Togetherness, sharing, laughter. Stress, anxiety, sadness. While almost everyone would vote for the first scenario as the ideal holiday setting, the reality may be more of the latter — especially for loved ones with memory loss.
People in the early stages of dementia recognize the changes taking place in their brain, and can become frustrated and unhappy when they are unable to think and respond as they once did.
It’s possible to create happier holidays for a loved one with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. Here are some tips for smoother celebrations when a loved one has memory loss:
- Share the changes. Because the holidays are traditionally an emotional time, when relatives who may not have seen one another since last year reunite, it may be a shock when they see the decline in a loved one’s cognitive functioning.
Therefore, it’s best to familiarize visitors with what to expect. You might want to send out an email in advance of the holiday gathering, advising guests about the best ways to engage with the senior who has memory impairment. These include:
- Patience. The person with memory loss is doing the best they can. Help them feel safe and supported by empathizing with their condition.
- Repetition. Remind the person who you are if they appear unsure, and repeat any information that appears to be easily forgotten.
- Ask simple, “yes” and “no” questions the senior can answer, rather than open-ended ones that can create anxiety if they do not know how to respond.
- Speak slowly. Processing time takes longer, both with normal aging and with cognitive decline.
- One idea at a time. Don’t launch into a long story and expect them to be able to follow along. Offer a single thought and wait for a response.
- Check-in with your loved one often. Crowds can be upsetting for many people, and particularly someone with Alzheimer’s, who may become anxious or overwhelmed by so many faces. Ask, “How are you doing? Do you need a break?” If your loved one appears stressed or withdrawn, bring them into a quiet room and sit with them until they feel calm. The party will carry on just fine if you’re not in the room for a bit.
- Build on tradition. Your loved one no doubt remembers holidays past, even if the details are somewhat hazy. Include them as much as possible in holiday preparation. Do they enjoy art? Have they been involved with crafts projects in the past?
If grandma knitted scarves for every member of the family, perhaps she’d like to help decorate the cookies you bake. If Uncle Bill used to make all sorts of woodcarvings in his workshop, ask him to decorate the tree with simple objects that are beautiful and safe. Don’t use blinking lights or artificial foods or candies, which can confuse someone with dementia.)
- Scale it down, change it up. The large gatherings of years past may be too much for both you and your loved one with memory loss. Just because you’ve always hosted a tribe doesn’t mean you must continue to do so now that circumstances have changed.
Both your loved one with cognitive decline and others in your household may be happier with a simpler gathering of perhaps half a dozen immediate family or friends. In this digital age, you can connect with others via video chat at any time throughout the day — they may even choose to share the entire day with you, long distance!
You also don’t have to assume full responsibility for the holiday meal. Think beyond the box. Maybe your guests would each be happy to bring an assigned dish that will cover all the sides and desserts, so all you need to prepare is the main course. The participatory nature of potlucks generates an inclusive feeling, which is what the holidays are all about.
Or maybe instead of the traditional evening meal, which can be hard on people with dementia due to sundowning, think about hosting a brunch, with basically the same foods, only earlier in the day.
- Celebrate wherever you are. If your loved one is now living in one of our memory care neighborhoods at The Kensington Redondo Beach, set aside time to come be with them during the holiday season. A brief visit at the time of day your loved one is most alert, a card or gift, and perhaps singing a few holiday songs your loved one recalls from decades ago (even if they no longer remember the words) can help your loved one feel content rather than overwhelmed. We also host a number of special events for the holidays and hope you can join us! Check out our events page on the website for what’s upcoming, and get sent updates via email.
- Choose gifts appropriate for who the senior is now. Your loved one may have enjoyed reading historical novels, but since her dementia diagnosis, reading has become much too difficult. Instead of a book, consider some audiobooks for people living with dementia. Or consider some board games that can actually help strengthen memory in those with cognitive decline.
Include your loved one in gift giving for others, too. He or she may no longer be able to shop and select the perfect present, or make one, if they were handy before. But you can choose the kinds of gifts they would want to give, and ask the senior to help wrap them and sign their name to the card.
Holidays at The Kensington Redondo Beach
Here at The Kensington, we encourage families and friends to participate fully in our residents’ lives, joining us for meals and activities as often as they’d like.
We’re delighted to be offering two holiday brunches to celebrate the Redondo Beach community’s first year as a member of The Kensington family. Connections are so important for seniors: strong family ties strengthen the immune system, increase cognitive ability and improve mental health. They also provide a sense of belonging that keeps worry at bay, alleviates fear and reduces stress, which all help preserve health and prolong life.
Please let us know which brunch you’d like to attend, and we’ll set a place for you. We look forward to seeing you soon!