Do you ever find the holidays overwhelming? There are lights and music, decorations and crowds, shopping and cooking, parties and dinners, rich food and alcohol, late nights and busy days— sometimes it feels like you need a holiday to recover from the Christmas season!
If we feel overwhelmed during this season—and we are cognitively well, our brain is fully working—then imagine how overwhelming the holidays may be for someone who has dementia. Someone with dementia may not remember what “Christmas” or “the holidays” mean because they become abstract terms.
Here are some holiday tips to help a loved one with dementia through the holidays!
Beware of Decorations
You see an impressively life-like St. Nicholas welcoming people to your front hallway, but what does your loved one with dementia see? Is she concerned about “the man in the hallway who isn’t having dinner?” Life-like or oversized decorations can be confusing or even scary to someone with dementia. Consider from their perspective how the decorations could be misinterpreted.
Flashing lights draw a mixed response. Some people with dementia are mesmerized by flashing lights; others become alarmed or agitated. Keep consistent bright lighting in all rooms. Dark rooms with candlelight or just the tree lights may be fearful for someone with dementia.
Remove all ornaments that are not edible but look like real food. Fake gingerbread men or houses, fake candy canes or apple ornaments should all be avoided. Someone with dementia may not realize that it is just an ornament and may attempt to eat the decoration.
Have a Quiet Room
You want to include your loved one who has dementia, but you also need to provide a space where they can retreat and have some peace and quiet. People with dementia typically interact best in small groups or one-on-one. If a loved one with dementia is attending a large family gathering, set up a separate room—well lit with comfortable furniture—and recommend that family take turns visiting that person, one at a time. This allows for quality interaction in a way that best matches your loved one’s needs.
Routine is often the first casualty of the holiday season. We stay up late at night, we don’t eat meals at the usual time and we often stray from our usual, healthy diet. Remember how you felt last January after eating heavily and having your routine interrupted? Now imagine someone with dementia. The person with dementia cannot rationalize why they feel different, all they know is that something doesn’t feel right.
As much as possible, keep routine familiar and consistent. Try to maintain regular meal times (even if that means eating separately from the party), and try to limit intake of rich, sugary foods or excessive alcohol. Respect nap times and bedtimes—sleep is as important as ever! By maintaining routine as much as possible, your loved one may be able to better handle the surprises that come with the season
If family members live at a distance, they may be visiting for the first time since the last holiday season. Your loved one may have changed significantly since last holiday season. Advise family and friends in advance so that they know what to expect. Request their assistance in making the holidays easier for your loved one, and outline exactly what you need them to do. Here are some suggestions:
- Please do not ask “do you know who I am?” this causes undue stress. While she may not be able to name you, grandma knows you are an important person whom she loves.
- Please be aware of the fact that mom now needs to take some time away from the crowd. She finds noise and groups over-whelming. We will have a Quiet Room set up and we invite you to visit mom one at a time in the quiet room.
- Please do not encourage alcohol consumption by saying “it’s only one drink!". Dad is now on a medication that does not react well to alcohol and he will not enjoy the event as much when he is trying to process the alcohol.
Set Realistic Expectations
Set realistic expectations for your loved one by limiting the number of events they attend. No more than one event or activity in a given day; only a few in a week with recovery time between events. Step back and try to asses what is realistic for your loved one. Maybe a dinner with 50 people will not be a successful event, but attending a hymn sing would better match your loved one’s preferences and current abilities.
Your loved one will not be able to suddenly do more or handle more because it is the holiday season. If anything, their coping abilities may be taxed and they may become agitated or stressed more easily than usual. Be realistic when scheduling the season.
Select the Top Priority
What is more important—that your loved one attend every event and every tradition is followed in detail, or that your loved one has a merry Christmas feeling loved and happy?
If the top priority is your loved one having a wonderful Christmas season, then focus on the elements that create that sense of joy, peace, and love for them. If you really analyze it, you’ll realize it has nothing to do with decorations or traditions. It has everything to do with family and interaction.
If you are stressed because of holiday prep, your loved one will feel that stress and not enjoy the season. A person with dementia would rather have you slow down, match their pace, and be patient than present a tray with 15 varieties of home-baked cookies that stressed you out!
Your loved one with dementia might enjoy singing a few familiar Christmas carols (because the words of those favourite tunes tend to stick), rather than feel the pressure of keeping up with an animated conversation at a cocktail event.
What will make your loved one smile? When will they seem most at peace? What will have them feeling safe, secure, and loved? Aim to focus on those elements and your loved one will have a truly blessed Christmas.