Holidays are supposed to be happy times, but celebrating holidays with a loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s disease (AD) can often be a challenge. Events that should be fun can be overwhelming to someone with dementia, and the patient’s behaviors can turn a pleasant get-together into an uncomfortable situation.
The most important key to success in to have a backup plan. You want to involve your AD-affected loved one in the festivities as much as possible. However, being around new people, visiting unfamiliar places, and being surrounded by many distracting activities can overwhelm someone with Alzheimer’s disease. In that case, you need to be prepared to deal with the situation.
Below are tips to make it more likely that your loved one will enjoy the holidays, along with some suggestions for backup plans.
Before the Event:
- Be selective in the activities in which you involve the patient. She may not be able to handle baking cookies on Wednesday, going to a party at Aunt Sue’s on Thursday, attending Midnight Mass on Friday, and having a big Christmas dinner to Jerry’s on Saturday. Depending on the individual person and the stage of AD they are in, decide how many and which of the events she will enjoy most.
- Although he may not remember, it may be helpful to tell him in advance where he is going and why. “Christmas Eve is tomorrow, and we’re going to Mary’s to open gifts.” Depending on the stage of the disease and the individual, a large calendar with important dates circled and a note about what is happening may be useful.
- Focus on the event and don’t waste time or energy on less important items. Don’t argue with her if she wants to wear a sweat suit to a dress-up party. Her clothing is less important than her comfort and enjoyment.
- Prepare other people to deal with the patient. If you are going somewhere else, make sure the host knows about your loved one’s condition. Tell friends and relatives you seldom see what to expect. Explain to children that Grandma or Uncle Johnny gets confused easily and may not remember them. Ask others for their patience in answering the person’s repeated questions and ask them to find you or another designated person if your loved one needs help. You may want to give others a copy of my book, Help! What Do I Do Now? Caring for Your Loved One with Alzheimer’s, so they will understand and learn some tips for responding to someone with AD.
- Try to ensure the patient gets plenty of rest the night before the event, or if he wanders at night, encourage him to take a nap during the day of the get-together.
During the Event:
- Stay close to the patient or designate close family members to do so, both to give your loved one a sense of familiarity and comfort and to watch for signs that the patient is becoming overwhelmed and frustrated.
- If there will be a lot of people there your loved one knows but seldom sees, you may encourage guests to wear nametags to make it easier for a person in the earlier stages of AD to identify people.
- Allow her to participate as much or as little as she wants. If the family is gathered around the piano singing carols, let her sing as loud as she likes—even if she’s terribly off-key. On the other hand, if she prefers to sit quietly in a corner, don’t push her to join a conversation or a card game.
- Keep choices simple. Don’t ask, “What do you want to eat?” Instead, ask if he wants turkey and potatoes. Or serve his plate for him, choosing foods you know he likes.
- Give her gentle cues when she seems to be confused and redirect her behavior when needed. If she starts to wander off, gently take her arm and say, “Let’s go over here and look at the pretty Christmas tree.”
If the patient gets upset or over-stimulated, put your backup plan into effect:
- If you can distract him, encourage him to talk about the past. “Did you have a Christmas tree when you were a boy?” “What was your favorite Christmas gift when you were growing up?”
- Sit her in a quiet corner where she can be away from the bustle of the event. Perhaps she can listen to soft music.
- If you can’t distract him in the midst of the activity, take your loved one into a quiet room where he can calm down alone.
- Weather permitting, go for a short walk in the backyard or garden.
- Leave the party and take her home. As much as you want her there through all of the celebration, it may not be possible. Far better to leave early and miss some of the event than to force your over-stimulated, upset loved one to endure more of an unpleasant and scary experience, not to mention the discomfort of everyone else enjoying the holiday celebration.
The holidays should be enjoyable—a time to visit with family and friends, to experience favorite traditions, and to enjoy special activities. They should not be a time of stress, frustration, and discord—for you or your loved one.