Tracy Cram Perkins: Tips for simplifying the holidays for those with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia
Holidays and family reunions can be stressful. For people with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, the holidays can be overwhelming.
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Look at a holiday gathering from their point of view. Your loved one is taken out of their normal routine, perhaps to a place they don’t remember, and then asked to behave like they are “normal.” Normal will last for a short time, until their senses hit overload.
Buried in the noise of multiple conversations, music, children playing, dishes clanking, flickering lights, and feeling crowded, they may say something like, “I want to go home,” over and over. Or they may meltdown in front of everyone. They may throw things or yell or scream or cry.
The meltdown is a blessing in disguise. Because now everyone will know that something is wrong. Their family and friends should now recognize their loved one is not doing as well as they thought. It also opens the conversation about handling family gatherings differently.
The key is to simplify.
When creating a safe holiday space for a person with Alzheimer’s or dementia keep these tips in mind:
Create a calm, quiet space
• Small rooms feel safer to those with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Your loved one can become overwhelmed in a large room or open space.
• Consider reducing loud or echoing sounds, increasing lighting levels, and preventing shadows.
• Avoid blinking lights, large decorations, disco balls, and reduce clutter, any of these may trigger confusion or hallucinations.
• Reduce safety hazards by replacing burning candles with non-flickering electric candles. Flickering lights can trigger hallucinations. If you do burn candles, don’t leave your loved one unattended.
• If possible, anchor any holiday trees to the wall.
• Remove any fragile decorations or anything that can be mistaken for food, like plastic fruit. For some people with moderate to severe dementia, small objects are opportunities waiting to be tasted.
• Play your loved one’s favorite holiday music but keep the volume low to help reduce your loved one’s overall stress.
• Make sure there is enough color contrast between the furniture, floor, and the walls, or they won’t see the furniture. If the walls and furniture are in the same color-tones, such as light-colored walls and light wood furniture, the furniture may become invisible to someone with dementia.
• For contrast use a color that does not blend in with your holiday decoration. Instead choose a solid, bright color such as red, white, yellow, orange, green, or blue. Do not use the black, dark brown, or navy blue for contrast—unless it is something you want them to avoid. To someone with dementia those colors look like a hole.
Prepare family and friends in advance
Alert family and friends to any changes in your loved one’s behavior since their last visit. Include a photo of your loved one to help prepare them for any changes in your loved one’s appearance.
Set boundaries by suggesting ways for your guests to listen patiently. For example, not correcting errors or interrupting your loved one’s stories. Ask your guests to bring photo albums that include photos of your loved one that they can use as conversation starters or use to distract your loved one from a repeating story loop. With an open mind, your guests may discover a recovered memory or hear an epic work of fiction.
Furthermore, we can ignore or filter out background noise, but those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias cannot. Make sure everyone knows your loved one needs something in their lap to distract them from noises. That something could be a plush toy, a baby doll, a blanket or fidget quilt, or a plate of finger food for nibbling.
Crowds and dementia don’t mix
For this reason, if you and your loved one are attending an outside event, keep the outing brief and be ready to leave early. Make sure there is a quiet space handy to help your loved one get back to calm.
When celebrating at your home and feeding a crowd, consider changing to a potluck with each guest bringing something. During the meal, make sure your loved one is sitting in their usual seat, next to their favorite person who can assist them, so they feel safe and loved.
After the meal, if your loved one becomes restless or agitated, then their favorite person can take your loved one to their room for some quiet time or a nap.
Adapt holiday activities
One of the most powerful tools in the caregiver’s toolbox is a routine. Consider spreading your holiday celebration over several weeks or even months. For example, invite two family members over at a time to celebrate for an hour or two at the best time of day for your loved one, thus allowing your loved one to keep their daily routine intact. The next week invite another couple of family members over and so on. It ensures other family members spend quality time with your loved one too.
Keep the conversation quiet and relaxed. Plan simple activities your loved one can take part in. You can read a favorite holiday story, decorate cookies or cupcakes, open holiday cards, look at photo albums, create a memory book with your loved one’s story in it, watch movies, or sing songs. Additionally, make sure a quiet space is set aside for your loved one in case they become stressed.
If you spread the celebration out over time, it will reduce the stress and increase your loved one’s socialization.
Make time for self-care
Make time for taking care of yourself. Some caregivers may not want to do this because they feel guilty for enjoying holiday activities without their loved one. Some may worry that if they give up care for even a short time, they will not be able to handle the burden of caregiving again. Self-care works better if you do it before you need it — before you hit burnout.
If you feel overwhelmed with holiday planning and activities, unload some of the burden by delegating tasks. Ask family and friends to help with addressing cards, cleaning, shopping, or to give you a break so that you can spend some time enjoying a holiday outing without caregiving.
Make sure your family and friends know to put your loved one and you, the caregiver, first. Your family and friends can adjust, the person with dementia cannot.
Focus on the holiday activities and traditions that make sense for your situation. When caring for someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia, you can’t do it all, so set realistic expectations.
Simplifying your celebrations, planning, and setting boundaries can help you reduce stress, create memories for family and friends, and make for an enjoyable holiday experience for everyone involved.