
“We chose to honor our lost loved ones this past ‘COVID’ Christmas… we enjoyed tons of food, gifts, games and cheer!” she explained. “We all quarantined for about three weeks prior (to Christmas) and prayed that all would be good. And it was.”
This year, Formaro and her family plan to continue the tradition of renting a large Airbnb in South Carolina for their Christmas celebration.
Reuniting with precautions in mind
“Last year, our family’s holidays were very limited,” Kevin Sullivan, of Marietta, who is at high risk of COVID due to an underlying health condition, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in November. “In 2020, I spent the holidays alone, (only) communicating by phone and Zoom. This year, my entire family is fully vaccinated and some of us have received our booster shots.”
Since the family has taken precautions, the door is open for a traditional close-knit gathering.
“For Thanksgiving, I will be hosting my 89-year-old mother from Rock Hill, South Carolina, and my son who’s returning from college in North Carolina,” Sullivan said. “We intend to have a small gathering, but like the ‘old days,’ I’ll cook turkey with all the trimmings.”
He looks forward to spending the day cooking, listening to music, catching up with his family “and maybe doing a little yard work or kicking a soccer ball.”
Re-entry into normal life comes with risks, however, even when taking precautions.
Sullivan admitted to feeling anxious to get back out in public. This was after spending more than a year in isolation and getting vaccinated. Then, he got reacclimated to the public.
“(I) unfortunately contracted a virus that led to bronchitis that triggered a severe asthma attack with exacerbation (leading) to a three-day stint in the hospital in July,” Sullivan said. “The virus was not COVID.”
“Despite that, I look forward to hosting vaccinated family members for Thanksgiving,” he said. “We might have some other friends drop by, but everyone in our circle is vaccinated and people are willing to wear masks if requested.”
While Sullivan’s family hasn’t yet confirmed Christmas plans, the current plan is to have gatherings similar to previous years. They may include traveling to North Carolina to visit a family member and their four children.
Physician tips for holiday gatherings
Dr. Jodine Sejour-Donatien, family physician and Associate Medical Director for Atlanta at CenterWellSenior Primary Care offers some holiday tips for seniors and their families:
“Unfortunately, the COVID-19 virus is still out there. While the incidence of new cases has been dropping recently, it’s important for seniors not to let their guard down…. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, families gathering for the holidays should be extra cautious around people who have not yet achieved full vaccination status, including children. I advise people to talk it over with their doctor,” Sejour-Donatien said.
“The CDC recommends that everyone 65 and older get a booster shot, as it will increase your immunity to COVID-19. Seniors should receive a booster as soon as they can to get the additional antibodies in their system before Thanksgiving.”
Sejour-Donatien provides these tips:
- When gathering for the holidays, the CDC recommends that everyone avoid crowded, poorly ventilated spaces and those who are not fully vaccinated should wear a mask that fits them well when they are indoors. Hosting the gathering outdoors is also a safer option, although obviously, the weather might have a say in the feasibility of that.
- Anyone with a condition affecting their immunity, or who’s taking medications that weaken their immune system might not be fully protected even if vaccinated. In that case, they should continue to take all precautions recommended for unvaccinated people, including wearing a mask. If in doubt, check with your doctor.
- Anyone with symptoms of COVID-19, or who has come in close contact with someone with COVID-19, should not host or attend the gathering and should get tested. Fully vaccinated people can spread COVID-19; family members should get tested to help ensure no attendees bring COVID-19 to the gathering.
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