For most of us the holidays are all about activity. Days can be filled with large gatherings of friends and family, parties outside the house, shopping in crowded stores, traffic jams, flashing lights, loud music and loud people, and lots of foods and beverages.
When we’re healthy and vibrant these activities can be fun and exhilarating; for the elderly, especially those with Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia this time of year can be confusing, depressing, frustrating and downright scary.
Caregivers and those with dementia each face their own set of challenges during the holidays. We would like to share some ideas that may help you as a caregiver and some to help those you care for as well.
Helping those with Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia:
Carefully choose the right time for your loved one to interact with visiting family and friends. Finding joy during the holidays sometimes requires adjusting your expectations. You may need to simplify your plans or alter them to fit your loved one’s needs.
For your loved one:
- Try to keep gatherings to a smaller number and in a setting that is familiar to them.
- Schedule activities during their best time of day; it is very typical for those with dementia to do better during late morning and early afternoon hours.
- Try to avoid crowded situations such as large church services, mall shopping, and parties with unfamiliar people.
- Listen to music they enjoy and identify with. Studies have shown familiar music from their youth to be very soothing to those with dementia.
- Encourage your loved one to share memories of the holidays. You may want to bring out old family photo albums or journals.
- Remind family members to be patient, to be willing to hear the same stories more than once. Ask them to avoid comments such as: “That’s the third time you’ve asked me that” or “Dad, I keep telling you, that’s John not Frank”. It’s more important to be kind than right.
- While difficult, it is important to maintain consistency when it comes to diet. Try to control access to alcohol, caffeine, and sugar intake.
- Show them how much they mean to you, even if they forget your name or mistake you for someone from their youth. Whether they remember you or not they can still feel your love and kindness.
Dealing with the holidays as a caregiver or loved one of someone affected with dementia:
Manage your expectations. Don’t set yourself up for failure by dwelling on “what used to be”. We all have those perfect “Kodak Moments” in our heads. Even if you've somehow managed to achieve this type of complete holiday bliss in the past (which for most is unlikely), you need to know that this year will not be the same. Trying to force your loved one—and your family as a whole—into a pre-disease holiday template exemplifies forcing a square peg into a round hole.
For the caregiver & family members:
- Don’t expect the family dynamic to completely change. The passive-aggressive sibling, or controlling parent, or obnoxious aunt are unlikely to dramatically change their behavior.
- The holidays can be especially trying for primary caregivers. After all, you're responsible not only for yourself but for your loved one every day. It's crucially important for you to make time for yourself in the midst of the holiday bustle.
- If you are unfamiliar with Alzheimer's or other types of dementia, you might be reluctant to interact with your loved one, that's normal. Everyone is best served when you meet Mom or Dad where they are instead of walking on eggshells or trying to force a conversation that's no longer possible.
- Don't wait for Grandma to feel comfortable enough to join the conversation or activity on her own. Make a point to include her. Ask, "Grandma, I remember when you got these ornaments. Would you like to help me hang them on the tree?"
- Ask specific yes and no questions—they will be easier for your loved one to understand and answer.
- If you're having trouble talking to Grandpa, keep in mind that he is likely to remember older memories as opposed to newer ones. Remind him of those things. However, you should avoid “quizzing” him. Try saying, “I remember when… instead of “Do you remember when…?
- Your loved one might not remember your name or all of the memories you once made together, but he will still appreciate hearing sincere compliments about himself. Even if a behavior is unnecessary, you can still say, "Thanks for checking the locks—it makes me feel good to know that you're helping to keep us safe."
- If there's going to be a large crowd of people at an event, ask someone capable to stay near Mom at all times. This person can help her interact and feel included, as well as make sure that she and others don't feel needlessly uncomfortable. Remember, if interactions become too stressful, take Mom back to her room.
In her incredible book “Creating Moments of Joy for the Person with Alzheimer’s or Dementia”, Jolene Brackey shares some wise advice:
Think back when you were a child and all the simple pleasures you found: watching ants build their house, lying under the stars, running out in the rain, licking a lollipop, eating ice cream, walking through tall grass, finding a new flower, searching for beautiful rocks.
We all need to relive these simple pleasures again. A simple pleasure for an older person might be those things, and it might be having their hair combed slowly, getting a back rub, getting lotion rubbed into their hands, having someone gently brush their teeth, eating with a friend -- the list is endless. Focus on simple pleasures, it’s not spending hours organizing a big party, or buying the person a whole new wardrobe. It’s all about fulfilling basic needs to the fullest. It’s as simple as cleaning someone’s glasses. You will be amazed by the gratitude you receive because now your loved one can see better. It’s truly a gift, especially in the last stages of Alzheimer’s, to understand the importance of simple pleasures.
All of us at Idaho Estate Planning wish caregivers and those they care for a joyous holiday season. If you have questions about dealing with dementia please call and we’ll be happy to set a time to sit down and talk about options available for you and your family.