Holidays and Dementia
by Monte Schwartz
By any measure, we are entering the holiday season—a busy time that somehow seems to now stretch from mid to late October to around the first of the year (or perhaps we should say the Super Bowl?).
Of course department stores and the like have done their usual best to remind us of the upcoming holidays far in advance. Yet even without those ubiquitous reminders, we know the season is fast approaching.
Halloween is just around the corner, followed by Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s—not to mention various fall festivals, particular religious observances that take place this time of year, as well as the extended family get-togethers and travel that goes along with it all.
With all of this comes family, friends, joy, merriment, etc. And with all of this comes a fair amount of busyness, not to mention a fair amount of stress. Even under the best of circumstances, these are not always the easiest or most relaxing of times. We probably all hear from people who tell us that they really enjoyed the holidays, but that they are just as glad that they are over.
Some more than others, but all families and individuals no doubt have their own particular burdens to carry this time of year. Having a loved one with dementia, as those of you in this situation know all too well, can certainly turn the holidays bittersweet and make them more challenging than they would be otherwise. Fortunately, there are strategies that you can implement to help you enjoy some of the meaning that the holidays are meant to provide.
First, recognize the situation for what it is. There is no reason to try to live up to some sort of preconceived notion of what an ideal or “normal” holiday celebration should look like. As the mayo clinic website recommends, you should “resist pressure to celebrate the way others may expect you to.”
Another key is communication. If you’re the primary caregiver with the best understanding of what is needed, don’t be afraid to communicate that clearly and charitably to others. Conversely, if you’re not as close to what is going on, try to not put so many demands on those who are. Offering to help where and as needed might even be appreciated. (And caregivers, don’t be above accepting the help). In short, family squabbles during the holidays don’t go very far in making them cheery, and it will only exacerbate potential problems here. Go with the flow a bit and try to be supportive and caring of each other.
More specific recommendations depend on a variety of factors such as care needs, severity of dementia, whether your loved one lives at home or in a senior community, etc. In general, the literature and experts recommend keeping things simple. Over-stimulating the person with dementia will usually agitate them. Also, if possible, don’t forget the surroundings and timing of any get-together. Celebrating in a familiar setting and at your loved one’s best time of day is usually optimal. And one last slightly important bit of advice: don’t forget to enjoy yourself and make it as enjoyable as possible for all involved, including those suffering with dementia.
We’ve obviously only scratched the surface of this discussion. If you feel the need, don’t be shy about tapping into sources of support: be it a church community, friends and family, local agencies, support groups, etc.
And best wishes during the coming holiday season!