Holiday Tips When a Family Member Has Alzheimer's

Planning ahead makes easier holiday celebrations for families with Alzheimer’s.

Posted Dec 01, 2010

The holidays are a particularly tender time for families who have a loved one with dementia. Celebrations tend to be loaded with expectations, heightened feelings, and fixed ideas about "how we've always done it." Here are some suggestions for helping to make the holidays easier for everyone.

1) First of all, reflect on what your family most values about holidays: for example, being together, sharing a meal, singing, sharing news, laughter, and so on. When you affirm these values, then the details are less important.

2) With an impaired family member, it's important to be flexible in your planning. Be prepared to do things differently, adjust your expectations and keep things simple.

3) Consider letting another family member host the occasion, choose the best time of day for your loved one, perhaps have a shorter celebration, or arrange for them to leave when they're tired.

4) Find a quiet place for your loved one to rest, perhaps a nearby room, where family members can come one or two at a time to visit with them.

5) Depending on the stage of their illness, their "psychic shield," as I call it, is probably thin and permeable. Encourage family members to feel what life must be like for them. For example, they experience everything as vastly amplified and may need to be protected from the hurly burly of the holiday occasion.

6) A major holiday is great opportunity for raising the awareness of family members -- especially children -- of the preciousness of this time. Instead of lamenting the losses of dementia, invite the kids to rise to the occasion and see this as an opportunity for relating in new ways.

We don't know how long Mother or Grandmother will be with us, so when you're alone with her, perhaps you can ask her to tell a favorite story, or if that's too hard, you can tell her a story about something wonderful from your life.

7) Looking at family photos and listening to music are usually sure ways to connect. Sing a favorite song or carol. Maybe she'll join in and, if not, keep singing, because music is often one of the last pleasures to be affected by dementia.

8) If your loved one doesn't recognize family members any more, make nametags for everyone. It can be a fun project for the kids; make big letters (so elders can read the names!) and even decorate them.

9) Whatever your spiritual tradition, or even if you're not oriented this way, one of the greatest gifts you can offer is your caring, loving presence. Qualities like patience, kindness, calmness, and compassion are pure gold for anyone dealing with dementia. Find ways to appreciate something about them. Don't forget the words "I love you." Most important, because they are losing connection with a familiar world, holding hands or any physical contact is another great gift.

Blessings of the season,


ps Here's an interview published in the Boston Herald about this topic:  "Alzheimer's Families Hit Hardest"