The holidays tend to bring on stress naturally, but then add on the pressure of being a caregiver for a person with dementia. “Sixty one percent of family caregivers of a person with Alzheimer’s and other dementia’s rated the emotional stress of care-giving as high or very high,” says the 2013 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures, published by the Alzheimer’s Association.
People tend to get more emotional around the holidays because we reflect on past memories and traditions. This can be particularly difficult when the future is uncertain. We feel that we need to live up to the expectations of family and friends. We pressure ourselves to be “happy” and “festive”at this time of year. As caregivers we don’t want to disappoint anyone and feel guilty or frustrated if things are not perfect.
Before bringing Mom or dad home for holiday festivities there are many things to consider. Try to keep the number of guests to a minimum. Too many people can be overwhelming for the person with dementia (PWD). You may want to consider having a separate larger gathering on a different day or time. People with dementia need shorter blocks of stimulation balanced with periods of rest. Keeping the visit short, 2 – 3 hours, can help to reduce anxiety and potential behaviors. If a shorter visit is not possible, secure a quiet place for them to rest and take a break for all the festivities. You may want to plan the gathering for earlier in the day, as many people with Alzheimer’s disease suffer from “Sun-downing” and may find it more difficult to concentrate or have behavior issues later in the afternoon and evening hours. A holiday brunch might be a new tradition for your family.
Prepare your guests. Let guests know that the PWD may not remember them. Don’t quiz or correct and don’t attempt to bring the PWD into our reality. This person may be living in the past. You cannot bring a PWD into today, into our reality. Let your guests know about any anticipated behaviors ahead of time so they won’t be surprised. Inform them that mom may repeat the same thing over and over. Let them know to keep sentences short and focus on key words. Be patient, give them time, and slow things down a bit.
People with dementia want to please you. During the visit they may not understand their surroundings. They may find it difficult if not impossible to follow conversations. this can be very frustrating to the individual. There may be too much stimulation, talking, TV, music, children, pets, traffic noise, clanging of dishes, etc. They are suddenly surrounded by people they don’t know and are unfamiliar with. The PWD may feel pressured to engage in activities that are beyond their capabilities. If the person seems to be getting overwhelmed or frustrated, reassure them with a gentle touch, a warm smile, and some encouraging words.
When the time comes to take Mom or Dad back to the care community, try using phrases such as “let’s go for a ride,” or “time to go for a drive.” You may get less resistance to leave.
To get the most out of your holiday visit, stop trying to live up to the expectations of family, friends, and traditions. Slow things down and simplify as much as possible. Remember that you don’t have to do it all. Ask for help if needed. Be flexible if the day doesn’t go exactly as planned and lower those expectations. Try to focus on quality not quantity. Above all else, be patient and loving, remember that the PWD can understand a friendly smile and a gentle touch.
- Debra Kostiw