Tips for spending holidays with those with dementia

After experiencing much of the last two years distancing from loved ones, most of us will be ready to return to (albeit modified) holiday traditions and special gathering with families and friends.

Even in the best of times, holiday gatherings can bring stress, disappointment, sadness — and due to the COVID-19 pandemic — heightened risk for spreading the virus, especially for older adults who tend to have underlying health conditions.

As much as we long to celebrate, our holiday traditions can often be a mixed blessing.

As we gather with loved ones near and far, we find ourselves trying to meet others’ expectations and our own with extended demands of cleaning, hosting, crafts and gift giving. Yet, we end up unfulfilled, exhausted often wondering if our purpose was properly directed.

Much of this rushed environment is unique to this time of year creating a change in schedule. For those of us who also have loved ones experiencing the symptoms of dementia, the holidays can bring about some challenges and give us a sense of pause with mixed fears and emotions.

Many adult children will return to see their aging parent after a long absence and may be surprised by what seems like a sudden loss of memory and diminishing mental and/or physical capacity. Others will encounter their sibling who care for a parent with dementia, and could express shock and even levy criticism or offer well-meaning advice on what they are seeing for the first time.

Symptoms of dementia with a loved one may become clear as we gather again in person.  Memory loss may be more evident, anxiety sometimes increases in a crowd where there’s lots of noise and conversation, and unfamiliar surroundings may reveal challenges that don’t exist at home.  

This season of cheer can also be a season of stress, especially for those caring for a loved one experiencing dementia.

With that in mind, here are some ideas for dealing with stress during the holidays. 

Adjust expectations:

The holidays are full of emotions, so let guests know what to expect before they arrive and tell them how they can help. For example, what activities can they do with the person living with Alzheimer’s and how best to communicate with them. “Cross talk” or simultaneous conversations can be challenging for people living with Alzheimer’s – try engaging them one-on-one. 

Build on traditions and memories:

Take time to experiment with new traditions that might be less stressful or a better fit with your caregiving responsibilities. For example, if evening confusion and agitation are a problem, turn your holiday dinner into a holiday lunch. 

Involve the person with Alzheimer’s:

Involve the person in safe, manageable holiday preparation activities that he or she enjoys. Ask him or her to help you prepare food, wrap packages, help decorate or set the table. (Avoid using candies, artificial fruits and vegetables as decorations because a person with dementia might confuse them with real food. Blinking lights may also confuse the person. 

Maintain a normal routine: 

Sticking to the person’s normal routine will help keep the holidays from becoming disruptive or confusing. Plan time for breaks and rest. 

Make sure others know: 

If the person is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, relatives and friends might not have noticed any changes, but the person with dementia may have trouble following conversation or tend to repeat him- or herself.  Family can help with communication by being patient, not interrupting or correcting, and giving the person time to finish his or her thoughts

Check in with the person living with dementia: 

In the early stage, a person living with Alzheimer’s may experience minor changes. Some may withdraw and be less comfortable socializing while others may relish seeing family and friends as before. The key is to check in with each other and discuss options.

Family are often unprepared for the extent of change and witnessing the “new normal” that may include everything from caregivers and food and laundry, to new home settings, added visitors, additional expenses, planning for an uncertain future.

But even for those of us who are involved in the day-to-day caring for a loved one with dementia, interactions may include boredom and awkwardness  with difficulty communicating as we use phrases like, “Don’t you remember?” or “What do you mean you can’t…..?” All of which adds additional stress on top of what may already be typical during this season.

Change it up

We have all experienced 2021 as the second year of COVID-19, remembered with vaccines and hesitation.

As we are all trying to come out of isolation, we are still aware of the risks involved in larger gatherings, especially for the elderly. Rather than be frustrated by this, I suggest we embrace it as a blessing in disguise.

As much as we may desire to host large gatherings again, the person with dementia actually does much better in smaller settings. Large groups can trigger agitation and feelings of being overwhelmed by the commotion and the crowd. A Charlie Brown Christmas, so to speak—a simple holiday season—is actually what we want.

This year, let us focus on enjoying the holiday season with a special awareness towards our loved ones with memory impairments! Let’s just dash away this holiday stress following some of these tips:

Practice (less) simulating holiday activities

If we have the ability to control the size of the crowd, we can spend quality time and greater engagement with our loved one.

Family traditions likely created some of the most enduring memories after many others fade. You can relive some of these. I always recommend stimulating activities to engage the senses. Here are some that may especially appropriate during the holiday season and which can trigger fond memories.

  • Looking through old photo albums. Thumbing through a book with memories is mentally stimulating and tactile. Not that long ago, and certainly throughout much of the adult lives of many who now suffer with dementia, photo albums were how memories were preserved and stories passed down. Find these albums and enjoy them with loved ones at your side. Chances are also good these albums will have photos of holidays past, which is a great way to keep a conversation current.
  • Baking and cooking are another great way to tap into memories. Both bring the smells and activities of the holidays that people remember and feel comforted by, forged by traditions over many years. If you are not a baker, beautiful smells can still be created in the kitchen with a few spices.
  • Paper, markers and colored pencils can create new magic as decorations as well as conversation. Have fun doodling!
  • Music is always a good for tapping into long-term memory. At this time of year, play that old holiday music. Use it while looking at photos, while baking or cooking, or an any time. Music is almost always soothing and calming. I recommend a playlist of no more than five to seven songs, but we might adjust the songs to get them right, each having meaning to our loved ones. It can take some time to reach the “music memory,” so when your loved one responds, feel free to sing along.

Finally:  Be good to yourself.

Give yourself permission to do only what you can reasonably manage. If you’ve always invited 15 to 20 people to your home, consider paring it down to a few guests for a simple meal.

Happy holidays, and best wishes to you and yours for the coming year.

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