When you live with Alzheimer’s disease or any other form of dementia, feast days and celebrations may be difficult to enjoy because they can be filled with emotions and conflicting expectations.
Every year, seasonal holidays and birthdays allow us to remember the value of traditions and to show affection for our loved ones, but they can also magnify feelings of loss for things that have changed due to Alzheimer’s. For me personally, Christmas celebrations have always represented a delightful change in the daily routine. I love getting the house ready, decorating the tree, lighting many candles, and gathering friends and relatives for lunch and to exchange gifts. I thought I’d never give up any of it.
But for some years now, since my mother developed Alzheimer’s, I have felt at a crossroads at every holiday. Do we continue to celebrate all together with relatives, friends and Mom, despite fatigue, discomfort, and awkward moments? Or opt for caregiver respite and bring Mom to an Alzheimer’s day care center near me during the busy, loud celebrations?
At first, this choice felt uncomfortable to me and I was embarassed I was even considering it. What to do? How to choose between immediate family and friends? How to explain to those I haven’t seen in a while how Alzheimer’s is affecting Mom? How to remain composed as I watch their reactions to Mom’s limitations and differences? How to keep Mom content when everything around her may seem more confusing than ever and over-stimulating? It was a hard choice.
Understand whether the Alzheimer’s Patient Can Enjoy the Party
After consulting with family members, we decided to celebrate Christmas with Mom. It seems that her disease still allows her to enjoy moments of celebration with loved ones. So, we continue to celebrate and follow traditions, hoping that in doing so, we can help her to relive the emotions of past holidays and, perhaps, feel the happiness around her. Maybe she will not recognize who is with her or will not appreciate the gifts, but we believe she will appreciate the affection in the room and hope that the joy will be contagious.
Be Open with Guests
Relatives and friends are aware of our mother’s disease, but when we make invitations, we try to always remind our guests of Mom’s limits and update them on her current status. I think guests appreciate knowing about her stage of disease and that, while she likely will not recognize them, we are confident their presence will speak to her in some positive way.
We ask relatives and friends to be patient with her, to avoid interruptting or correcting her, and to allow her time to finish her thoughts. We ask them to endeavor to understand her in a new, different way and to remember that any strange behaviors are caused by her disease and not her person.
Set Realistic Expectations
In order to celebrate with my mother, we need to compromise and realize that we cannot organize everything as perfectly as we may have done in previous years. For decorations, we settle for some garlands we have had for years, a few lights that do not flash, and nothing too garish or bulky. We try to avoid decorations that could cause Mom more disorientation or obstruct her ability to get around. For safety, I replace traditional candles with soothing battery-operated ones.
Also important is my attitude and demeanor. As I prepare for guests, I attempt to remain as serene as possible; avoiding stress by delegating tasks (such as cooking certain dishes) and minimizing superfluous tasks. One gift of Alzheimer’s? I now appreciate my friends and family even more — they are always happy to cooperate and help!
Engage with Your Alzheimer’s Patient
Your loved one may be able to recall family traditions and favorite celebrations from the distant past. I asked my mother about family festivities when she was a girl and she had the idea of decorating a small tree outside the house with biscuits and tangerines like she used to do when she was little. I was so happy to involve her in decorating in a meaningful way! I also guided her to do small, suitable activities for Alzheimer’s patients like folding napkins, making simple crafts, putting up decorations in her room, peeling potatoes, dusting furniture, and attaching paper snowflakes to packages. I left her free to do these activities at her own pace and she was very happy with the result. In some ways it created more tidying up for me, but her engagement and sense of purpose was worth it.
Slowly Enter Celebration-Mode
Easing into holidays (like many things in life) can make transitions more gentle. Music can help in this regard and gets us all in the mood to be festive. When we start listening to holiday music early in the season, for example, I find that my Mom is less anxious when the parties actually begin.
Suggest Safe and Useful Gifts
Many of my friends ask me about the best gifts for alzheimer’s patients. I am always touched by this and am happy to provide a list of what seem to be my Mom’s favorite things right now.
- A music CD. Music, and especially singing, is a nice pastime for my mother and music also seems to stimulate her brain. Old favorites from when she was younger are a special treat.
- A photo album. My mother enjoys looking at happy moments in photographs especially photographs of her with her children and her friends. She doesn’t alway recognize herself but I believe the emotions and joy in the photos shine through regardless.
- A coloring book and colored pencils. For people with Alzheimer’s or dementia, coloring simple designs can be therapeutic. Coloring is also an activity that can be interrupted and easily resumed without any real ramifications. Reading a book or watching a movie, on the other hand, is less ideal because after a break the Alzheimer’s patient may not remember what happened in the story previously.
- An hour of your time. A great gift for a dear person with dementia is to spend quality time with him or her. This is also a gift for the family caregiver who may need a break for a little while. I always feel better when I know my mother is spending time with someone else who loves her, and this frees me to spend some time doing something for myself. Depending on the stage of the person with Alzheimer’s, you take him or her for a walk, collaborate on a puzzle, or simplybe together.
- Objects for everyday use. Gifts may also be simple objects useful in everyday life (that may often get misplaced), such as toiletries, combs, brushes, handkerchiefs, or socks.
- Special watches. A watch can help re-orient a person with dementia to date and time. One example is Clockaid
- Sensor cushions. These pillows alert family members if the Alzheimer’s patient has gotten out of bed and can provide caregivers with peace of mind. Alimedn sells these but there are other companies that do, too.
- A simple radio. The ideal radio for a person with dementia is easy-to-use and works with a single button, like this: One Button Radio.
- Games and apps for Alzheimer’s or dementia. Look for smartphone or tablet apps that are aimed at stimulating the brain or helping to ease everyday tasks or providing memory care facilities. Some possibilities are It’s Done, MindMate, Draw Free, and FlowerGarden.
- Board games, jigsaw puzzles, bingo, and sorting (buttons, socks, etc.) are also good activities for patients with Alzheimer’s but we’ll have another blog all about activities coming soon.
Remember, whether it’s a holiday or any day, as a caregiver for a loved one with Alzheimer’s you’ll need fulfilling and nurturing activites for yourself, too. Try to make time for self-care and find support. MyHealios is a unique support service that provides expert-recommended, convenient guidance for family caregivers. The MyHealios privacy-protected telehealth program empowers you to better care of yourself and your loved one – for improved wellness, lower stress, greater life balance, and easier home life. Medical evidence supports these types of interventions and convenient technology makes our services available nearly anywhere there is a computer, tablet, or smart phone.