Contrary to our well-intentioned beliefs, holiday celebrations are not always enjoyable for our friends with Alzheimer’s disease. We might assume that seeing family and friends, enjoying a nice meal, or dressing up for a special occasion would be a welcomed change of pace for someone who’s life has become quite sheltered and predictable. However, many people find the opposite to be true.
Any deviation from routine, especially one that is charged with excitement and urgency, can be very unsettling for someone with dementia. Here are some tips for maximizing enjoyment during the holidays:
- Allow for reminiscing and self-orientation to a different time. Many people with cognitive impairment have very strong memories from their most productive, significant, or formative years. This was a time when they had parents who followed certain traditions, or children they went to great lengths to surprise. Maybe they spent 50 years sharing the holidays with a spouse who is no longer with them. Being a guest at someone else’s holiday celebration can be unsettling for reasons hard to articulate. Show some interest in the holidays as they remember them- their family looks very different now.
- Factor in down time and rest breaks. It’s a long, tiring day. Fatigue and anxiety can negatively impact everybody’s good time.
- Try to maintain some semblance of routine. Deviation from structure and routine can cause anxiety. Frequent walks or repetitive gross motor activity may lessen pacing or repetitive questions driven by anxiety.
- Be sensitive to conversational demands. During holiday celebrations, there tends to be lots of greeting and hugging, followed by simple questions asked strictly out of courtesy. Such informal, spontaneous questions can be very difficult to answer for someone with dementia. There might be some difficulty recalling the names or relationship of family members, or difficulty finding the right words to answer a question. Expect some repetitive “go-t0” questions and responses from a person trying to keep up with the conversational demands at a holiday function.
- It’s ok to have a private celebration on a smaller scale. Many people with dementia don’t need to experience a big celebration. Sometimes it is best just to do the big, loud, busy family party without him or her in attendance- and have a smaller, more intimate gathering in the person’s own environment. Less chaos can mean a more joyful experience for everyone, and the individualized attention may be the most meaningful gift you can give.