Celebrating holiday traditions after memory loss

Suggestions so debilitating diseases are not threatening your traditions

You probably have long-standing holiday traditions that you look forward to every year. If you have a loved one who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, however, you may feel as though these debilitating diseases are threatening your traditions. Given that 1 in 9 Americans ages 65 and older (and 1 in 3 ages 85 and older) have Alzheimer’s, you are not alone. There’s no denying that your holiday gatherings may not be the same as they were in the past. Fortunately, there are practical steps you can take to make them as gratifying and memorable as possible to all those involved.

To help your loved one enjoy holiday gatherings, strive to have empathy for what he or she is going through, even though it may be upsetting to see how the person has changed. The person will be able to sense your frustration, which may add to any agitation he or she is experiencing.

One writer advises to “meet people with dementia where they are.” Here are some practical tips to apply this advice:

– Suggest that family members wear name tags, since it can be taxing to people with dementia to attempt to remember names.

– Avoid asking yes or no questions. Expecting your grandmother with Alzheimer’s or dementia to remember the gift she gave you 10 years ago is like asking someone confined to a wheelchair to run a 40-yard dash — it’s physically impossible. It’s understandable to wish that you could share a memory, but don’t push one that might not be there.

– Rather than trying to correct your grandfather when he says something inaccurate, consider replying with “Yes, and …” to build on the conversation. He will not be able to logically understand why what he has said is “wrong.”

– Pictures can be an excellent tool to spark conversations. Make sure you have some on hand, along with books or catalogs that interest your loved one.

– If your family has associated certain songs with the holidays, sing them! People retain musical memories even when other memories fade — songs may spark other memories that can be shared.

To help your other loved ones cope with the changes that come with having a loved one with Alzheimer’s or dementia, it may be useful to write a letter in advance of the holidays to those who will be celebrating with you. They may be uncertain of how to handle the situation, so include some of the tips from this blog to help them know how to approach their loved one.

If you are the caregiver as well, do not neglect your own well-being. Make sure everyone understands your caregiving role and has realistic expectations about what you can do. Take some time for yourself during the season. If friends or family ask what they could get you as a gift, don’t be shy about asking for a home cleaning service or respite care for your loved one, or anything that would provide you with rest and relaxation.

Above all, accept your emotions. You may be sad, confused, worried or frustrated by the prospect of upcoming holiday gatherings. This is normal and understandable. Don’t dwell on the past and how things used to be; instead, focus on how to make the best possible memories today.


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