Holidays & dementia – think twice

It is tempting to think that Mom, Grandpa or Aunt Felicia would LOVE being surrounded with family & friends over the holidays – – in spite of having dementia.  Jolene Brackey reminded us at Friday’s Creating Moments of Joy Caregivers Conference that including them could a great disservice to everyone – especially to them & most certainly to their care partners.

Here’s my observations about the pleasures & potential pitfalls of including someone dealing with dementia to a holiday celebration, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve, birthdays to reunions:

  • Understand that it creates stress for anyone dealing with dementia to be literally faced with people greeting them, “strangers” giving them hugs or (worse), saying with a big smile, “You remember me!
  • Realize that deep inside us, we REALLY want them with us over the holiday, but as they were.  We want Dad carving the turkey, Mom dishing up the stuffing, Grandma bringing her pies & Uncle Phil making his yummo green bean casserole.  At the holidays, our natural human tendency is to long for old roles.  Make sure over the holidays that you are focused on meeting their needs & not your wants, which often means doing it differently than before.
  • Keep it small – maybe even have two different celebrations, one at your house over lunch with just a few people who are focused on the person, one later – without the older loved one – at another person’s house for the whole clan.
  • If s/he always helped with making the meal, involve them in the preparation, making SURE to have an apron, a must-have in their day.  Have music playing to limit “Remember…” conversations.  Follow their lead.
  • If they ask why someone isn’t there, have a reason for the absence, other than illness or death.  Make up something, if necessary.  This is not a time for stark reality.
  • Skip the family get-together entirely.  I had a client that I took out for breakfast at her favorite diner because holiday breakfasts were bleak at her personal care residence.  Most restaurants are closed for holiday breakfasts, but Denny’s & IHOP are safe bets to be open.  We’d go for a drive & then head back to her beloved diner for lunch.  Staying in her continuous care residence would have been awful, as would being barraged by “strangers” at family events.  When she asked why her children weren’t having her to dinner, I explained they were out-of-town.
  • IF you are having a large group, get them involved in making it a happy time for the guest of honor.  Share your game plan, laying out the dos & don’ts – #1 being to NOT do the very thing that will seem most natural:  asking “Remember when...”,  sharing family photos, feeling disappointed they recognized Cousin Tony but not her own son.  Explain the importance of greeting them with “Good to see you” instead of the booby trapped “How are you doing?”  I think the idea of sending everyone a letter laying out the situation & including tips is BRILLIANT.
  • Play familiar music or her favorite songs – one family always made the event a swing fest, heavy on Glenn Miller & Tommy Dorsey.
  • Pull out collections of favorite cartoon strips.  Mom loved Peanuts, For Better & For Worse, so if dementia had been a challenge for her, we would have had those books out, remembering the different characters.
  • Have favorite nibblings available – hunger does not make for happiness.
  • Keep it simple.
  • Whether a big group or small, have a quiet room where the guest of honor can rest or get away from the hub bub.
  • Discreetly assign people to be a buddy for a specific period of time so someone is always by their side, keeping watch without hovering.
  • Make sure everyone understands if s/he can’t have any alcohol, even Uncle Bob who thinks s/he should have whatever s/he wants.
  • If not having a drink is an issue, have non-alcoholic beverages for everyone.  Maybe a non-alcoholic wine or sparkling cider in champagne glasses.
  • Keep it simple.
  • Skip church.  I can’t think of a worse thing to do with someone dealing with dementia than to take them to our church’s Thanksgiving service, which is held in a field house so the entire congregation can gather at one service.  S/he does NOT relate the setting to worship, there are WAY too many bodies & far too many “strangers” coming up, hoping to be recognized remembered reassured.
  • Once she started edging her way up into her upper 80s & 90s, Mom opted at Christmas to attend the Children’s Tableaux or the first, abbreviated family performance of the traditional tableaux.  She didn’t have dementia, but tired easily & knew that even the best time can be dampened by feeling weary or worn out.
  • Keep it simple.
  • Remember meds!  It’s easy to forget.  Make sure s/he is getting the proper meds at the right times.  Avoid potential embarrassment by being discreet.
  • The day before, send a holiday arrangement with a note that includes the reason & your relationship ~ “Happy Thanksgiving!  Love from your son, …” or daughter, friend…”  Send even if you are seeing them on The Day.  Especially powerful with women.
  • Be prepared for upset when you suggest going heading back to their residence.  Don’t ruin the moment for her & everyone else’s happy memory – tell her you’re going on a drive.
  • IF you include a loved one with dementia in a holiday celebration, know that it typically will take two weeks for their schedule to get back to normal.  Be aware of the added post-holiday stress on them, on you AND especially on care partners.
  • Keep it simple.

That’s some of what I’ve learned interacting with older loved ones, friends & clients.  For more suggestions & tips check:

Celebrating Thanksgiving with “Generation Alzheimer’s” (what a ghastly title!)

Ten Holiday Survival Tips (actually over 50)

Holidays & Alzheimer’s Families

Celebrating the Holidays with Alzheimer’s

Or google “holidays dementia”

Author: auntdeev

playfulness coach, life enthusiast & general instigator, ENTJ, cat lover

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