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How to Deal with Dementia During the Holidays

Though there’s no way to guarantee an untroubled holiday celebration, acting strategically to minimize discomfort and confusion can go a long way toward making gatherings merry and bright. Use these tips from the Alzeheimer’s Association to help.

The holiday season is a festive time full of laughter and fond memories, but it can be a stressful time for those with dementia and their caregivers. Celebrations and their associated elements – rearranged or redecorated spaces, visitors and interruptions in routine – can agitate, confuse and overstimulate those with dementia.

As a result, caregivers can feel frustrated, isolated or anxious. Though there’s no way to guarantee an untroubled holiday celebration, acting strategically to minimize discomfort and confusion can go a long way toward making gatherings merry and bright. Use these tips from the Alzeheimer’s Association to help.

Make a plan

Discuss the holidays with the person who has dementia and ask if they feel up to the usual celebration. If not, you might have to change your plans.

Consider passing hosting responsibilities on to family or friends and enjoying their hospitality. If you’d like to host but nighttime agitation is a problem, try switching a holiday dinner to a holiday lunch. Being flexible to accommodate how things have changed can make things much simpler.

Minimize the stress of travel

If you’ll travel with someone who has dementia, never leave the person alone and make sure they’re wearing an ID bracelet. Allow extra time to avoid the stress of rushing, avoid long layovers, keep plans simple, avoid peak travel times and try to use familiar modes of transportation.

Arranging for services like wheelchairs ahead of time can really minimize stress. Also talk to your host in advance of your visit to find out if they have a quiet space where the person with dementia can take a break or a nap as needed. If your host knows beforehand that such a space would be helpful, they might be able to accommodate.

Prepare the patient

If you’re hosting, you have your own prep work to do! Show the person with dementia pictures of who will be visiting and remind them of who each person is to help minimize confusion.

Keep it classic

Playing familiar holiday music and serving familiar holiday foods can help the person with dementia enjoy the holidays, so don’t neglect old favorites.

Happily, many traditional holiday activities are safe and enjoyable for those with dementia. Try taking a walk, icing cookies, telling stories, decorating the tree or engaging in another favorite pastime to bring a smile to your loved one’s face.

Prepare visitors

Give anyone who will visit an honest update on the condition of the person with dementia before they arrive. Remind them that the best way to communicate with someone who has dementia is to be calm, supportive, and patient; to speak slowly; and to address the person by name.

If visitors need gift ideas, comfortable and easy-to-remove clothing, photo albums, and favorite music and movies are all good bets. Advise gift-givers to avoid complicated board games, dangerous tools and complex electronics that can frustrate or endanger the person with dementia.

Prepare the home

Make sure there’s a “quiet room” where the person with dementia can go if the gathering becomes too overwhelming and where they can take regularly scheduled naps.

When it comes time to decorate, avoid flashing lights which can confuse and distract those with dementia. Also avoid artificial fruits or candies, which can be equally confusing. Make sure there’s space for walking side-by-side, wheelchairs, walkers and other mobility aids, and keep cords out of walkways so no one gets tripped up.

Consider assigning a “buddy” who can keep an eye on the person with dementia throughout the celebration to ensure their comfort while you’re busy with hosting duties. Also try to seat the person with dementia where they can focus on conversation as much as possible without being distracted.

In addition to holiday-specific considerations, don’t forget the core tenets of environmental and patient safety that apply throughout the year:

  • Consider limiting access to the kitchen, stairwells and other areas in which injuries often occur
  • Avoid darkly colored rugs which can appear as holes to those with dementia
  • Maintain bright, even lighting
  • Check the temperature of food and drinks
  • Supervise when the person you care for takes medication
  • Keep emergency phone numbers and a list of medications handy

Take care of yourself

One of the most important parts of caregiving is taking care of yourself. As Melissa Morante of ComForCare describes it, “You can’t pour from an empty vessel.”

Keep your own spirits high during the holiday season by staying positive and asking for help when you need it – from family and friends or from a professional. If you’re hosting and you don’t have the energy or bandwidth to execute every holiday tradition, dish or decoration, that’s okay. Giving visitors a heads up beforehand will minimize uncomfortable surprises, and someone might even offer to lend an extra hand to help out.

Consider booking a massage for after the holidays or scheduling lunch with a friend: two ways of investing a few hours in your own relaxation and wellbeing. Taking care of an ill or elderly loved one is not a sprint, it’s a marathon, and doing things for yourself helps you maintain the well of patience, calm and caring that you draw from throughout your journey as a caregiver.

By taking these steps to avoid stress for you and the person you care for, you can help make sure that the holiday season is a source of joy rather than a source of anxiety.

ComForCare of Palm Beach Gardens offers private-duty, non-medical home health care that allows people to age comfortably, safely and happily in place. Services include meal preparation, light housekeeping, grooming and hygiene help, transportation assistance, medication reminders and more. To learn more, visit comforcare.com/palmbeach.

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