Having A Happy Holiday

The holiday season is a time when we gather with family and friends to remember years past and celebrate our hopes for the future. Yet when you or someone you love is living with dementia, these can be times of fear and growing anxiety. Family and friends try to help by fussing over their loved one, often creating frustrations.

So what are ways to comfortably avoid much of this stress?

One of the most important things to remember for holiday gatherings is to keep them as low key as possible. In years past, the person with dementia might have been the person who planned the complex and involved parts of the season, often taking days to prepare. Be sure to tone down how much your loved one helps with (if they are able to help at all). Give them simple tasks and make sure they aren’t overwhelmed or exhausted after long days.

Another key point is to try to maintain your usual routines. Caregivers need to be firm because they are protecting their loved one. It needs to be acknowledged that some people simply won’t understand what you need to do in order to fully support your loved one. As the caregiver, be sure to also allow your loved one to enjoy and be comfortable with celebrations. Consider alone time or naps if they become tired from the festivities.

Some universal guidelines about visiting are useful to share with well meaning family. Remind family members to announce when they approaching your loved one living with dementia. If they can’t see or hear you coming the affected person might be startled and react strongly. Another good reminder is to have people introduce themselves using a lowered and calm voice. Remind family and friends that the person with dementia will have trouble remembering everyone. Faces may be familiar but not necessarily names. Consider making name tags for them to wear.

 The person with dementia can have difficulty with just one or two people in a room and when suddenly confronted by a crowd of cheerful, talking people may feel overwhelmed, becoming anxious and even agitated. The person with dementia may have a hard time processing a multiplicity of things happening around him.

Avoid asking ‘who, what and where’ questions. Rather, make a statement like “I made this ornament when I was 6 and you were very proud of me”. Again, you are acknowledging they now have difficulty with the ‘who, what, and where’ questions but you have said what it is, who made it and when it was made. You are avoiding the stress of trying to process memories and also maintaining their dignity. If you slip and ask a question but get a wrong answer, don’t try to correct but rather answer with a simple “oh really”. Correcting can trigger total frustration and agitation where you will lose any battle.

As you visit, you may find that a simple touch on their hand or arm and maintaining eye contact may defuse a tense moment because you are showing you are listening and paying attention to them. They have a calm focus. Avoid talking to them in a childish manner. They deserve the same respect and attitude as anyone else.

Holidays are times of family and gatherings with traditions. Enjoy the traditions of the season. Allow the person with dementia to enjoy the gatherings as much as everyone but just a bit differently. With proper preparation your loved one can enjoy the holidays and so can you. We hope with a little bit of help you can experience holiday celebrations and make good memories.

Written by: Deaconess Karen Pitkin, Alzheimer's Association Lead Faith Outreach Ambassador

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