The holidays are here with parties, family gatherings, traveling, and maybe more on your calendar. Holidays can present unsettling and even painful challenges for people with Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia and when that happens, it will impact you, too.
A few common remarks you might hear from your loved one include: “Who’s that?” “That’s my brother, not my son.” “This isn’t my room.” “I want to go home.” “I just want to be alone.”
Kae’s 10 holiday tips for family caregivers.
Here are 10 proven tips to masterfully handle these kinds of situations and make holiday events pleasant and successful for everyone.
1 Recognize and accept that things are now different. Most of us remember our holidays from the best of times. You can be lulled into a false hope because you think their behaviors and memory glitches are “not too bad” of late and they respond fairly well to family visits at their residence. If you’re anticipating what I call the ‘Norman Rockwell experience,’ you’ll probably be disappointed. Hold onto the beautiful memories of earlier times and wrap your heart and soul around the now experience, the new normal.
2 Control your tone of voice and manage your patience levels. Routine is crucial to a person’s sense of security when they have dementia. Change in their daily routine is fraught with potential mind fields so anticipate more agitation than usual due to this. When Alzheimer’s or other dementias are involved, remaining calm and patient is important for their comfort and security level.
3 Careful about ‘crowds.’ A new or unfamiliar environment can distress your loved one. Example—they may be less comfortable around “large crowds” — which might now mean little more than you and a just a few other people.
4 In advance, provide family members and friends an update on how your loved one is, what changes to expect and what their comfort levels are. Alzheimer’s and other dementias are progressive diseases. What you are used to, due to your close proximity, is often distressing to infrequent visitors. Taking this important step will avoid anyone showing reactions to changes since prior visits, and this can be hurtful and stress for all involved.
5 Ask everyone to state his or her name. Examples: “Hi Uncle Jim, it’s Mary, your niece” or “Hi Dad, it’s your son John.” This is really important since “Jim” is working to place you in his world order. We often forget that ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’ happens to everyone. It’s possible you haven’t seen one another in months or more. Children grow, hair color changes. We can appear different. Refrain from comments like “Hi, do you remember me?” Identify yourself and share an experience that was special to you and involved them. “I remember when you put up a tent for all the cousins in the backyard and we had a cookout…” By doing this, you’re helping to frame a memory for them. Even if they don’t recall it as you do, they will hear the happiness in your voice and this will bring them joy, too.
6 Honor their comfort zone. Noise, visual bombardment, crowds and,even too many people in your home can bring about high discomfort. If your loved one is more comfortable sitting a bit away from other others, or even in another quieter space, respect this. There can be too much chatter around for their comfort level. Appreciate that it takes more time for some to process the goings on. Enjoy the purpose of the occasion and allow them to enjoy it from their comfort zone. You are NOT leaving them. You’re providing the pleasure of having friends and family be in their midst. And, you are making special memories for your guests.
7 Accompany your loved one into the public restroom. It’s about being civilized, humane and caring. Would you let your 5- or 6-year-old child find the restroom alone in a public place? Alzheimer’s or other dementia is a disability affording them all the benefits covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This means, for example, you can (and should) accompany them into public restrooms. Just say you’ll use it, too. I brought my father into the ladies room since I knew I would cause discomfort to occupants in the men’s room. I’ve found women to be very receptive and helpful to men who assist their wife or mother in the ladies room. Today, you have the option of family rooms in many locations, too.
Confusion and disorientation are common characteristics of dementia. Even those with mild cognitive impairment will benefit from being accompanied as they navigate through a restaurant or department store.
Here’s why this is so important. A true story: A woman went to the restroom at her favorite restaurant, one she’d frequented for years. When she re-entered the lobby, she forgot about her family in the main dining room, and left. She wandered the streets with no way to call her family and not aware enough to ask for help and to call the police for her! Two days later, this terrified woman was located, having slept in bushes at night and wandering the streets in the day. Her family was understandably distraught. They had downplayed her “occasional” confusion and other misjudgments and not pressed her out of respect.The family immediately made major changes for their loved one’s safety and security.
8 Stick to their routine as much as possible. The first commandment for successfully managing this disease is setting a routine for your loved one and holding firm as much as possible. We’re creatures of habit so you know that a glitch in your daily routine can aggravate you— for a bit. A change in their routine will really unsettle them and may bring about behavior challenges that are hard on them, and you. So consider all this when making plans for home entertainment or visits to friends and family. Holidays can mean fun times, but they’re also full of disruptions.
9 Take advantage of available perks when traveling by air. Let the airlines know your travel partner has special needs and requires a wheelchair and pre-boarding assistance. You don’t need to elaborate or provide medical documentation. If your travel buddy is resistant to any of this, use this effective therapeutic tale: “Oh, it’s part of your new travel package.” Or, “the travel agent arranged this ‘first class’ treatment.”
Airlines are keenly aware of Alzheimer’s and dementia so if your loved one will be traveling alone, be direct and candid with the agents about your traveler’s limits so the staff will be prepared in advance to provide extra attention and help if they become disoriented or confused.
Air travel is an intense and usually chaotic process. Using every possible tool eases the process dramatically.
10 Introduce a new ‘tradition.’ At holidays, the best intentions may go awry and cause challenges. Now’s the time to open your heart and mind to a new way of celebrating the holidays. Unexpected challenges for someone with Alzheimer’s or other dementia are fraught with potential mind fields. Keeping up traditions can backfire for everyone. Consider what’s best for your family member with dementia.
Here’s an excellent example: My friend was concerned about her dad’s ability to cope with the hullabaloo Christmas morning would bring with the excitement of three grandchildren under the age of 10. Still, she didn’t want to deprive her dad of the happiness it might bring him to be with his family as in the past.
The thoughtful choice was made to have the two sets of adult grandchildren and spouses pay separate visits to their grandfather, spaced several hours apart. Following their naps and more subdued, the three great-grand children arrived to exchange their presents with him. The 30-minute visit was just enough for all.
A new tradition was established for this family benefiting everyone, just as it should be.
Design a plan that will provide a comfortable holiday season and make the festivities more pleasant for everyone.
Gift yourself beautiful, happy holidays!
~ Kae Hammond, Dementia Help Center