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While some families have enjoyed the opportunity to gather relatively safely in backyards or other outdoor areas this spring and summer, the approach of colder weather makes fall and winter celebrations a much trickier proposition.

As one of 11 siblings, Charity Hoffman is used to spending Christmas with dozens of relatives at her parents' house in Lansing, Mich. This year will be her 7-month-old daughter's first Christmas and the family's second holiday season without her brother, who died in 2019.

But while she had many socially distant porch and backyard visits this summer, Hoffman, who is 35 and lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., said that for the first time, she will not be spending Christmas with her extended family. In addition to wanting to keep her baby safe, "we want to protect our community and not contribute to the spread," she said.

Older people, who are more vulnerable to the coronavirus, have been especially isolated during this time. New findings from the National Poll on Healthy Aging at the University of Michigan, a recurring, nationally representative household survey, found that in June, 56% of those older than 50 said they sometimes or often felt isolated from others, more than double the percentage of respondents who felt that way in a similar poll in 2018.

"Not being able to see their grandchildren because of the pandemic and keep themselves safe and their loved ones safe -- that's been really hard," said Amy Goyer, AARP's family and caregiver expert.

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Time spent with family is considered a key source of meaning and satisfaction, according to two 2017 Pew Research Center surveys. Yet squabbles are starting as family members have different perceptions on how to stay safe -- and not expose others to the virus. Varying approaches are resulting in "a lot of tension within families and a lot of judgment," said Vaile Wright, senior director for health care innovation at the American Psychological Association.

Some families may be more or less risk averse when it comes to engaging in decision-making that could put others at risk of contracting the disease. There are gray areas, like whether it's safe to eat indoors with those who aren't living with you or send children to school, Wright said.

"They're questions without clear answers," she said.

For Hoffman, she said it's been hard to negotiate the situation, as family members disagree on the extent of precaution to take.

Holidays can be stressful even during normal circumstances. And in many family conflicts, experts counsel compromise. But that may not be the right approach here, because giving in to another relative's wishes for a traditional holiday feast around the dining room table may be too great a risk for other family members, especially if they'd have to mix with people from parts of the country that are hot spots.

Wright said you shouldn't expose yourself to family members if you feel they're not following protective behaviors. But that can be a prickly situation, resulting in some family members feeling hurt or rejected. Here are some suggestions from experts on how to make it work.

• Make a plan. Developing a plan, clearly communicating expectations and discussing it with family members now can help alleviate tensions, said Robert E. Emery, a professor of psychology and director of the Center for Children, Families and the Law at the University of Virginia.

Goyer suggests having clear guidelines about mask-wearing and how much distance you'll require between each person. Emery said if you're being invited, it's fine to ask the host about the plans but not dictate. "You can't insist someone host a party according to your standards," he said.

• Avoid judgment. Wright suggested opening up the conversation about your decision in a nonjudgmental way, using "I statements," which focus responsibility on yourself.

If you decide to forgo the family holiday this year, she said you could say something like, "I feel it's in my family's best interests to be more strict, so we're not going to travel for Thanksgiving." This type of language, she said, makes the other person less defensive, since it doesn't come across as, "You aren't doing the right thing so I can't come visit."

• Create new traditions. It can help to approach this holiday season with the expectation that it will look different than it has in the past, Wright said. But instead of looking at the downside, she encouraged viewing it as an opportunity to usher in new traditions.

Those who opt out of celebrating in person could participate in a shared activity virtually.

Goyer suggested using apps like House Party that allow you to play games together even if you're apart, doing your holiday baking with others who are geographically distant or unwrapping presents together via Zoom.

Wright added that holidays should be a time of gratitude and blessing, "so consider reflecting that in a way that really matters." For example, families who decide not to get together at Thanksgiving could still meet up on a video call to take turns expressing what they're grateful for, she said.


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