Please don’t lose your mind! I’ve got holiday survival tips for caregivers right here! The holiday season can be an incredibly challenging time for families living with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Many people are looking forward to spending time with family and friends, and these tips are to help you do the same. I’ve curated the best of what I found online with my experiences with my Mom.
In the early stage, a person with Alzheimer’s may experience minor changes. Some may be less comfortable socializing because the disease makes it a challenge. Others may be thrilled with visits from family and friends like previous holidays. The key is to check in with each other and discuss options. A simple “how are you doing” or “how are you coping with everything” may be appreciated. Plan holiday celebrations that focus on the things that bring them happiness. Let go of activities that are overwhelming or stressful.
For people in the middle stages, consider readjusting holiday plans. I know my Dad did his best to mimic how my Mom went about the holidays. He’d buy gifts online, make a note with our names and a photo of the gift they purchased. This reference visually helped my Mom, but I think she always felt that she hadn’t done what she needed to do. Looking back, I think it might have been better to take her shopping and allow her to feel the experience. She used to make separate shopping trips for each person, so her memories were of the many trips to the mall. Even a short shopping trip with the same photo note he made might have bridged the gap for her. It’s easy to see that in hindsight, of course. At the time, what he did made perfect sense to all of us.
Prepare Family & Friends
Preparing family and friends with an honest update of the person’s behavior and memory changes can help avoid unpleasant situations. The holidays are full of emotions, and we don’t want to add negative ones into what should be a happy time. If your loved one is in the early stages of their disease, others may not notice any changes. However, the person with dementia may have trouble keeping up with conversations, repeat themselves, or keep quiet.
Family can help with communication by being patient, not interrupting or correcting, and giving them time to finish their thought. Remind family and friends that talking to the person living with dementia will take extra patience and time. The goal is to maintain a positive and upbeat mood. The best way to accomplish this is by not arguing, correcting, or asking if they remember. Don’t try to force memories that may no longer be there.
For family or friends you haven’t seen in quite a while. It may be easier to send an email detailing the status of your loved one. It also erases the need to make these statements over and over to each new group. That’s stressful in itself!
One email wording I found is simple and to the point. “I’m writing to let you know how things are going at our house. While we’re looking forward to your visit, we thought it might be helpful you understood our current situation before you arrive.” If possible, enclose a photo, so they’re not shocked by any physical changes. Letting visitors know what to expect ahead of time will hopefully allow everyone to avoid awkward situations.
When your loved one gets in that frustrating loop of repeating the same question or story, some redirection may help everyone. Share these redirection tips with guests.
The first step is actually to determine if there’s a reason for the behavior. Redirection applies more to a behavioral change like aggression or combativeness. Thankfully, I’ve never had to deal with these types of actions with Mom, but if you do, here’s how to handle it.
Is your loved one upset, bored, or physically uncomfortable? Asking questions like, “can I get you something to eat? “do you need to use the bathroom” or “is there something I can help you find” might help gather necessary information. Be happy and upbeat, and try using a bridge statement to move them onto a new subject. I learned something new doing this research, which is exciting. A bridge statement acknowledges what they’re saying then “bridges” them to something new.
ReDirection in Action
My Mom tells the same story over and over, and it’s worse at my house. The information has changed a bit over the years, but it goes like this. Either when my parents were first married, or Mom was expecting me, my Dad’s Mom (Nana) made the statement, “now that you’re getting married/having a baby, you’ll be getting rid of the dogs, right?” 52 or more years later, Mom still remembers THAT story. Whenever she sees my dogs, which is hard not to since I have three Golden Retrievers, she launches into that story again and again.
Sometimes I have success in deflecting the story but not usually at my house. Using a bridge statement like “Oh, I like that story that reminds me of…”. I’m going to try that out. Other bridge statements could be “I’d be upset about that too. Remember when you told me…” or “I know you’d like to go home.” Let’s have dinner first, and then we’ll go home after the traffic dies down.” I’m going to suggest that to a caregiver friend whose Mom sometimes remembers she’s not living in her home and gets quite persistent in going home. (You can hear their story in episode 11 – My Mom Marge.)
It’s also essential to prepare the loved one for visitors, so they’re not surprised or overwhelmed. Preparing them may have to be repeated depending on their memory retention level, so don’t start too early, or you’ll frustrate yourself. Preparing your loved one should allow both of you to enjoy the joy of the season. Show them photos of who will be visiting before they arrive. It may help jog their memory.
Now that you have everyone prepared, let me go over the essential tips first.
The holiday season is a challenging time to maintain your regular routine. Parties go late, more people visits, and there are more tasks to complete. Doing your best to keep everyone on a similar pattern will help keep holiday activities from causing disruptions.
Many people with dementia function better earlier in the day, so plan hectic events for their best time of day. Maybe a Christmas brunch instead of a large Christmas Eve dinner. You can do more relaxing activities like opening gifts for later in the afternoon.
For someone like my Mom, who is in the later stages of her disease, small, earlier in the day activities work well. I’m considering breakfast on Christmas Eve with gifts afterward. This adaption will allow me plenty of time to prepare the dinner my daughter and I have planned for Christmas Eve night. I’m just not sure where breakfast should take place.
Involve Your Loved One in Activities
Invite your loved one to participate in activities. Play everyone’s favorite holiday songs and ask them to help bake cookies or decorate the tree. I’ve done this with my Mom in years past, and it was an excellent way to continue traditions. Unfortunately, her memory is so bad now that it’s more trouble than benefit. That leads me into our next tip –
Adjust Expectations & Traditions
We may wish for the old family traditions to continue, but they change over time as our families change. Caring for someone with dementia means we have to adjust our expectations of what they can do and how our holiday will look. It helps to involve everyone in the holiday activities, including the individual with dementia. Consider taking a walk or drive to look at Christmas lights. You could ice cookies, tell stories, do chores together, make a memory book, or a family tree. To encourage conversation, place magazines, scrapbooks, and photo albums within reach that might stimulate memories. Play music to prompt dancing or some other form of exercise.
The most important tip is to be as flexible as possible and accept that no holiday will ever be perfect.
Maintain a Safe Environment
People with Alzheimer’s frequently have changes in judgment. Sometimes they may become confused, frustrated, or wander. To avoid some of this, consider pairing up various family members with their loved ones to watch out for the person. They can do things to entertain them and ensure their comfort while also giving you a break. If you are in a different home, it could become necessary to limit access to areas where injuries could occur. A buddy could prevent them from hanging out in the kitchen or near the stairs. Be sure to keep emergency phone numbers and a list of medications handy.
Practice Smart Gift Giving
I did a whole episode on gift-giving ideas, so I’ll highlight a couple of tips here. Encourage family and friends to give useful, practical gifts. Why not have them listen to the gift-giving episode! One gift I didn’t mention would be an ID bracelet. I’m sure there are pretty ones available these days. Other gifts may include comfortable, easy-on clothing. I’m going to have an episode on Adaptive clothing next week so stay tuned for that one. Advise others not to give gifts that could be dangerous, like candles, tools, or instruments. Also, overly challenging presents, like electronic equipment, difficult board games, or a pet, should be ruled out. Make sure to put respite care on your gift list; you need it and deserve some time off!
Less Stuff – More Meaning
If the stress of caregiving during the holidays is giving you a case of bah-humbug, take a step back. What can you cut out so that you can enjoy the holidays with your family? It’s not supposed to be a time of give-give-give and go-go-go; it’s a time for togetherness. Do your best to make memories that you will cherish and to give your loved one the best holiday that they can enjoy. If that means keeping things simple, that’s fine.
Small confession on keeping things simple; in the past 11 years, I have had 2 9 foot pre-lit Christmas trees. Both died well before I think it was reasonable for the cost. When the second one died last year the day before a party, I had to scramble to come up with an alternative. Since I am also a professional portrait photographer, I have 3 4 foot trees decorated and ready to use. I have 10-foot ceilings, so I used boxes and what not to elevate the trees. My hubby liked that they were super easy to decorate and suggested we not replace the giant tree. Well, I did replace one of the small trees with a 7-foot pencil tree, and I love it. The 9-foot tree was exhausting to decorate.
One of the things I like to do with Mom is looking at Christmas lights, but I think I’m going to give that tradition a new twist. Since most city parks have decorated trees, we can visit during the day. I thought it’d be nice to give that a try. Having her out in the evening is more challenging since she frequently gets confused.
Now, on to the less obvious and possibly more essential tips.
Practice Self Care
During this busy time of year, it’s easy to let our own needs slip. Less self-care is evident when I go to the gym, and each class gets smaller as the month progresses. We must maintain our routine and make time for things like exercise and support group attendance. I’m bringing you this a little late for this next tip, but it’s a good one regardless. Make time for healthy meal prep. Maybe this can be a challenge you take on in the new year. Spend one afternoon, perhaps with your loved one, prepping meals for the coming week. Having my preplanned, ready to prepare Blue Apron meals makes life a lot easier in my household.
Now may be a good time to start journaling or keeping an online blog. You’ll probably appreciate the memories you record. I know I feel that way by producing this podcast. Please make time to take walks with a friend and talking things out with them. Friends can be great therapists and free too!
Lastly, if you’re not already in one, consider joining a support group. I entered mine in November of 2017, and I haven’t missed a meeting yet. There are times when I need advice and times when I can give it, so it’s worth 90 minutes once a month. The Alzheimer’s Association sponsors my group. That’s where I’d look first for one.
Designate A Quiet Room
Having family and friends over gets noisy and confusing. Consider having a designated room where your loved one (or anyone who needs a break) can go to escape for a bit. It is a good idea for someone with toddlers too. Personally, sometimes I like to sneak to another room of my house for a 5-minute breather.
Avoid Crowded and Noisy Places
Having a quiet room in your home is excellent, but that’s not an option if you’re out and about. Loud noises can be startling and cause negative behaviors in your loved one. If you must go out, try, and find times that are less crazy than others. Also, going to nosier places earlier might be easier on the person with dementia than later in the day.
My Mom complains continuously if we’re in a noisy and dark restaurant, so we don’t go to those. I have found that she’s fine in a coffee shop even if it’s noisy if we go during the day and the light is brighter. When you understand why this is, it’s a lot easier to adjust.
Permit Yourself to Say “No”
None of us is obligated to attend every event of the season, and we’re certainly not obligated to hosting an event in our home. Each commitment we agree to means we are also saying no to something else. Prioritizing self-care, relaxation, and time with our loved one is not socially unacceptable. Choose the events that will give your holiday meaning and let the rest of it go.
Take A Break
Take advantage of visiting relatives to give yourself a break from caregiving. Ask each family member what they are comfortable doing and have them handle that task. Even if it’s for a short time, take advantage of their presence. Go for a walk, take a nap, have a bubble bath, or take yourself to a movie – you’ve earned a break.
If you have family members who are better at handling fewer hands-on tasks like phone calls, reading health care paperwork, etc., see if they can permanently take on these tasks. They may be in a more giving mood, and they can help you divide and conquer!
If traveling with your loved one is unavoidable, help make the trip successful using regular transportation modes and avoiding peak travel times. Keep plans simple and maintain daily routines as much as possible. Allow for extra time to avoid the stress of rushing. Make sure you arrange for any necessary services ahead of time like wheelchairs or daily living aids. This is a place where family members can be useful, handling these arrangements for you.
If Your Loved One is in a Care Facility
It’s still Christmas time even if they aren’t aware of it. I know my Mom isn’t aware of the upcoming holiday even though her residence is decorated very nicely with several trees. There is quite a bit of decoration, but she seems unaware of them. Some ways to share the spirit with care home residents would be joining them in the community celebrations. My Mom’s community is having two events, one in the afternoon and another on a Saturday morning. I’ll go to the weekday afternoon one, which allows my sister and her kids to do the Saturday morning event. Spread the cheer!
Suppose you regularly visit like I do, consider bringing a favorite holiday food to share. I know most of the residents where Mom lives LOVE chocolate baked goods. While sharing the treat, guide them in singing holiday songs and if you’re like me and can’t carry a tune with a handle, maybe reading a holiday story is a good option.
By doing any of these things, you’ll bring joy to many folks who need it, and the care staff is going to love you! Double win.
I don’t know about you, but all these tips have worn me out! Remember, you can get all the show notes’ recommendations, so I hope you haven’t stressed yourself trying to write them down. I will have one more episode before Christmas. Instead of releasing it on Tuesday, Christmas day, I’ll be releasing it the Sunday before.
Have the best holiday season possible, and remember, make as many happy memories as possible.