Often, the holiday season can seem overwhelming for those caregiving for loved ones with memory disorders. Between navigating logistics and managing expectations for both family members and the individual in your care, it can feel like the holidays are filled with more stress than joy.
“It’s very important to recognize how the holidays impact people with cognitive impairment and how that can impact caregivers,” said Harlock. “Even though the holidays are joyful and something we look forward to, if your day is already filled with the activities necessary to care for a loved one, adding the events and expectations of the holiday season can seem overwhelming.”
Understanding the Diagnosis
“I think it’s always important to go back to understanding the diagnosis. Often we use the terms Alzheimer’s, dementia and memory loss interchangeably, but they are very different, and each one of those diagnoses has different stages, so it’s important to understand the person you’re caring for.”
Neurodegenerative disease like Alzheimer’s or dementia are progressive disorders, so understanding the stages people are at is important in understanding how they will be affected by the holiday season.
Someone who is in an early stage of any of these conditions may have very little change in their holiday routine and may still enjoy the season very much. However, someone in the later stages of this illness may struggle more with the non-stop action and changes to their routine.
Evaluate your Traditions, Beliefs and Expectations
“I think it’s important that people are evaluating their traditions and beliefs and looking at their expectations. Sometimes, we get caught up in the fancy wrapping, or perfectly decorated house, and while those may have been important before, it’s important to evaluate whether or not they are still important and whether they are really at the essence of the tradition,” said Harlock. “So, I encourage people to take time to think about what these traditions are really about, and rarely are they about fancy wrapping and perfectly decorated houses. They’re about spiritual connections and growth with other people,” said Harlock.
Often, there is more than one way to honor a tradition or belief. Although you may have celebrated the holiday season a certain way for decades, now you may have to make some changes. It is important to evaluate your expectations as a care partner and prioritize the events that are the most enjoyable and most meaningful, and which ones will be too stressful for the person you are caring for.
“Try to look at what’s important versus what you’ve always done,” added Harlock.
Communicating changes is very important. If in the past you hosted the family event and that is no longer feasible, begin planning early for those changes.
All adjustments come down to communication. It’s okay to let loved ones know why you’re changing things up and what they can expect. Be open to family recommendations, but be realistic. If you need to stand your ground, stand your ground.
“Allow yourself and other people to be disappointed that you have to change your traditions. This is a loss, and it’s important to acknowledge that loss,” said Harlock. “However, while I encourage you to acknowledge that this is a loss, don’t get stuck in it, there are many ways to honor a tradition.”
People with dementia do best when they stick to a routine, so try to keep the routine consistent, even through the holiday season.
The non-stop activity can be tough for the caregiver and the person with a memory disorder, so do your best to keep the changes as minimal as possible. It is important to note that changes in environment, like holiday decorations, can be disturbing for people with dementia, so consider pulling back on some of the more extreme decorations.
Tips for Caregiving through the Holidays
1.Wherever possible, include the person who has the diagnosis
If the person you are caring for is able to articulate what events they enjoy participating in during the holidays, and what they could give up, have that conversation.
2.Think about where the events will take place
Consider where the holiday events will take place. Take into account the routine changes and consider the environment (hot, noisy, and crowded) and plan accordingly.
3. How long is the event?
If the event is going to last 8 hours and you know that may be overwhelming for the person in your care, consider just going towards the end for coffee and deserts. It may be easier to break the holidays up into smaller events, over four or five days.
4.Time of the event
Historically, people with dementia struggle with increased anxiety and confusion in the late afternoon or evenings. Consider switching the event from a dinner to brunch. That way you are still honoring the tradition and getting together as a family, you’re just changing the timeline.
5.Try to set aside a quiet space for your loved one.
People with dementia struggle with commotion, which the holiday season can be full of. To avoid overwhelming that person, consider having a quiet room to give the person with dementia a chance to break from the chaos. This is especially helpful if the person has trouble following a conversation with a group of people. This space will give your loved one a chance to have more meaningful one on one conversations.
6. Decorations can be overwhelming for a person with dementia.
Try to minimize the distractions. Decorations can add stimulation that might be upsetting or overwhelming for the person you’re caring for.
7. Be realistic and flexible
Think about what the holidays mean to you and find ways to participate in and honor your traditions that are enjoyable for both you and the person you’re caring for.
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The content of this post is intended for general educational and informational purposes only; it does not constitute medical advice. Readers should always consult with a licensed healthcare professional for diagnosis and treatment.