10 Tips for Caregivers
Dementia and The Holidays
As you prepare for this holiday season, keep in mind that your loved one is looking at the holidays differently than you are. As clearly as you can, try to see the holidays through their eyes. Families are often disappointed when they realize their loved ones are not able to respond to holiday traditions and rituals in ways they used to. Although they may have fond memories of holidays in the past, they may not be able to grasp what the current holiday expectations are for them. The change in their routine, the excessive noise of a large group, and the general “loving chaos” in the air can prove to be anxiety-provoking for an individual with dementia.
The key to enjoying the holidays with your loved one is to simplify things. Here are some tips on how to do that:
- Keep it a secret. Arrive the day of the holiday with an invitation to come for a family visit. Providing lots of notice that there is a large gathering may intimidate and overwhelm your loved one. Inadvertently adding more pressure to perform socially. You can certainly coordinate your day with your loved one’s caregiver or care community. Be careful not to tell your loved one repeatedly about the upcoming gathering.
- Keep a friend close. Assign a designated companion who understands the disease. Someone who can sit with your loved one and help identity other family members. For example, saying “Here comes your niece, Pam,” may reduce frustration at not being able to remember faces.
- Designate a quiet zone. Establish a quiet area near the festivities, but not in the center of the action. This is a good place for your loved one and the companion to sit. This will cut down on the perception of noise and activity for your loved one. The companion can also help navigate some of the casual conversations from other family members.
- Designate a Driver. Assign a designated driver who is prepared to take your loved one home early if the need arises.
- Be aware of the time. Generally, after being away for two to three hours, people may feel the need to return home. During a hectic holiday visit, the individual may even want to return after a shorter time. Do not take this as a failure. A short and good visit is better than a longer, more stressful visit.
- Plan ahead. If possible, communicate ahead of time to family members that your loved one has Alzheimer’s or a related dementia. Letting them know that “quizzing” your loved one on recent events may be stressful. For example, stating, “it’s a lovely holiday season” is better than asking them, “what have you been doing over the holidays?” Keep the conversation “failure free” by making general observations as opposed to asking questions that require specific answers.
- Be happy. Nothing ruins a gathering like someone with a grudge or bad mood. Your goal is to avoid conflict. Whether there are long-standing resentments, disagreements or hot-button topics - the family must be on the same page. Avoid these topics in front of the person with dementia. Someone with dementia will pick up on mood and tension very quickly and may cause them to become upset.
- Shop off hours. Giving gifts is a traditional part of holiday celebrations. If your loved one is able to shop for gifts this may be a great way to involve them. Keep in mind that people with dementia have difficulty with planning. Providing the person with a pared down list and joining them in shopping will minimize being overwhelmed. Remember to shop during non-peak hours and limit the time spent to no more than 90 minutes. If going to a store is not realistic, try using a simple catalog or pictures of the items that they may want to get for a grandchild and having them select one to “order”. If the person is able and interested, involve them in wrapping, or better yet, use gift bags.
- It takes a village. Remember, care giving for someone with dementia takes a village. For those in a memory care residential setting, take advantage of onsite support groups and educational offerings. For those care giving at home, use the holiday to remind your friends and family that you need ongoing support and practical assistance throughout the year. While friends and families may surround the person with dementia and the caregiver during this festive time of year, when the holidays end and life gets back to “normal,” their visits are less predictable or frequent. Consider asking for help. Be specific about what you need, it could be regular phone calls to vent, assistance with errands, meals dropped off, or having someone assume the caregiver role for a few hours so you can have a break. For distant family and friends, phone calls, gift cards for meals, and providing cash for respite care are additional ways to support the caregiver from afar.
- Start something new. Consider starting new traditions. Celebrate the holiday with your loved one on a day that is not so hectic. The spirit of each holiday season can be enjoyed by bringing your loved one home the day after the holiday. You may be less distracted and able to truly enjoy the time with your loved one. Looking over old pictures, reminiscing and listening to holiday music together is one suggestion that has worked well with other families. It’s okay to say NO to family requests, if you feel that it is not in the best interest of your loved one with dementia. Trust your gut on this one. Explain to family, nicely but firmly, that for your loved one’s well being keeping things simple and maintaining normal routines is important. If your family does not understand, accept and support you setting limits, then it is really their problem, not yours, to own.
- Let the GUILT go! Caring for someone with dementia is a full-time job. The hours are 24/7 and 365 days a year with no days off. No one can do this alone! Give yourself permission to ask and accept help without feeling guilty. You are doing an amazing job, remember to give yourself credit for what you DO, instead of listing the things you don’t do. Give yourself permission, if you have not already, to partner with a care community, home care, day program, or other supports to help you in care giving. Remember that the person you are caring for lacks the executive function to understand all that is involved. Asking for their permission to get help in care giving, usually, will not work and will overwhelm and confuse them. It’s okay to get help, it's okay to ask others for help and it's okay to have a life outside of your care giving role. Research shows that taking care of yourself will enable you to be a better caregiver to the person you love.
Written by Katy Tavares. Katy is a licensed social worker, holding a Masters in Gerontology, and is a certified member in good standing of the Aging Life Care Association. Katy is the Executive Director of Avita of Newburyport, a Northbridge Companies memory care community. Avita of Newburyport offers FREE monthly support groups and educational programs.
If you or someone you know could benefit from the wonderful way of life at Avita of Newburyport call 978.225.7000.