The holidays can be stressful. Planning, shopping and cooking keep us all very busy. Add dementia to the mix, and the holidays can become downright overwhelming. For care partners, balancing holiday expectations with the needs of a family member living with dementia is never an easy task, especially at such an emotionally charged time of year.
The holiday season can truly be challenging for someone living with dementia, as special events often break the pattern of everyday life, and people living with dementia often do best if routines remain the same. Furthermore, some of the trappings that come along with the holidays—the tree with its multi-colored strings of lights, glittering decorations and an increase in visitors and social demands—can cause anxiety or confusion.
Before you say “Bah Humbug,” check out these three tips for creating a stress-free holiday.
Keep Holiday Gatherings Simple
One piece of advice I give is to arrange social events in surroundings that are familiar to your loved one; eating out can even be an option, as long as you pick a quiet restaurant that your loved one knows and likes. Do keep dinners or gatherings on the small side, and let guests know beforehand that loud conversations, talking over each other and noisy environments can be unsettling for someone living with dementia and make it harder for them to participate socially. Another pointer: Consider hosting the holiday dinner at noon, a time when your loved one is less likely to be fatigued.
During gatherings, be on the lookout for signs of increased stress or irritability. If anything seems awry, try to stay positive, reassuring and speak slowly in a soft tone. If your loved one is having a bad day, consider lowering the demands on them by seeking solace in their room and playing their favorite music or giving them a hand massage to calm them down.
Keeping Connected to Others
Staying connected to others and remaining socially engaged is very important and should not be forgotten during the rush of the holidays. Encourage guests to talk about old memories with your loved one, as this is one way to help them to engage during visits. Get out old photo albums and play or sing holiday songs. Remember not to quiz them about names and relationships—and advise others not to either. Make sure all who visit know about your loved one’s dementia diagnosis beforehand and always offer tips on how best to communicate. Some families I know have even sent out emails prior to family gatherings to remind visitors that “Mom has some challenges with remembering.”
Include your loved one in exchanging holiday gifts. Here are a few ideas you can pass along to family and friends:
The Gift of Reminisce: Frame enlarged old photos from your loved one’s life. Create a scrapbook of their work and accomplishments. Make a photobook filled with family memories. Edit together a video of their family and friends. Fill an iPod with their favorite music and include a set of comfortable headphones. Bake their favorite dessert.
The Gift of Time: Schedule a weekly time to visit, eat dinner or go to their house of worship. Take them for a drive to see the holiday lights. Go on a stroll through a favorite place.
The Gift of Touch: Give a gentle backrub with scented lotions. Get new sheets, a fluffy pillow and a soft throw blanket. Everyone loves cozy slippers and a nightwear.
The Gift of Activity: Large print books are great for those who having trouble seeing close up. Large piece, or fewer piece, puzzles are great for older adults. Create a window garden for them to work on in the winter months.
You can also ask your loved one to help with activities like wrapping gifts or putting up decorations. Perhaps they could set the table or even help prepare the meal. It’s vital to involve your loved one, but always be flexible.
Keep an Eye on Your Stress Level
Besides keeping it simple for your loved one, keep stress at bay by making it easy for yourself. This year, let go of the yard decorations, the eight-foot Christmas tree packed with ornaments and tinsel, and hosting the perfect holiday dinner for 12. Instead, look for ways you can cut back or ask for help. Perhaps you could have a potluck this year, or relatives could prep the vegetables or spend time with your loved one while you cook or run errands—at the very least, cut the guest list down to a manageable size. As much as your loved one needs to rest and take breaks, so do you.