The holidays pose challenges for Alzheimer’s caregivers. But staying realistic about your loved one’s limitations can help make the season joyful for everyone. The holidays are the time of the year to bring family and loved ones together. Cousins unite with cousins, in-laws meet other in-laws, and grandparents get to see just how much their grandchildren have grown.
But, if you are caring for a person with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, this time of year can be incredibly stressful, because facing family festivities also means planning around the personal limitations that come with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Being an Alzheimer’s caregiver is hard enough, but hosting a holiday dinner, navigating a Christmas party, or making it to midnight mass or a New Year’s Eve champagne toast can feel like an impossible feat.
“I think with the holidays it’s really important for us to take a practical approach and really adjust our expectations,” said Ruth Drew, director of family and information services at the Alzheimer’s Association.”Maybe there are traditions in the family but they’re more of burden than a blessing.”
For a person with even advanced Alzheimer’s disease, holiday events and extended family time can be overwhelming because they break up the regular routine. A person with dementia feels safest and most comfortable when every day is more or less the same. “During the holidays our schedules tend to be different from our usual,” said Drew. “Oftentimes we might be traveling, we might have house guests, we might have activities that are planned and different. While this may be exciting, it might not be so helpful for people with Alzheimer’s.”
Preparing Your Guests for Grandpa
If you include your loved one with dementia in holiday celebrations, you may worry that the person will act out inappropriately or behave differently in a social setting, and you may ask yourself if you should warn other guests in advance.
Elaine Pereira, author of I Will Never Forget: A Daughter’s Story of Her Mother’s Arduous and Humorous Journey Through Dementia, thinks explaining the situation to friends and relatives before an event can help alleviate some anxiety and stress.
“Say something like: ‘Grandpa has dementia and he will be here for Christmas dinner,’” Pereira suggested. “‘Please be aware that he is loud, easily angered, chews with his mouth open, etc.’ If your guest can respect the unique parameters that having grandpa there requires, fine. If not, don’t invite them.”
But Barry Reisberg, MD, director of the Zachary and Elizabeth M. Fisher Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Resources Program in New York City, thinks it’s unnecessary to to talk with your guests beforehand. Someone in an early stage of the disease is more than likely equipped to handle social situations as they normally would, he said. But if something does go wrong, Reisberg recommends briefly acknowledging it to your guests later. “At some point, maybe at the conclusion of the dinner, you might look for ways to explain the person’s behavior,” he suggested.
When you’re making any holiday plans, keep in mind the stage in the person’s disease to determine what sort of presence and role the person has in a family celebration, said Amy Ehrlich, a spokesperson for the American Geriatrics Society and director of the geriatrics fellowship program at Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. “You may have to scale down because it’s a lot of work,” Erlich said. “And as the disease progresses you should give yourself permission to live your life.”
What that means is being selective about which invitations you accept, asking for help, and coming up with ways to keep your loved one occupied and comfortable during social events — and knowing when it might be best to go alone.
Tips for Alzheimer’s Caregivers
Here are some ideas that will help you keep your stress levels down and enjoy the holiday season:
- Consult a doctor before hitting the road with an Alzheimer’s patient. Long-distance air and car travel can be difficult even for a cognitively healthy person. Drew said caregivers don’t need to rule out holiday travel completely, but it’s always best to check with a doctor before you pack your mom’s bags and book a flight. Always keep in mind that holiday travel tends to be more stressful for everyone.
- Don’t make too many commitments. As a caregiver you probably already find it challenging enough to balance your life demands on a daily basis. Don’t lose sight of this. If planning your traditional Christmas dinner for 12 seems a little insurmountable, consider inviting fewer people or ask another family member or friend to host the event.
- Scale down the meal. Passionate foodies love to cook for a crowd, but caregiving obligations often make it challenging.This may be the year to ask for help in the kitchen, go potluck, or even order food for delivery.
- Bring the holiday celebration to your loved one. If you find it’s too stressful to include an ailing parent in the traditional holiday festivities, consider bringing Christmas to them. Many assisted living facilities are happy to help with this, and some even hold parties for families of residents.
- Ask for help. If you’re having company be sure to have a “second in command” to help care for the person when you’re tied up in the kitchen or busy greeting and socializing with guests.
- Give your loved one a task or job. Ehrlich said events that involve a person with Alzheimer’s disease tend to run smoothly when you provide the person with a job or task to stay busy. This can include things such as helping set the table, wrap presents, chop vegetables, or fold laundry — anything that will make them feel like an important part of the family.
- Play familiar music. Music stirs memory and emotions. A person with Alzheimer’s disease is likely to take comfort in familiar tunes such as classic Christmas carols, which may bring up pleasant memories of joyous holiday celebrations from the past.
- Take out the family photo albums. Similarly, looking at family photos can jog your loved one’s memory, which may encourage conversation with guests about childhood and family.
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