Living with dementia

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Holidays and special occasions

At holidays, families and friends traditionally spend time together and share memories. This remains true when someone in the family has Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia. But for these families, holidays can also be a stressful time and one where families may experience a sense of loss.

If you are caring for someone with dementia, it may not be possible to celebrate every holiday the same way you are used to. Enjoying fewer get-togethers might give you the energy to enjoy those occasions more, without becoming exhausted. Here are some helpful suggestions to make the most of your holiday season.

  • Choose those occasions and traditions that are most important to you and your family.

  • Try to keep celebrations small.

  • Consider hiring help or asking other family members and friends to help, perhaps by bringing food, or coming early to help set up.

  • Ask the person with dementia if she would like to contribute. Even if she can no longer bake cookies, perhaps she can stir batter or add ingredients.

  • Involve her in planning a dinner or talking about whom to invite.

  • Create a new family tradition, like watching a favourite holiday movie, attending a religious service together or singing traditional songs.

  • If you are visiting an unfamiliar home, try to anticipate what you will need, for example, labelling on the bathroom door, non-slip mats for under dishes, and supplies of incontinence pads.

  • If visitors will be staying with you, try to anticipate what they will need to know, for example, about not leaving the front door open or leaving pills or other potentially hazardous items where the person can find them.

  • Remember that quiet, one-on-one activities, such as looking through a photo album together or playing cards, are less stressful than noisy activities with several people, even for someone who used to enjoy that type of activity.

Holidays in a long-term care home

If the person with dementia is in a long-term care home, you will need to find new ways to help her celebrate family traditions around holiday time. For example:

  • Bring a favourite holiday treat to share.

  • Sing traditional songs.

  • Bring photo albums and story books to enjoy together.

  • Join your family member in any holiday activities the home organizes.

If the person with dementia is able to go out or visit home, try it for a few hours several times before the special occasion to get a sense of how she reacts to the change in environment. Pay attention to non-verbal cues.
 

Special occasions

Life brings moments of joy, celebrations that mark milestones, and times of sorrow.
Whether the event is a wedding, birthday, bar mitzvah, funeral, holiday or a visit from someone far away, the special occasion is an opportunity to celebrate people and their relationships.

If you are caring for someone with dementia, you may be tempted to overlook special occasions because of your caregiving responsibility. If the family is celebrating an event, it may be difficult to decide whether to include the person with dementia or make other care arrangements.

When making your choice, it may be helpful to consider these questions:

  • How can you or other family members help the person with dementia have a meaningful time at a special occasion?

  • How can caregivers best care for themselves while caring for a person with dementia at a special occasion?

Tips for helping a person with dementia at a special occasion:

  • Remember that celebrating an event can bring feelings of joy or sadness. If a celebration reminds the person with dementia of events he participated in in the past, he may think that the event being celebrated is from another era. He may speak of people and activities from the past as if they were taking place in the present. Rather than trying to reorient the person to the present, talk about the past event and his memories of similar occasions. Enjoy revisiting the incident through conversation and laughter. If he experiences sadness, empathize with him, reminding him that he is valued; then redirect his thoughts to other things.

  • If you planning an event that honours the person with dementia, hold the activity at a time of day when he is most able to participate. Many people with dementia are at their best in the mornings, though others may need a relaxed morning and are more able to take part in afternoon activities. Consider having an event with fewer guests. Or stagger the times guests arrive so it’s easier for them to interact with the person one-on-one.

  • Choose a familiar place for the event. This reduces stress and provides a feeling of well-being.

  • Whenever possible, involve him in preparing for the occasion. Much of the pleasure of an event is the camaraderie of getting ready and the anticipation of the special day.

  • If he is sensitive to too much stimulation, consider including him in the part of an event that would be the most meaningful. If he enjoys events that are formal or sentimental, consider taking him to the wedding ceremony only. Then arrange for someone to stay with him during the busy event of the reception.

  • If the person with dementia is unable to attend the special occasion, consider bringing the event to the person. Arrange a special visit from the bride or groom, retiree or person being honoured. Plan for opportunities where other family members can visit individually or in small groups to avoid overwhelming the person.

  • Though he may not recall all his past accomplishments or roles in the family story, he is still the person who could tell a funny story, or hosted family gatherings. He is still the family tease or the one who could repair anything. His changing abilities have not altered his importance in the family or the need to be included at special occasions.

Tips for caregivers planning special occasions:

  • Each person with dementia or her family decides on the best time to tell others about the diagnosis. If family or friends who don’t know about the diagnosis will be attending a special occasion, consider telling them about the diagnosis beforehand so they can understand changes in the person’s abilities. You could suggest things they could do while visiting, so that the visit can be enjoyable for everyone.

  • Plan ahead for the event by delegating tasks to others. This helps you to come to the occasion more energized.

  • Traditions are a significant part of special occasions. Plan to continue the most important traditions. Think of ways you might simplify family customs. For example, instead of baking many kinds of cookies, choose to make two family favourites.

  • Before the special occasion, keep routines that are important for you and the person you care for. Take your daily walk, follow patterns of sleep and wakefulness, eat regular meals and plan to have times of solitude.

  • If the person with dementia will not be attending all parts of a celebration, arrange for companion care so that you can attend, knowing that she is cared for.

  • A visit from faraway family members may be a good time for a family discussion about the needs of the person with dementia. Plan this at a time when everyone is relaxed and able to focus on the discussion. If the person with dementia is taking part in the conversation, have the meeting at a time of day that is best for her. If she is unable to take part, have the discussion at a time when she is busy doing something else.

  • While planning or preparing for a special occasion you may need emotional support. Consider calling a friend, community professional such as a pastor, priest or social worker, or the Alzheimer Society. Speaking with someone else can help you sort out your thoughts and feelings.

  • As a family caregiver, look for balance in your need to care for yourself and your desire for the person with dementia and other family members to enjoy themselves. Remember that being physically and emotionally healthy is the greatest gift you can give to the person and to your family and friends.

Last Updated: 12/16/11