Holiday Gatherings with Alzheimer’s

 

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The holidays should be a time of gathering together with joy and love. But for many families, large gatherings can be stress inducing and a cause for months of anxiety. An estimated 5.3 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, and this disease affects their whole family.

We believe that every family should be able to celebrate the holidays with happiness. Here are some tips to help you and your family through the holidays together.

Take the time to really look at your loved ones.

Sometimes we get so used to seeing someone that we have an old picture of them stuck in our mind. Or sometimes it’s been so long since we’ve seen someone that everything seems different. Family gatherings are a great opportunity to really sit down and look at people. Be open to noticing what’s different. Aging loved ones may not be willing to admit or even notice a change. Don’t start an awkward conversation while you’re passing the mashed potatoes, but definitely take note of any changes that you see so that you can discuss it with them later.
Some things to note-

  • What’s new?
  • What’s changed?
  • How are they really doing?
  • What needs to be fixed?
  • What can you help with?
  • What can you encourage or support?

Be straight forward with friends and family.

Holidays are emotional occasions. If someone that you love is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s or Dementia, some family members may not notice the changes yet. And if people have been away for a long time, they may not realize how advanced the disease has become in someone they love. This can cause stress for the person with the disease because they won’t feel understood and could be frustrated by a perceived lack of care.

  • Encourage family to be patient during conversations and to refrain from interrupting or correcting. Give them time to finish their thoughts.
  • Help visitors understand the extent of the changes and how it will change their loved one’s behavior and memory, but not who they are inside.
  • Write an email or let to guests before the event. Apprise them of the current situation, any changes that have happened, behaviors to expect, and how they can help.
  • Set up a phone conference call with those closest to you so that you can express your concerns.
  • Don’t use the holiday as a time to discuss care plans and roles if that is a source of tension. While you’re together take the opportunity to set aside a different meeting time.

Adjust your expectations.

Things have changed. Not everything will go as smoothly as it used to (Though we should note that it usually only looks smooth in hindsight, there were probably “disasters” that you forgot about.) Give yourself permission to do what you can reasonably manage and then stop. It’s okay! If you set reachable goals for the holidays then you’ll avoid possible feelings of depression if you failed to achieve those unrealistic expectations.

  • Consider paring down your guest list.
  • Opt for a simpler meal with less dishes.
  • Let others help with cooking, cleaning, or decorating.
  • Rotate smaller amounts of guests through by inviting them at different times.
  • Try having lunch instead of dinner, it’s naturally a smaller and shorter meal.

Don’t let the disease prevent them from being involved.

Holidays can be a powerful time for people with faltering memories. Songs, familiar activities, and scents can trigger parts of the brain in different ways, sometimes uncovering memories that had been previously lost. Involving you loved ones as much as possible will benefit them as well as you.

  • Stick to their normal routine as much as possible. Plan breaks and rest opportunities. Work holiday activities around and into their day.
  • Focus on memories and traditions. Singing holiday songs and looking through old photo albums is a good way to help loved ones find comfort.
  • Engage in traditions like hanging ornaments on a tree, decorating cookies, lighting a Menorah, or presenting the turkey.
  • Allow them to help. Even though your loved one may not be able to roll out the cookie dough they can still help with the cookie cutters. Letting them help as much as their limitations will allow helps them to feel needed and included.
  • Ask your loved one to help teach children a simple game like dominoes to encourage some generational bonding.

Bring on the kids!

The excitement of children around holidays is contagious. Laughter and playfulness can bring joy to the celebration. Not all kids enjoy spending time with older relatives, and it’s important to consider their feelings, but there are ways to help them get over their discomfort.

  • Allow kids to express their feelings freely so that you know exactly what needs to be addressed.
  • Address the child’s concern directly. Of course you should keep it in terms that they can understand, but being honest with them will prevent them from resenting you later.
  • Warn kids that their elderly loved ones may use inappropriate language, become angry easily, speak slowly, or forget things. But stress that this behavior is not intentional and doesn’t mean that they aren’t loved. The actions are a part of the disease, not a part of their loved one’s heart.

Don’t exclude someone just because they live in a care facility.

One of the benefits of at-home care is that loved ones can be present at all of these important holiday gatherings. But if they’ve chosen a different type of care, or are hospitalized you can still include them.

  • If the care facility is planning a holiday celebration, consider joining your loved one there.
  • Bring a plate of their favorite holiday foods and share a meal with them. After checking with their doctor of course!
  • Invite other residents to join in a round of holiday songs.
  • Read a treasured story or watch a favorite holiday movie together.
  • Ask the facility if your loved one can leave the facility for a few hours to join your family.

 

The main thing to remember over the holiday season is that this is a time for love. Don’t let stress over little things get to you. Take a moment to sit back and just breathe. Enjoy the time that you have with the ones that you love. A burnt turkey or a spilled bowl of gravy isn’t what you’ll remember in ten years – the love you shared with your family is.

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