Dementia & the Holidays: How to Reduce the Stress & Increase Your Joy

For most of us, the holidays are a time of love, family, friends and sharing. We reflect on the many blessings we enjoy, the importance of family and the traditions we hold dear. At the same time, the holidays can be extremely busy and stress-filled for all of us.

For the many caregivers and families of loved ones with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, the holidays can be even more stressful and sometimes even overwhelming. Say the experts at the Mayo Clinic, “As a caregiver, it isn't realistic to think that you will have the time or the energy to participate in all of the holiday activities as you once did. Yet, by adjusting your expectations and modifying some traditions, you can still find meaning and joy for you and your family.” 

Important Tips for a Happy Holiday Season

With a little understanding and advanced planning, you can still make the holiday season a special one for you, your loved one and the other members your family. The Mayo Clinic article,“Alzheimer's: Tips to Make Holidays More Enjoyable” and the Alzheimer’s Association website section, “Holidays and Alzheimer's Families” offer a variety of excellent tips that can keep your holidays merry and bright.

Some key highlights include:

  • Be Realistic and Practical – You can only do so much! Set realistic expectations for yourself and your loved one. Avoid taking on too many tasks and consider scaling down your traditions (e.g. limiting travel and reducing your number of guests).
  • Keep Things Calm – Loved ones with dementia can feel overwhelmed or irritated with the change in normal routine and increased level of noise, people and overall stimulation. Try to limit your number of guests and visitors at any one time. If your loved one is in the earlier stages of the disease, keep in mind they may also have anxiety about others noticing their impairment.
  • Be Open and Honest – Let family and friends know aboutyour loved one’s condition and your concerns. Prepare them for what to expect and how best to communicate with your loved one. Let them know that their patience and understanding is important and much appreciated.
  • Prepare Your Loved One Early – Prepare your loved one for holiday visitors ahead of time. Provide a private “sanctuary” that your loved one can retreat to when things get too hectic. Avoid giving them alcohol as it can cause depression.
  • Limit Your Decorations – Over decorating and using bright blinking lights can cause overstimulation. Avoid lighted candles and other safety hazards, as well as decorations that could be mistaken for edible treats, such as artificial fruits. Also, do not rearrange your furniture as this causes confusion.
  • Involve Your Loved One to the Extent They Are Able – You can share the joy with your loved one and enjoy the season in many ways. Take a ride to see holiday lights, sing or listen to holiday music, read cards together, bake cookies or hang ornaments together.
  • Give Safe, Useable Gifts – Your loved one will enjoy such gifts as photo albums of family and friends, stuffed animals or soft pillows, favorite music, videos and movies and simple games.
  • When Visiting or Traveling – When visiting friends and family, take a favorite “comfort item” with you and prepare the hosts for your loved one’s special needs, including a quiet area away from the crowd and noise. If you’re traveling distances, be sure to plan ahead for all possible eventualities.
  • Ask for Help and Support – Frequently, friends and relatives want to help, but don’t know how. Ask them for specific assistance during the holidays (e.g. pick up mom’s prescriptions on Tuesday).

Also, a gift certificate for respite care can afford your loved one a change of scenery while providing you with some valuable time off from your caregiving responsibilities to relax, recharge your batteries or go out with friends. 

You know your loved one best so trust your instincts. Keep in mind those things that tend to agitate or upset them and try to shelter them from the types of stimulation that can be stressful. 

As the Mayo Clinic concludes, “Remember, you can't control the progress of Alzheimer's or protect your loved one from all distress — but by planning and setting firm boundaries, you can avoid needless holiday stress and enjoy the warmth of the season.” 

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