A Merry Little Christmas: Make the Holidays the Best for Loved Ones with Dementia

Story by THOMAS PLANK

Bright lights, laughter and chaos in the kitchen and dining room, screams of joyous excitement and the
constant low rumble of happy conversation. New people coming in the door, cold air trailing behind, children running inside and outside, teenagers doing their best impressions of being an adult. Ham sizzling in the oven and biscuit dough being formed on baking sheets while Christmas cookies come out of the freezer. Christmas music floating over it all, with Frank Sinatra singing “Have yourself …
a merry little Christmas … ” as the fire crackles and glows with heat.

These are some of the best parts of the holidays. But they also can be a deeply discomfiting and sometimes frightening experience for those with Alzheimer’s or dementia.

Lynn Mullowney Cabrera is the executive director for the Montana Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. Her father-in-law dealt with dementia, which has made her firsthand experience with the disease invaluable.

Cabrera said the most important thing to do is to “adjust expectations” for spending the holiday season with those who have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

“If you have a big family thing with lots of noise or lights, that can not be enjoyable for a person with Alzheimer’s,” Cabrera said. “How they take in an environment — lights, sounds, energy levels — can be hard for us to understand.”

Big shindigs can be a problem, but that doesn’t mean that holiday traditions should be thrown away, Cabrera cautioned.

“Traditions that are meaningful to (a person with dementia or Alzheimer’s) should be done,” but instead of the big dinner, a quiet lunch might be the best, Cabrera said. Compassion is the most important part of spending the holidays with a person with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Involving that loved one with the rest of the family is a deeply important part of the process, but doing it in a manner that suits their state is even more important for their comfort.

Dr. Richard Blank is a Missoula resident. His wife passed several years ago after a battle with Alzheimer’s, but he still is deeply involved with the community. Blank remembers that his wife “was a big Christmas fan,” and taking precautions to make it easier for her.

“You might have to slow down, be patient,” Blank said. “Early on, it’s very important to not have everyone freak out about dementia.” Making the loved one comfortable and not feel hopeless is important, especially around a holiday. “A person with dementia is already slowing down,”
Blank said, “but they know they are.”

But, that doesn’t stop happy moments from happening. “We were happy when she was happy,” Blank remembered. “Slow down, adapt, extreme patience, don’t overwhelm the poor people.

“Find small quiet spots, you need to adapt to the holiday, not force them into busy circumstances.”

There were times when Blank’s wife would jump right into the thick of it as well. “She would be herself for a minute, it was a happy moment,” Blank said. Even so, he and the entire family took it upon themselves to make sure that his wife, their mother, mother-in-law, aunt and grandmother was the “focus of our concern.” Throughout it all, Blank said “we all adapted and continued to love her.”

It’s hard to have to answer the same question multiple times an hour, Cabrera said.

“Every circumstance is unique to the experience of the person,” Cabrera said. She reinforced that individuality while advising the changing nature of the disease. “What worked six months or a year ago can change,” and is something that the primary caregiver might want to tell other members of the family.

The most important thing while caring for a loved one with dementia or Alzheimer’s is to have “compassionate communication” with them, others and yourself.

“Put yourself in their shoes,” Cabrera said, and that can make all the difference.

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