Speaking from experience, normal Holidays are not always stress-free, let alone adding a loved one who has dementia to the formula. Below are tips and insights from articles from The Alzheimer’s Association, Healthy Women, Elder Care Link, Alzheimer’s.org, Alzheimer’s.net, Home Watch Caregivers and Mayo Clinic. I made a compilation of all the suggestions, along with some of my own, from my own experience.
1. I think of one of the biggest is to give yourself a break. Take the time for yourself to do things you want and need to do for the holidays like shopping, baking, visiting with friends, etc. Arrange to have someone come in to watch your loved one. You need to give to yourself also this holiday season. Give yourself time to breathe! Be honest with yourself about how much you really can do and what you want to do. Don’t go overboard! Try to be realistic with the amount of time you have. Be good to yourself!
2. Don’t expect your family dynamics to change. Family members may start off trying to keep everything calm and happy, but there will always be someone who will behave and act the same and bring up old arguments. Try to just let it go and not bring up old arguments. People tend to get caught up in old arguments. This holiday is not going to be the same. Let the old arguments go, if not for yourselves, for the sake of your loved one. They will pick up on the stress and it can cause them distress. So, be forgiving. You cannot be everyone’s caretaker. Let go of those past hurts and feelings and forgive. By promoting peace and calmness, you can keep your loved one calm and not overwhelmed. Keeping the noise level down and the number of guests also, can help keep peace. The more people, the more stimulation, the more noise and the more chances of old arguments coming up.
3. Going along with peace, have a “safe, quiet room” available for them to go to, to calm down. Somewhere they will feel safe and relaxed. Along with this, is to keep their schedule as normal as you can. The more you go astray from their schedule, the more stressed and agitated they will become. Try having a Holiday lunch instead of a late dinner. Try having fewer people, or have them in groups so you can keep the day calmer.
4. Involve the individual with dementia. Focus om the things they can do and encourage them to help you, depending on where they are in the disease process. Make activities “user friendly.” Cookie-making and decorating, preparing holiday cards, wrapping gifts, taking a ride to see lights, playing holiday music, singing, helping to purchase gifts, preparing holiday meals. Ask for their help with easy activities and including them in conversations. Encourage them to reminisce about old traditions and the old days that they remember. Build on your old traditions and modify and even make new traditions.
5. Think about your feelings, understand and validate them. The holidays are supposed to be fun and happy, but it is ok and totally understandable to be sad, angry, depressed, etc. during the holidays. It’ realizing that the old holidays are gone and things are going to be different and more difficult each holiday. It is okay to have these feelings; allow yourself and don’t get upset and angry for having these feelings. You most probably are not the only one feeling like this.
6. Be open with family/friends who have not seen your loved one often and unsure of how they will be and how they act. Educate them on where the individual is in the disease process. Instruct them on how to address them, eye level, simple wording, including them and not repeatedly asking them if they remember something, give them time to think of what they want to say and allowing the words to come. It is okay to help them if they are getting frustrated with verbage. Asking company to not bring alcohol, as this is not safe for them to take with medications; and alcohol can increase outbursts. Let them know that this is the new normal that you have to deal with. It is important for them to include the individual in discussions, etc. Let family/friends know where they are in the stage of dementia and how to handle and tolerate different levels of activity and interactions.
Early stages: Be your self around them and include them in conversations. Ask yes/no questions because these are easier to respond to. Don’t ask questions that they have to answer in a lengthy response. This will only make them frustrated. Help them with a phrase if you think you know what they are trying to say but having difficulty with.
Moderate stages: When you say hello, tell them your name. What I do when I see my mom is say: “Hi Mom. It’s Roberta, your baby!” This way she knows my name and that I am her “baby.” It is scary for them to have someone come up in their face and give them a kiss when they don’t even know who you are. Think about it. Approach them from the front at eye level so you don’t scare them. It’s easier for them to have one-on-one conversations versus several people all trying to talk at once. Having someone buddy-up with your loved one during the holiday activities is best in case they get uncomfortable and/or agitated about what is going on. This way they can be taken to their “quiet room” to rest and gather themselves.
Late stages: The individual may not be able to communicate at this phase. This is when holding their hand, rubbing their back/shoulder (if they don’t mind) and giving them a hug means more than a thousand words. A little gesture such as this can calm them down and comfort them, letting them know they are loved. Often times, even when communication is gone along with pretty much everything else, music is still so often appreciated. Play their favorite holiday songs and sing along with them.
7. Address gift-giving with family members. Your loved one doesn’t need the usual gifts you may have given in the past. Encourage safe and useful gifts such as an ID bracelet, easy accessibility clothing (Silvert’s), warm and weighted blanket; a photo album/memory book, their favorite foods or just spending scheduled time with them every week. Offer respite service to the caregiver to give them time.
8. Keep holiday preparation to a minimum. Give yourself a break. You don’t have to do everything and be everything to everyone this season. Watch when putting lights up. Do not use blinking holiday lights due to that can be very agitating. Watch decorations so they do not resemble anything edible. Keep things safe and out of reach if the individual tends to put things in their mouth. No plastic fruit in bowls for decorations!!
9. Keep the area safe. Avoid dangers like having candles lit around the home. Keep electric cords, gifts, wrapping paper, etc., out of the walking path of everyone. Keep paths clean and clear. Do not move furniture around for decorating. This can be frustrating and confusing. You want to keep space for wheelchairs, walkers, etc. Keep lighting at an even level; not too bright or too dim and no blinking lights. Consider appropriate seating for mealtime. The best is a quieter area of the table, away from little children that may become rambunctious, but also somewhere where they can contribute to conversation.
10. If you have to travel with your loved one, be prepared. Have an ample amount of easy accessible clothing, make sure you have all medications needed and any items you may need, such as wheelchair (and wheelchair accessibility where you are going). Make sure you discuss where your loved one is in the dementia stages and how their behavior has changed and may change if they become agitated.
11. For those of you who have loved ones in nursing care facilities, assisted living, etc., join the facilities planned holiday activities with your loved one. Bring the holidays to your loved one by bringing favorite holiday foods (be observant of their diet), singing holiday songs, etc. If there was a holiday activity they enjoyed that you could possibly take and do with them at the facility, do it. Put a couple of their favorite decorations in their room. Keep it simple but enjoyable.
12. And, finally, just remember that your loved one still wants to be recognized and loved. Treat them with love and respect. Hug them, hold them and let them know they are loved. Spend some extra time with them, even if it is a short visit. Short and frequent visits are easier on them. Don’t try to make this holiday like the old ones. Make new traditions but reminisce the old times. Focus on the positives of the holiday instead of fretting and being overwhelmed by the negative. After all, your loved one is there with you and that is what matters most.
Follow these tips and enjoy your holiday season with your loved ones.