For most people, the holidays are a time when people get together in joy and celebration. For families living with Alzheimer's or dementia, the holidays present unique challenges. However, that does not mean you have to face the holidays with dread. With a little advance thought and planning, your holiday season can be a happy and meaningful one.
In its early stages, people with Alzheimer’s might experience minor changes in their physical and mental abilities. Some may withdraw and be less willing to socialize. Prior to the holidays, check in with them to see how they’re feeling and involve them in planning. Come to agreement on what activities they’re comfortable doing and the ones they want to avoid because they’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed.
For people experiencing the middle or later stages of dementia, consider completely rethinking holiday traditions and plans. Only do things your loved one feels completely comfortable taking on.
Some of your guests may not have encountered the person with dementia for a long time — or they may not be familiar with the disease. Let know what to expect before they arrive.
If the person with dementia has trouble following conversations, or if they repeat things, explain to your guests that they can be supportive by being patient, not interrupting or correcting errors and giving him or her time to finish what they want to say.
If your loved one is in the middle or late stages of Alzheimer's and the changes are more profound, prepare guests ahead of time so they know how to handle anything that could happen. This is particularly important for children, who could unintentionally say or do damaging or hurtful things.
Tip: It can be helpful to explain dementia related changes in an email sent to all your guests at once. It will ensure your message is well thought out and complete. It could also encourage dialogue among the people it’s sent to. Including a recent photo of your loved one can help prepare guests for what they will experience.
Adding holiday traditions and celebrations to the responsibilities of caregiving can take a toll.
Meet with family members and friends to discuss the holidays. Explain your caregiving situation and set realistic expectations about what you are able to handle. You shouldn’t be expected to continue every holiday tradition and event.
Allow yourself to do only what you can manage within reason. Its okay if you simplify traditional holiday dinners into more manageable meals or potlucks. Other people will likely offer to pitch in or host events.
Tip: Consider changing large gatherings into smaller groups of two or three people to help prevent the person with dementia from feeling overwhelmed and getting overtired.
Make the holidays comfortable for the person with Alzheimer’s by building on past traditions and memories. Avoid introducing new ones that could be unfamiliar or uncomfortable. Focus on things that have special meaning, such as singing favorite holiday songs, watching movies or television shows or looking at photos of holidays past.
Involve your loved one in preparations for the holidays to the extent they are able. This could include decorating, wrapping packages, preparing foods and setting the table. If the person is in later stages of Alzheimer’s, the activity could be as simple as handing you ribbons, tape or ingredients. This will help them feel loved and valued.
The holidays are a busy time, but you should do everything possible to make sure the person with dementia maintains a normal routine. Sticking to a regular schedule will help keep the holidays from becoming too stressful or confusing. Always set aside time for for rest.
Tip: The holidays are built around many common dementia triggers including flashing or bright lights, fire and noise. Be careful when decorating or planning celebrations to avoid them.
Encourage friends and family members to give the person with dementia gifts that are safe and useful. Lessened capacity makes certain gifts unusable or dangerous. Suggest items your loved one will appreciate like an identification bracelet, comfortable and attractive clothing that’s easy to put on and wear, favorite foods and photo collections.
Tip: A great gift for the person with Alzheimer’s and the primary caregiver is respite care. Friends and family members take turns spending quality time with the person who has dementia or make arrangements for a professional to step in every now and then.