By now many of us have viewed the viral video of residents gleefully shooting soft foam balls at laughing staff members dressed as reindeer dodging through a pine-tree “forest.” 

It’s the kind of merriment suitable for the 2020 holidays — one that uses humor and playful defiance to release pent-up frustrations. 

Under normal circumstances, spending the holidays at a nursing home is difficult, but the extended separation from families is hitting hard. In the past, I’ve counseled residents who were disappointed that their usual celebrations had been reduced to a four-hour home pass or a fruitcake-laden visit from grandchildren. This year is exponentially more challenging. 

In addition to the grief of the residents, it’s the first time the staff members have been all but banned from seeing their loved ones as well. After a period of unprecedented loss and change, postponing large family gatherings is particularly painful. 

Yes, we’re on the cusp of vaccine distribution. Meanwhile, there’s a dark holiday season before the dawn of a post-vaccinated world. 


The efforts of workers to brighten the mood with festive décor and physically distanced events is truly impressive. Adding in a few options like “deer-hunting” can give residents a safe way to vent frustrations, mixing a little naughty with their nice.

I’m thinking white balloon “snowball” fights in the day room. Setting up rows of dominoes and watching them collapse in organized destruction. Competitive games. Writing snarky lyrics to holiday songs as a group and singing them together. Bashing a 2020 pinata to bring in 2021. 

It’s also a good time to add in more physical activities like chair yoga, dance parties and exercise classes.


Staff members, who may be running on fumes by this point in a very difficult year, might also enjoy similar pursuits in their off hours. These unusual circumstances may also be an opportunity for us to give ourselves permission to lower expectations and to ask for help. 

We’ve been showing up for our residents and teams in the epicenter of the pandemic, and it’s understandable if our emotional reserves are low.

We can’t have large festive get-togethers, but there’s an option of more intimate holiday walks. An unseasonably warm winter day could prompt a small backyard pizza party, no cooking required. A friend or relative who’s been sheltering in place might be tagged to set up a group video chat. 

Speaking from my own experience, I’ve had to make adjustments. My usually chatty holiday e-card was one sentence this year, my personal contribution to a small outdoor potluck was little more than iced tea and a tablecloth, and my 83-year-old mother was the one who planned the aforementioned backyard pizza party. 

I’m hoping that in the next month or so, after I’ve taken the vaccine, the part of my brain that’s been occupied with handling grief and viral load, the part that’s not getting enough oxygen because I’m simultaneously wearing an N95, a surgical mask and a face shield, can shift to planning social gatherings in July.

Until then, I’m giving myself a pandemic pass. 

If I could, I’d give you all one too, but it’s a gift you have to give to yourself.

Eleanor Feldman Barbera, Ph.D., author of The Savvy Resident’s Guide, is an Award of Excellence winner in the Blog Content category of the APEX Awards for Publication Excellence program. She also is a Bronze Medalist for Best Blog in the American Society of Business Publication Editors national competition andGold Medalist in the Blog-How To/Tips/Service category in their Midwest Regional competition. To contact her for speaking engagements and/or content writing, visit her at