Tips for Holiday Gatherings with Family Members with Dementia
For family members caring for someone with Dementia, the holidays can become an incredibly stressful time. Often caregivers feel pulled in many different directions and also have the difficult task of identifying what their loved one can and can’t handle during the busy holiday season.
“Many family caregivers have confided in me that the holidays can become stressful as many relatives may be in town or available to come see the person with dementia and don’t understand the added strain this puts on both the caregiver and the person with dementia,” says Julie Alicki, LMSW, Certified Advanced Dementia Practitioner and Alzheimer’s Support Group Leader at the Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan. “For people with dementia, gatherings with a large crowd may be too overwhelming and changes in their daily routines may cause additional confusion and frustration. Often out-of-town family does not understand these realities as they may not be aware of the cognitive changes that have taken place since they last saw their family member.”
Alicki recommends that family members of those with dementia follow the six tips below to help make the holidays more enjoyable for both the person with dementia and their caregiver.
- Practice Patience and Understanding: Those providing care to someone with dementia often are very aware of what may agitate that person or trigger a negative response. Out of town family and friends who do not have the same interaction may not understand why an invitation to attend a gathering is turned down or why their family member with dementia doesn’t recognize them. Practicing patience and understanding with both the caregiver and the person with dementia can make a huge difference. “I tell people to trust that the family caregiver knows what the person with dementia can and can’t handle and don’t try to add guilt about not participating in an event or gathering,” says Alicki. “Also understand that when it comes to dementia a person can have moments of clarity mixed with moments of confusion and it may be frustrating to them as well.”
- Provide Alternatives: The activity or gathering you have planned may be too challenging for someone with dementia. If an invitation is turned down try providing alternatives. Some people with dementia may get agitated in large groups, so offer to meet with that person one-on-one or in a smaller setting. For some, a restaurant may involve too many distractions; perhaps a quieter environment would be best. Talk with the family caregiver to find out what would work for them and be flexible.
- Offer Respite: Caring for a loved one can be extremely rewarding and often overwhelming. Ask the family caregiver if you can provide them with a break while spending time with the person with dementia. For some caregivers this is the greatest gift you could give them for the holidays- some time off! If you are unable to provide them with a break, ask what they do need. Caregivers might be hesitant to ask for help, but may be able to identify an area where they could use help (i.e. doing laundry, cleaning the home or preparing a meal).
- Create Nametags: You may think this sounds silly as everyone in your family knows who people are, but for someone with dementia remembering names can be difficult and may make them anxious or frustrated when they realize they are unable to recall a name. Providing nametags is a simple way to help them feel a part of the festivities and remove that obstacle.
- Designate a Quiet Place: For many individuals with dementia, a loud gathering can be overwhelming and may cause agitation. If possible, provide a quiet room so they can take a break if they need some space away from all the commotion. Or, consider having them in the quiet room and have family members come in one at a time or in small groups to visit. Again, talk to the caregiver to see if this would be a beneficial alternative.
- Be Prepared for an Early Departure: If the person with dementia is having a difficult time at the gathering the caregiver may have to take him/her home earlier than expected. If gift giving is involved in your celebration you may want to do this earlier in the evening in the event that an early departure is necessary.
By making the changes above to your holiday plans you may be able to provide some relief and more enjoyment to your family member or friend with dementia and their caregiver.
For more information on caregiving, support groups, in-home care, and other senior related services, visit www.aaawm.org or call the Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan at (616) 456-5664.