Holidays matter. But, in a world full of travelling opportunities, many people say they haven’t had a holiday in years… sometimes with a tinge of pride.
In truth, holidays aren’t “luxuries” or “slacking off”. They’re essential for mental and physical health, reducing stress, increasing life satisfaction, and improving familial bonds. This is true for anyone, but especially those who may live with chronic illness.
Robert Joyce provides top tips for planning holidays with chronic illness, explaining why trips are vital for self-care.
I have been medically retired since 2017, when I made the difficult decision to stop doing traditional work. My mobility issues and chronic pain forced me to make this choice, as neither gave any indication of easing up or getting better.
However, I like to keep busy, so I found some "work" acting as a patient advocate. Since the pandemic started and people desperately sought advice and support, I've had more opportunities to share my patient experience.
Related: 6 Top Tips for Becoming an MS Patient Advocate
This takes effort, though I only do 10 hours of activity a week. As many of us know, tiredness can accumulate over time, so I decided to have a holiday this year.
When you live with one chronic illness or several, planning is a vital part of the weeks leading up to a holiday. I live with both multiple sclerosis (MS) and asthma, so here is a list of my considerations before booking a trip.
How will the weather affect my symptoms?
Environmental, as well as physiological, causes can trigger asthma, depending on the person.
In my case, dampness worsens my asthma and allergy symptoms. As a result, I tend to book my holidays in warm, dry places, like the Mediterranean.
This climate suits me very well, and the dry heat tends to solve most of my issues. In fact, I find I can often stop taking my asthma medication while on holiday (once checking with my doctor). I can finally breathe normally, and that persistent asthma cough disappears. It's like feeling normal again.
So, before searching for your dream destinations online, I recommend thinking about the weather and general climate that's best for you.
For some people, heat and dry air can make lung conditions like asthma and COPD worse, whereas, with others, it may be cold air and rain. There are no one-size-fits-all symptoms with any illness, so be mindful of your personal asthma triggers and apply them to your holiday plans.
Does my accommodation have access facilities?
The accommodation we book needs to support my mobility issues and my asthma.
It must be clean with minimal dust, so I choose places with at least 4* reviews. I also spend time trawling through the comments on review sites, making sure cleanliness is cited as a positive. It seems like a lot of effort, but taking the time will ensure I have the best trip possible.
Because of my mobility issues, I also need to check for details like little to no thresholds in doorways (a small step that signifies entry to a different room). I ring the hotel or check online for lifts that can accommodate my mobility scooter and request wet-room showers or a shower with a handrail. Naturally, this can be a challenge, but I suggest you stick with it. Holidays aren't meant to be painful or stressful!
I also make sure that the apartment or hotel room is comfortable enough to stay indoors for a few days. If my MS symptoms worsen, such as fatigue or declining mobility, I need a safe, relaxing space. Essentially, it needs to be a home away from home.
For this reason, a balcony can be a great asset. It allows me to go outside without tackling lifts, stairs or many doorways, and I can enjoy the dry climate. Sometimes the air quality can be less than ideal, which worsens my asthma. So, going in and out as I please via a balcony is a practical little luxury.
Another luxury of being on holiday is eating out. Because of COVID, dining outside is a must, and the restaurants must handle a mobility scooter. This can be a dual challenge, but it swiftly moves up the list of desirable locations if I find a place to deal with both.
Alongside MS and asthma, I also deal with persistent post-traumatic headaches. This can make me intolerant of loud noise and echo. Inside a restaurant, the noise levels can make things difficult for me, whereas outside dining doesn't have this issue. Anyway, who doesn't enjoy having an evening meal with your feet on the sand and gentle waves breaking a few metres away?
Will this holiday let you balance routine and new experiences?
Spending time within a different four walls, seeing blue skies overhead, and having a small semi-break from my routine improves my mental health. I need this respite, and doing something a bit different brings me out of a rut. Even shopping at a new supermarket or trying exotic foods can lift my mood.
Saying that, there are elements of my daily routine that don't change. I meditate every day, taking 10-15 minutes to focus on my breathing and shed negativity. I also practice journaling most days, especially if something cropped up during my mindfulness routine.
I also insist on keeping my morning system as it sets up a structure for the rest of the day. I make a point of going on a morning walk and a longer scooter "walk" in the evening. Our holidays are usually in Malaga, Spain, so I use the promenade near the beautifully gentle sea.
Related: On the Move – Staying Active with MS
The locals seem to view the promenade as their community hub. I see babies and elderly, able-bodied people running, and disabled people with their wheelchairs and sticks. Three generations, all together, walking and engaged in animated conversation. It gives me so much hope when I see this level of unity.
Things will go wrong, but move with the tide
With any trip, there will inevitably be hurdles along the way. It could be poor PRM (People with Reduced Mobility) services in an airport, a bad meal in a restaurant, or a grossly overpriced holiday activity. However, it's important not to let these taint your entire holiday.
Everyone wants the perfect time away, but that's not always possible. When things don't go to plan, take a step back and view the situation in the context it deserves. Does this salesman/staff member/unpleasant experience have to ruin your entire trip? Will it matter tomorrow, next week, or in a month? Is it worth starting an argument?
90% of the time, I find it best to leave the unpleasantness with the person or situation that caused it. I just gather my things and walk away.
Related: What Multiple Sclerosis Taught Me about Compassion
You are not the cause of somebody's problem or whatever monkey they have on their back. You are not the reason why they decide to make life unpleasant for others. Keep your dignity in these situations and leave them to stew in their own juice.
Now, this isn't always easy for every personality type. We're taught to stand up for ourselves - as we should - but we also need to pick our battles. Over time, I've learned to compartmentalize, which helps me put adverse events to one side. Locking away anger and dissatisfaction helps my asthma, as one of my triggers is emotional stress. I'm certainly no doormat - but I'd rather not trigger an attack if I can avoid it.
Taking time away from home is essential, even if you don't work. Holidays are rejuvenating. They've given me plenty of positive memories, and, most importantly, they provide something to look forward to and break the rut.
In some respects, they are even more vital when you have a chronic illness, as isolation, negativity, and cabin fever can get very real. I view trips and holidays as soft reboots. When I get home, I'm revitalised and eager to work on something new.
If I can tidy up my mental clutter with some heat, a scattering of blue skies, and the meditative sound of waves, who's to say a holiday "isn't needed"?
NPS-IE-NP-00342 December 2021