Celebrating the holidays when a loved one has dementia
Celebrating the holidays can involve a whirlwind of shopping, decorating, baking, meal preparation and visits with family and friends. It can be overwhelming and exhausting for anyone, but especially for those living with dementia.
“That doesn’t mean the holidays can’t be a great time to have meaningful and purposeful time with our loved ones with dementia,” said Michael Parmer, DO, medical director at Prisma Health Senior Care PACE (Program of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly) program. He offered some ideas on how to make the holidays more enjoyable.
- Involve your loved one in preparations wherever you can. Perhaps they can put stamps on holiday cards, decorate cookies or help with wrapping gifts. Simple craft projects can be great for helping your loved one connect with grandkids.
- Reminisce. Ask your loved one about what Christmas was like when they were a child. Or consider having a family sing-along. Your loved one may be struggling with short-term memory but can remember all the words to the songs they grew up enjoying.
- Give family members a heads up. Talk to family members before any get-togethers and let them know how their loved one is doing. If family members have not seen their loved one for a while, Dr. Parmer said, make sure they know there may have been changes since the last visit. In some cases, they may need to “introduce” themselves when saying hello. Kids need to know that unusual or out of character behaviors from their family member, such as anger, are not personal but rather a part of the disease.
- Share a card collection. Keep a basket of holiday cards, old and new, by a favorite chair for your loved one to enjoy.
- Choose sensory stimulating gifts. Select gifts such as a family photo album, classic movies, favorite music, or simple activity books (crossword puzzle, word search and adult coloring books are all good choices).
- Avoid large parties. Instead of one big gathering, break get-togethers into smaller groups spread over a few days. If you can’t avoid a large party, provide your loved one with a quiet area away from the crowd where guests can take turns spending quality time in a calmer setting. Follow the lead or direction of the loved one’s current emotions. Give them some appropriate control.
- Make the most of your loved one’s best time of day. If right after lunch is typically the best time for company, schedule visits accordingly. Avoid evening hours, which are typically more challenging for those with dementia. Don’t be sad if your loved one doesn’t remember seeing you. The “emotional memory” of time spent with someone who cares will give them a heightened sense of well-being for some time after you’re gone.
- Spend some time outdoors. Go on a neighborhood stroll to take in the holiday lights.
- Take the celebration to them. If your loved one is in assisted living and it’s difficult for them to leave, consider taking the holiday dinner to them. Many places have a private dining space for families.
- Considering simplifying. Perhaps this is the year to cut back on outside commitments and social engagements, giving yourself more time to focus on your loved one with dementia. While the holidays may not be the same, the moments you share will still provide a great source of joy and comfort for you both.
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