Most of us can agree that the holiday season often ends up feeling frenzied and hectic. We’re fully aware of which season it is, we’re mentally prepared for the change in routine and all the additional activities and events that come with the season, and even still, we seem surprised each season that it’s frenzied and hectic.
Imagine how much more this feeling is magnified for those who have dementia.
The frenzied holiday season feeling may have different causes for you versus your loved one who has dementia, but it is important to acknowledge that the stress is still present regardless. For you, the stress may come from trying to fit too much into too little time—shopping, wrapping presents, decorating, baking, cooking traditional meals, attending extra events, etc.
You might think that someone with dementia is exempt from all this stress, and indeed, they may be blissfully unaware of some of those holiday elements. They may not have a shopping list to attend to, and they may not be worried about decorating or baking, but the holiday season can be stressful in other ways.
For someone with dementia, the ability to preplan and mentally prepare is inhibited. They are not able to reassure themselves that “this is December, and this month tends to be hectic, but it’s just temporary.”
When someone with Alzheimer’s has very limited short term memory, they will not be able to remember your explanation that the change in routine is due to the holiday season. For example, the day program they typically attend two days weekly is cancelled for Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day. Not attending day program for a few weeks will feel disorienting. They will need constant reminders of why and how the routine has changed.
Keeping track of events and holiday gatherings may be challenging or impossible. Looking at a calendar and interpreting what is happening today versus tomorrow versus next week is quite abstract and becomes difficult when someone’s brain is impacted by dementia. A calendar is of limited use when someone has trouble remembering which day it is today. Someone with dementia may not be able to keep track of additional holiday gatherings and events.
Familiar environments suddenly look different now that decorations, trees and blinking lights have been added. For some people, decorations will feel comforting and bring memories of holiday seasons of the past. For others, the sudden change in their familiar environment may feel disorienting.
Likewise, large gatherings can have a disorienting effect. Even when it’s gatherings of family and friends, large groups can be overwhelming for some people. Too many of these gatherings over a short time period can increase someone’s stress level.
People with dementia are often highly sensitive to the emotions of others around them.
If you are highly stressed or feeling frenzied, they will pick up on that emotion and respond to it. If the context is not entirely clear to the person with dementia, they may even conclude that you are stressed or frenzied because of them.
While your loved one may not be keeping track of the shopping list and cooking for the family gathering, they are still experiencing the holiday frenzy, just differently than you are. Be aware of what may be contributing to their stress or disorientation and try to reduce those factors as much as possible. Since you do have the ability to pre-plan, you can mentally prepare yourself for the holiday season knowing that your loved one may have stronger or different reactions than usual because of disrupted routine or change to their environment. Just being prepared for different behaviours, reactions, or functioning levels can make a huge difference.
For more tips on how to support someone with dementia through the holiday season, please click here.