The holidays can be a stressful time for us all, but those caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s face an added set of challenges, both practical and emotional.  Dealing with grief during this cheery season, whether you’re grieving a deceased loved one or grieving the many daily losses of dementia, is very difficult.  Furthermore, attending to holiday shopping, hosting family, and keeping a calm environment and stable routine for your loved one with dementia can be a real challenge!  Read on to learn some strategies for getting through the holiday season as an Alzheimer’s caregiver.

Grieving and the Holidays

Taken from “Don’t Let the Grinch Steal Your Christmas” by Drs. Gloria and Heidi Horsley. If you are struggling with your grief this year — over any kind of loss — here are some suggestions that may help you defeat that Grinch and get through the holidays:

  • Modify your activities. Pick and choose your events and let people know early if you are going to change your usual plans.
  • Plan some downtime. A short nap or a brief yoga stretch can do wonders.
  • Let others pitch in and bring some dishes for dinner. Plan a dinner where everyone brings a dish that has special meaning for your loved one.
  • Ask family members or friends to take your kids shopping or to see Santa.
  • Put a post on your Facebook page honoring your loved one. You can include a special picture. We are amazed by the many people who have logged into our Facebook page with supportive comments and special memories.
  • Exercise. This can be as simple as going for a daily walk. Walking for 20 minutes a day can reduce your risk of having a stroke.
  • Rent a funny movie. Laughter changes your brain chemistry.
  • Express gratitude. Find one thing that you are grateful for. At first it might be as simple as being glad you can match your socks. Just eight minutes a day of expressing gratitude can make positive changes in brain chemistry.

Preparing the Person with Alzheimer’s Disease

  • · Talk about and show photos of the people who are coming to visit.
  • Play familiar holiday music and serve favorite traditional holiday foods.
  • Watch and/or help with decorations.
  • Persons with AD may recognize faces of family members and friends, but can’t recall their names – name tags may be helpful.
  • Have a “quiet” room if things get too hectic and have a familiar person stay with them so they don’t feel isolated or “left out”.
  • Prepare for distractions beforehand (i.e. use of a photo album) to divert attention if problem behaviors occur.

Preparing Visitors

  • Delegate tasks to family members to make your day easier.
  • Encourage them to visit, but to call ahead and arrange a good time to visit.
  • Have visitors come during the part of the day your know your loved one is at his/her best.
  • Familiarize visitors with behavior and condition changes of loved one with AD, so they will not be shocked by the appearance/behavior of the person.
  • Explain why you are limiting the length of the visit and the number of visitors.
  • Watch for signs of fatigues and alert family when it is time for them to leave.

 Selecting Activities

  • Manage your expectations by not taking on too much and choosing a few activities that are the most important to you and your loved one. 
  • Use past interests as a guide.  When the activity is first introduced, if there is no interest, try again later.
  • Slow the pace of the activity to allow the person with AD to comprehend as well as enjoy the sensory pleasure from the activity.
  • Activity suggestions (based on ability to succeed and for satisfaction and safety): make ornaments; decorate tree; decorate cookies; package baked goods; polish silver or menorah; set table; wrap boxes; seal or stamp holiday cards; sing or listen to songs; enjoy photos, videos, slides of family and past holidays; stories; walks.

Preparing Your Home

  • Music and movies bring back your most cherished memories of the holidays, however, music that is too loud or vigorous may be unsettling to your loved one.
  • People with Alzheimer’s may become disoriented by blinking lights and by decorations that substantially change a familiar environment, so keep it simple.

Maintaining Safety

  • Create a clear pathway for walking; avoid wires, cords or throw rugs.
  • Use ribbon or yarn instead of sharp hooks to hang ornaments and decorations.
  • Avoid decorating with items that look edible.
  • Avoid confusing, blinking lights.
  • Do not leave lighted candles or fireplace unattended.
  • Use plastic or silk mistletoe rather than real ones; if eaten it is toxic.

Trust your instincts

Caregivers know best what their loved ones with Alzheimer’s disease are capable of doing – and what agitates and upsets them.  Resist pressure to celebrate the way others may expect you to.  You can’t control the progress of Alzheimer’s or protect your loved one from all distress.  However, by planning and setting firm boundaries, you can avoid needless holiday stress and enjoy the warmth of the season. For Tips with gift suggestions, creative ways to include your person living with dementia, and more please call 512-241-0420 or email [email protected]. Our 24/7 helpline is also available over the holidays for assistance or just to speak with someone who cares.