Caring Currents

Happy Holiday Tips for Alzheimer's Caregivers (Emphasis on the "Happy")

Last updated: Nov 24, 2009

The Thanksgiving Table
Image by basykes used under the creative commons attribution license.

You'll hear, "Happy holidays" a lot starting this week. Focus on that emotion "“ "happy" "“and you have the key to a smoother Thanksgiving-to-New-Year's season.

Here, I've culled some of the best tips I've heard lately on how to help someone with Alzheimer's or another form of dementia enjoy these festive weeks. What they all have in common: Keeping the person involved and loved but calm:

Amy Wachspress, the SF Fiftysomething Lifestyle Examiner recently shared these smart ideas:

  • Try to match planned activities to things the person with Alzheimer's enjoyed during his or her lifetime. A mom who liked to cook might help with baking cookies or snapping beans. A dad who liked gardening might enjoy raking leaves "“ repetitive acts are very soothing.

  • Look for group activities that span generations. Examples: Reading aloud from a book, watching home movies or a DVD of a movie, and looking at old photos. Prepare a special album in advance full of pictures you know the person will especially enjoy.

  • If there's a family pet, let the person with Alzheimer's sit with it in his or her lap. Taking a walk is another terrific activity "“ with a dog or without one.

Gary Joseph LeBlanc just graciously sent me these ideas, based on a "Commonsense Caregiving" column he filed last year for the Tampa Bay Tribune that was popular with readers:

  • Try to hold the family celebration in a familiar environment, ideally the person with dementia's own home. Taking the person to another family member's or friend's dwelling could prove too confusing and devastate everyone's holiday.

  • Make sure to tone down the decorations. Blinking lights and large holiday displays will overwhelm any tranquility your loved one may achieve.

  • Keep food choices to a minimum; the fewer decisions the person has to make, the better.

  • Refrain from having visitors come to the person all at once. Trying to recognize too many faces at once and the sounds of multiple voices can become extremely confusing. Daytime visits are usually best, especially if mental confusion worsens late in the day, as is true for many people with dementia (known as sundown syndrome).

Finally I'd add a couple of points from my own experience:

  • Play background music that's familiar and soothing to the person with dementia. If you're not sure, pick tunes from the era when the person was in his or her teens and 20s. For some reason (maybe a combination of the strength of long-term memories, the power of the associated positive emotions, and the sheer amount of time teens spend listening to music or dancing) most people tend to retain vivid musical memories from this period. Christmas music (after Thanksgiving!) works well because there are so many classics. Try these 11 kinds of music to "soothe the savage beast of dementia." Be sure the person is seated so the music is audible but not too overwhelming.

  • Involve the person in activities such as sharing blessings or toasts. Many people with fairly moderate dementia often surprise family members by rising to the rituals of a social occasion with grace and attentiveness. So don't assume too little of the person's abilities. It's also a point of honor to a matriarch or patriarch (or anyone in the oldest generation present). You can always ask, "Dad, would you like to make a toast?" and read in his response whether he's up for it. If he flusters, you can simply say, "How about I toast to you instead"¦let's all hear it for Granddad, the head of our family" (or some such).

As Amy Wachspress writes, "Even if the person with Alzheimer's does not remember doing these activities, s/he will get joy out of being included and feeling connected with the family and other people. Participating in a project with others will make him/her feel useful. S/he may forget why s/he is happy, but s/he will feel happy all the same.

Happy holidays, indeed!