By: Meredith Brunk, MS, OTR/L, CDP

Director of Occupational Therapy Clinical Services

For centuries people of all ages have gathered to celebrate the holidays– to share in traditions like festive meals and giving gifts. In my family, apple crisp is a traditional food during the holidays, so everything about apple crisp makes my heart happy. The sensation of wet apple skin as it wriggles off the peeler, the repetitive act of mixing oats, sugar, and butter together in a bowl until the oats form sugary clumps that melt on your tongue, and the smell of baking apples, wafting through every room in the home. The act of making apple crisp transports me to a place of bliss, where I belong, in a space that is so comfortable and full of love and good food!

Baking and cooking can be therapeutic to many individuals, relieving stress and improving one’s sense of well-being through fulfilling a role or responsibility (Farmer and Cotter, 2021). 

Making a dish to contribute to an event or gathering also gives an individual a sense of purpose and a feeling of pride and accomplishment. And when the meal or dish is special to the holiday, preparing it can bring about fond memories and connect the individual to their past, as it does for me. 

Below are a few ideas to keep cooking or baking, despite physical or cognitive limitations:

Organization: Before you can enjoy cooking together, take a few minutes and get organized.

  • Organize the space. Gather everything needed to make the food item in one location. Keep frequently used items within reach. 
  • Use a checklist. If you are prone to get distracted or forget parts of a process, make a list of steps or to-dos to keep yourself on track.

Take breaks: Have a chair or other seating option nearby, and plan to take a break in sitting every 20-30 minutes. This allows your brain and body to rest and recharge. 

  • Setting the alarm to remind you of breaks may be helpful.

Simplify: Choose something that is simple and only requires a few steps. If the food item requires multiple steps, consider buying part of the item pre-made. 

  • For example, if baking cookies, consider buying cookie dough or buying a dry mix that only requires adding a few ingredients. 
  • Protect your body – Don’t try to do something by hand that a device, such as an electric can opener or mixer, can do. Try to utilize two hands and keep items close to your body when lifting. Consider using lighter and easier-to-grip items such as a plastic bowl or a large grip peeler.  
  • Leverage technology – If you have a smart device, use it to set alarms or read recipes aloud to you.  
  • Keep it bright – Make sure you have enough lighting to read labels and/or recipes and see what you are doing. Task lighting, such as under-the-counter lighting or a standing lamp over your workspace, will be beneficial.

Like cooking and baking, studies have shown that gift-giving can support mental health and promote happiness (Dunn et al., 2008). The giver of the gift often experiences feelings of autonomy with boosts in self-esteem. Holiday gift-giving can be even more meaningful for the giver, as it connects them to the rituals and traditions of their culture. Here are some ideas to engage in shopping and gift-giving even if you are experiencing a disability:

  • Plan – Maximize your energy on the day of shopping by thinking ahead. Make a list of items you want and where you plan to shop. If you have a general idea of where you are going, what you are getting, and how long it will take, this allows you to budget your physical and mental energy accordingly. Also, be conscious of the size of the items you are purchasing and whether you can carry the items or need assistance. 
  • Shop with a partner – Choose a friend or family member who would like to shop with you. This can make the activity less daunting and more fun by having someone else to share in the experience and extra hands to carry items if needed.
  • Know your limits – Be confident about knowing your own limits and protecting yourself. If you know, a store tends to be very loud or has limited access, consider skipping that store and saving yourself the stress.  

Take breaks: Identify places where you can sit down to rest during your shopping trips, such as a bench or a rollator walker seat. 

  • Plan a food and bathroom break as a natural way to break up the shopping hours and provide rest to your body and mind.
  • Use technology – Most products are now available to purchase online and will ship to you for a fair cost. You can stay in the comfort of your home, skip the lines, save your energy, and shop at your leisure by doing your holiday shopping online. Sites like and offer unique, handmade, and affordable gift options. You could even ask your recipients for an online wish list through sites like, or  

The anticipation, the preparation, and the participation in traditions are what bring us meaning and remind us of our connectedness. Is it possible to keep participating in the holiday traditions, even with pain, fatigue, memory loss, visual difficulties, or unsteadiness? Legacy therapists believe that the answer to that question is YES! Our therapists strive to bring purpose, dignity, and safety back to every individual we serve. Restoring that purpose may improve someone’s ability to bake a holiday treat or shop for holiday gifts. As we enter the season of holidays, may you find meaning and connection by being able to participate in the traditions and festivities, no matter what form that takes.  


Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science (New York, N.Y.)319(5870), 1687–1688.

Farmer, N., & Cotter, E. W. (2021). Well-Being and Cooking Behavior: Using the Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment (PERMA) Model as a Theoretical Framework. Frontiers in psychology12, 560578.

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