Dementia and the Holidays: A Challenging Combination

  • It’s not news that most of us are busy, even stressed, during the holiday season. However, when we are caregivers our stress level can soar. Being flexible and forgiving may be the key to getting through the season with some sanity intact.


    Flexibility is important because our loved one, especially if he or she has dementia, will likely be unpredictable. What we planned with great care could suddenly be the wrong approach when the special day arrives and we’ll need to adjust to reality.


    The ability to forgive is important because we may find ourselves the brunt of criticism from well meaning people, related or not, who don’t agree with how much or how little we include the person with dementia. It’s also important to forgive ourselves if we make a decision that backfires. We are human.

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    When the person with Alzheimer’s or another dementia lives with us

    The memory loss that accompanies Alzheimer’s and many other dementias can make people anxious and easily confused even on routine days . Since holidays are about change – a break from everyday life – they can be especially challenging to a person with dementia. Even a Christmas tree in the living room often means changing the placement of some furniture. This seemingly small shift can confuse a person with dementia enough to set off a string of anxiety related behaviors.


    A large group of people at holiday parties or meals almost guarantees a heightened noise level and busy atmosphere. It’s important to remember that while people with dementia often like to be involved with activities to some degree, they frequently need a sense of routine to avoid anxiety.


    Many families who have an elder with dementia living with them will cut back on some traditional activity. They may have parties, but they will make arrangements so that their elder can get some rest away from the crowd if he or she chooses. Even Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner may need to be arranged so that a family member or good friend will be assigned to stay close to the elder to explain what is going on, answer repeated questions, and take the person to his or her room if fatigue or confusion becomes apparent.


    Families don’t need to scrap their holiday traditions to cater to the needs of a loved one with dementia, but for everyone’s sake they should scale back what really isn’t important and make sure the elder has a reliable person assigned to his or her care.


    When the person with dementia lives in a different home or in a facility

    During my years of caring for multiple elders, my family had several different types of dementia to contend with. Because of the health of my elders and the sheer number of them who needed care at the same time, we used the services of a wonderful facility near my home.


    As the years went by, we realized that bringing our elders home for the holidays wasn’t wise. They seemed more content staying in their familiar rooms at the nursing home. I decorated their rooms for holidays, and the family brought treats. We provided appropriately festive clothing, and we brought gifts to open. The grandchildren visited and played holiday music for the grandparents. We did all we could to encourage a festive atmosphere. But we didn’t bring them to our home for the big meal and gift opening time. We found that bringing holidays to them worked best.


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    This approach also allowed us to give the children a fairly traditional home holiday, as well. It was not a perfect system and it won’t work for everyone. Each family puts a personal stamp on a holiday. Having one or more elders with dementia will mean that adjustments will be necessary. What those adjustments are will be decided by individual families.


    Let’s go back to flexibility and forgiveness. You’ll find that both of these attributes come in handy when you celebrate any family holiday. However, when you celebrate with a person who has dementia, that flexibility may need to take on giant proportions and the forgiveness may need to be extended to nearly every family member, and certainly to yourself. Do your best and move on. If you’re lucky, everyone will have a good enough holiday and you’ll quickly get back to real life, whatever that entails. Doing your best to foster a loving atmosphere for everyone, including yourself, is all that will matter long after these holidays are just a memory.


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Published On: November 07, 2012