The Holidays and Alzheimer’s
by Monte Schwartz
Recently I attended a presentation by Jerry Schroeder of the Alzheimer’s Association entitled Caring for People with Dementia: Tips for Holiday Happiness and Safety. Jerry is the Senior Program Specialist for the Alzheimer’s Association’s Greater Iowa Chapter.
Jerry started the discussion in broad terms by mentioning how challenging the holidays can be for any of us. What is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year is often the most stressful time of the year.
Naturally, this is particularly true for those caring for a loved one with dementia. Jerry reminded the audience of what the big picture “mission” is for everyone who is a caregiver—to keep your loved one “happy and safe,” and this obviously applies to the holiday season.
Jerry also cautioned that, while his advice and suggestions should helpful, they are not necessarily foolproof. He likened it to a general or a commander in battle. If and when the battle plan starts to fall apart, the foot soldiers (caregivers) on the front lines need to adjust and make his suggestions work for their own situation. He might be the strategist, but the caregivers are the real experts.
Some of the specific tips included being prepared, thinking ahead, and anticipating challenges. Jerry used the example of everyone gathered around the TV, perhaps watching a football game or some other agreed upon program. The person with dementia might grab the remote and change channels—of course not meaning to upset anyone. Just knowing that it might happen and being prepared for it, maybe with a second TV in another room, can be quite helpful.
Jerry also noted what most caregivers probably already know from experience; you can’t win an argument with somebody who has Alzheimer’s so don’t even try to. He advised that the caregiver should take “the customer is always right” approach. It’s also important for the caregiver and others to be as happy and joyful as much as possible, because people with dementia are very adept at reading feelings and emotions. According to Jerry, they are “tuned into you and your mood.”
It’s imperative, therefore, for the caregiver to find tranquility and keep their own “bucket” or “well” full. This is obviously anything but easy. Life might be breaking down, there’s anxiety over the situation, and likely financial stress as well. Through it all, the caregiver should try not to be overly self-critical (or critical of each other if more multiple family members or caregivers are involved). Instead, try to communicate and be supportive of one another.
A big part of holiday planning and preparation is to adjust expectations. Things might need to be scaled back and simplified. As Jerry put it, give your loved one a “taste of the holidays but don’t douse them,” or they might get “overwhelmed.” It will probably be upsetting to the person with dementia to be thrown off of their routine too much. Some specific suggestions in this regard include having smaller and earlier gatherings, simpler meals, fewer outings, fewer decorations, and, if needed, a different location for gatherings.
This is just a summary of Jerry’s presentation, and the discussion itself was but a small part of what could be said on the topic. More information can be found at www.alz.org or by calling 1.800.272.3900.
Finally, remember the reason for the season, as the saying goes, and be good to each other. As Jerry mentioned, the “real enemy is the disease. Battle the disease and not one another.”