The holiday season can be a special time for fellowship with family and friends, enjoying the festivities, shopping for gifts and baking cookies. Yet, for families living with Alzheimer's disease or other challenging conditions, the holidays can create additional stress on top of the day-to-day caregiving responsibilities. The Alzheimer's Association has practical suggestions for how to plan and strategize before family gatherings and other holiday activities.
If some relatives are visiting for the first time in a while, it can reduce stress for everyone by giving them a call or sending a letter before the visit to prepare them. Your loved one might have trouble following conversations, get overwhelmed by larger crowds, repeat things a lot, or have more anxiety. If family and friends know that one-on-one conversations are best, or that they need to give Mom more time to finish her thoughts, the visit will go more smoothly. Also, if late afternoon or evening confusion and agitation are a problem, think about having celebrations earlier in the day, or keep the room well-lit. Multiple small gatherings are preferred for someone with memory loss, and consider having a potluck-style meal if you decide to host, to minimize preparation time.
Start new traditions by building on the old and making adjustments as needed. For example, Mom might not be able to follow recipes anymore, but she can help roll out cookie dough, wrap simple packages, set the table, or decorate the house. (Try to avoid blinking lights, which can be unsettling, and decorations that look like food that can be mistaken as edible.) The key to caring for someone with memory loss is enjoying the moments. Together you can open and read the holiday cards, look at old photographs, listen to favorite music, or sing songs with the grandchildren.
Remember that maintaining a sense of routine helps individuals with memory loss make sense of their world and function at their highest level. Regular sleep routine, good diet (minimizing caffeine and alcohol) and exercise is important for both the caregiver and care recipient. As much as possible, continue the adult day health program during the holidays, or the companion visits. Having structure and meaningful activities throughout the day can help minimize anxiety and improve their quality of life.
Thinking of gift suggestions for your loved one early in the season can also help you as the caregiver. Some ideas may include the Safe Return bracelet from the Alzheimer's Association, research on local home care or adult day health agencies, family photo albums, comfortable and easy to put on clothes (elastic waist, large sweatshirts, etc.), gift certificate to a beauty salon, hand lotion and CDs of their favorite tunes.
And most importantly, don't be afraid to ask for help. The holidays are about giving. Allow someone to give you respite so that you stay healthy and can continue to care for your loved one. Make a list of tasks ahead of time so that when someone asks, "What can I do to help?" you are prepared with specifics. Sometimes the hardest thing to do as a caregiver is accept help. Your list might include running errands, shopping for gifts, prepared meals or having a friend enjoy a cup of tea with Mom so that you can rest.
Visit www.alz.org for support groups in your area and other helpful resources.
For information call the Groton Program at 978-448-1400, ext. 2, or visit www.elderdayservices.com.
Cooperative Elder Services Inc. Adult Day Health Centers