For many families, the holidays are marked with joyous holiday traditions and memories. But when a family member struggles as a result of Alzheimer’s or dementia, the holidays can be a trying time for the whole family.
Just as the holiday season is stressful enough for most people — worrying about travel plans, buying presents, coordinating work schedules or selecting the holiday meal — for people with any stage of Alzheimer’s or dementia, the holidays can be a complete sensory overload.
Joe Evanko, coordinator for the Mayfield/Graves County Alzheimer’s Support Group, said when people are adjusting to the holidays with a family member starting to exhibit dementia symptoms, it’s important to adjust expectations for the holidays.
“Maybe 20 years ago grandma would do the cooking and grandma would plan for the full family to get together,” Evanko said. “Well, realistically, what are the expectations now? It might just be as simple as setting a certain amount of time for dinner, then time to exchange gifts and after that it might be time to go.”
As the onset of Alzheimer’s or dementia usually affects the most recent memories first, it’s often the case that the family member won’t be able to remember the previous Christmas, but will be able to remember events from decades ago.
Evanko said he spends time with a 94-year-old relative who tends to gravitate the conversation more toward his experiences in Gen. George Patton’s Third Army in World War II.
Depending on the stage of the family member’s Alzheimer’s, and especially in later stage dementias, that person can become easily confused or overstimulated during the holidays.
“With the holidays, they are taken out of their routine and structure, and that can get them out of sync,” Evanko said.
The Alzheimer’s Association website lists several suggestions for families navigating the holidays:
n Familiarize the family with the situation before they arrive and prepare relatives’ expectations.
n Stick to the family member’s routine so as to not disturb or confuse the person.
n Involve the family member in holiday preparations or holiday traditions, and participate in their conversations. Allow the family member to participate in situations where they can be successful, like measuring ingredients for the holiday meal.
n Adapt the gift giving. Encourage gifts that are useful and safe for the family member, like an identification bracelet or gift certificates.
n Allow for frequent breaks and time for rest, for both the family member and primary caregiver.
As often times it’s another family member that becomes the primary caregiver for the loved one with Alzheimer’s or dementia, Evanko said it’s important to allow time for the caregiver to take a rest as well during the holidays.
For more information about handling Alzheimer’s during the holidays, visit www.alz.org.
Call Will Pinkston, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8676 or follow @WCPinkston on Twitter.