The holidays can be a difficult time for those with a loved one with dementia for several reasons:
1. The holidays are a natural time of reminiscing and therefore a reminder of better times with and for your loved one.
2. The holidays are a reminder of losses related to the disease process – for example, grandma was the best pie maker or grandpa was the best Christmas lights decorator, etc.
3. The holidays are a time for families to get together and having grandma at the family Christmas celebration typically becomes more difficult to manage as the disease progresses due to cognitive as well as physical declines.
4. Having the family together can mean the expression of multiple viewpoints on grandma, her disease, and what to do about it.
So, how do we make the holiday gathering and celebration a positive one? By learning to adapt. Adapting means acknowledging loss and accepting change, adjusting our goals and expectations, and modifying our mindsets and traditions.
Here are a few tips on how to do this:
1. Let go of the past – it’s gone. Do not hold onto roles and expectations that your loved one fulfilled in the past. Instead, involve him/her in more realistic activities such as wrapping gifts, decorating cookies, rolling out dough for the pies. One family had their mother wash the potatoes that would be transformed into mashed potatoes for Christmas dinner. She was so thrilled to be part of making the dinner that the potatoes were scrubbed so well that they almost didn’t have to be peeled.
2. Embrace the past – it’s part of who you all are. Pull out the past Christmas albums and videos and share them. Positive memories equals positive thoughts and feelings – and emotion is the most basic of cognitive functions. Your loved one may not remember the particulars of each Christmas (and be very careful not to play the “You remember” game), but s/he will definitely be attuned to the feelings.
3. Minimize – it will decrease your stress and theirs. Overstimulating lights, sounds, and activity causes stress and agitation for those with dementia. Consider turning everything down a notch. And, if you have a really large family with tons of little children who will be running around and screaming, maybe it would be better to consider having grandma there after they have all dispersed or possibly in a separate area/room while they are there. One family decided to have their grandmother with dementia celebrate Christmas by having the little children (her great grandchildren) come to the Assisted Living to sing carols to all of the residents on Christmas Eve day – which everyone loved. Afterwards, the children went home and the adult children took her to a quiet Christmas lunch. This was a perfect solution and it also took into consideration the amount of time that grandma could handle being around the children and being out and about.
4. Make a plan – to care for grandpa and for his caregiver during the Christmas get together. One of the biggest complaints that I have heard from a home client was that her family seemed to converge upon her at Christmastime, only to use the family get together as a time to eat her food and to tell her how to take care of her husband who has Alzheimer’s. What this caregiver really needed was support. Family meetings about grandpa are best to be held outside of holiday functions, and family members should focus on creating a pleasant experience during the holiday by taking turns watching after grandpa while others are assisting grandma in the kitchen. Save the serious talk about the caregiving situation for another day and time.
5. Create new traditions – or maybe adapt the old ones. One family always looked forward to their Christmas tradition of traveling downtown together to see the beautiful Christmas lights, but this year would have to be a bit different since grandpa’s health was not good and grandma’s Alzheimer’s made it difficult for her to be in the cold and the crowds. So, this year, the family decided to change up their Christmas tradition. In this age of digital media, the family decided to have each of the children’s families visit Christmas lights around town and take pictures of them. These pictures were then digitally sent to one member of the family who put them together and put Christmas music behind them. This year, the family will be seeing Christmas lights in the form of a Christmas video and instead of going out in the cold to enjoy them, they will be watching from the comfort of grandma and grandpa’s home when they gather for Christmas dinner.
Whatever the adaptations you or your family decide to make this holiday season, just remember that with Alzheimer’s and other dementias, it is more important to create the positive moments for your loved one than it is to stick to the standards of past Christmastimes and traditions.