Nearly 11% of adults over 65 have Alzheimer’s disease. This year alone, over 11 million Americans have dedicated nearly 18 billion hours to unpaid care for loved ones with dementia. If you’re in this caregiving role, you’re not alone.
Navigating the holidays and dementia can be filled with mixed emotions and distinct challenges. That’s why we’ve compiled seven helpful tips for caregivers and families to help you create a holiday season that’s both meaningful and memorable, while taking your loved one’s needs into account–as well as your own.
Holiday tips for dementia caregivers
Focus on making new memories. It can be overwhelming and emotional to realize the holidays will never be the same, and it’s natural to want to continue your old traditions. But it’s important to focus on creating new ones, according to Rebecca Axline, Supervisory Clinical Social Worker at Houston Methodist’s Nantz National Alzheimer Center.
“I often counsel families that if they continue to do things the way they’ve always done them, then everyone will end up frustrated and sad,” Axline says. “New memories can become cherished moments; they just might be different than memories from past holidays.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give yourself permission to grieve what’s been lost. But, as much as you can, embrace the present and be open to creating new, different memories.
Keep your celebration simple and engaging. “Holidays can be sad times for families dealing with memory loss because they realize things and people are not as they used to be,” says Mary Catherine Lundquist, Program Director of Care2Caregivers, a peer counseling helpline for dementia caregivers operated by Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy your time together. Involve your loved one in safe activities that engage their senses.
Some simple, meaningful holiday traditions might include:
- Baking cookies together
- Hanging decorations
- Enjoying coloring books
- Organizing photos or keepsakes
- Crafting projects
- Singing Christmas carols
- Attending faith-based services
Tailor activities to suit your loved one’s interests and capabilities. These moments, however small, can be profoundly meaningful, creating new and cherished memories for everyone involved.
Communicate honestly with family and friends. Communication is key when preparing for family gatherings–especially with relatives who might not be fully aware of the changes in your loved one’s condition.
Lundquist recommends having a candid conversation with out-of-town family members before they visit to set realistic expectations about the changes they might notice.
Don’t try to conceal or minimize the changes in your loved one’s behavior. Openly acknowledging and understanding these changes enables family and friends to be more effectively involved in supporting your loved one, and helps reduce potential stress for everyone.
Be flexible. Flexibility and creativity are essential when navigating the holidays with Alzheimer’s, Lundquist advises. While children might wish to uphold past traditions by visiting on a customary day, “Mom might have been up all night caring for Dad and the house might be disorderly because she is too busy to clean,” Lundquist says.
Since routine and structure play such a vital role in the well-being of someone with dementia, even simply attending a gathering at another home can cause unsettling stress for both the patient and the caregiver for days afterwards.
In some cases, it may be better to opt for visits only to one’s own home, possibly limited to 30 minutes, and spreading a few guests at a time over a few days rather than all at once.
Make sure your loved one feels included. It’s important for guests and caregivers to maintain an inclusive atmosphere. Lundquist recommends making your loved one feel as though they’re part of the conversation, even if they can’t respond. Sharing memories can provide comfort and topics of discussion for everyone involved–including your loved one.
But steer clear of asking your loved one, “Do you remember?” or expecting him or her to contribute additional details from the past. It may also help to mention your own name and relationship to the patient from time to time.
Get support. Being a caregiver can be very isolating. It’s normal to feel loneliness, compounded by spending your days with a loved one who may not be able to sustain personal interaction for long periods of time.
If you can’t trade off with another family member or friend for a short break, Lundquist recommends considering in-home care. Organizations like Assured Senior Living can provide you with much-needed personal time while leaving your loved one in good hands. You can find a list of these organizations through the Alzheimer’s Association.
Keep this in mind throughout the year if you’re an adult child taking care of a parent with dementia. Even a few hours to yourself over the weekend can provide a much-needed break.
Follow doctor recommendations. It can be challenging to stick to your loved one’s routine and medications during the busy holiday season. But it’s crucial to maintain a sense of normalcy for him or her.
Follow his or her doctor’s recommendations, since maintaining what has become a normal routine can help everyone relax and de-stress.
Remember that a special and meaningful holiday season is still possible–even if it’s much different from previous years. Consider these tips, and if you need guidance or support, don’t hesitate to reach out to resources like the Care2Caregivers helpline at (800-424-2494).
“Holidays are about the love of family and friends,” Axline says. “Alzheimer’s disease can only take away the joy of the season if you allow it to do so.”