While, for most, the holidays are a joyful season spent together with loved ones, this time of year can create confusion and fear for people with dementia. Being adaptable and building an inclusive environment are key to creating dementia-friendly holidays and celebrations. Families caring for someone with dementia should consider the following steps to help make gatherings safe and dementia-friendly during this festive time.
Adapt past favorite traditions or create new ones. Build on old traditions where you can, such as enjoying favorite music or movies. Start new ones around things your loved one likes to do such as touring neighborhood holiday lights. Whenever possible, involve the person by asking what traditions are important to them as this will help you to prioritize and plan.
Create a safe and calm space. Persons with dementia may experience changes in judgment. Avoid fragile decorations that can shatter and create sharp fragments as well as ones that could be mistaken for edible treats. Reduce clutter to avoid potential tripping hazards. Place Christmas trees close to the wall to avoid falls, and use battery-powered candles to reduce fire hazards. With people coming in and out of the home, identify someone to be responsible to monitor the person with dementia to avoid wandering.
Prepare your loved one. Help build familiarity and comfort by showing him/her photos of the guests or arrange a phone call/video chat with the visitors beforehand. Plan for all gatherings to be at a time of day that is most beneficial for the person with dementia, like the middle of the day when they are not tired.
Be open with guests. Consider sharing beneficial information with guests beforehand, such as ways they can communicate with the person, what they respond well to and what may upset them. In addition, provide updates on any changes to memory, behavior or physical appearance that have occurred since their last visit. “Remind guests to enter the room slowly and introduce themselves and their relationship to the person. Do not ask, ‘Do you know who I am?’ or correct, interrupt or criticize their memory,” suggests Pat Kaplan, instructor of the “Meaningful Conversations” program at Alzheimers Coachella Valley.
Take care of yourself, too. One of the most essential parts of care giving is taking care of yourself. If you are not getting enough rest, exercising or not eating well, it is important to take time for yourself so you can be the best version of you that you can be.
Holidays can be a meaningful time for friends and family to reconnect with one another over special traditions and rituals. Special celebrations that honor the past can be especially reassuring for those with dementia. However, crowds and overstimulation can make the holiday season feel overwhelming and confusing, particularly for those with memory disorders.
Remember, the holidays are opportunities to share time with people you love. Try to make these celebrations easy on yourself and for the person with dementia so that you may concentrate on enjoying your time together.
Editorial by Patricia Riley, board member of Alzheimers Coachella Valley, a community resource for dementia support and education. For more information, call (760) 776-3100 or visit www.cvalzheimers.org.