Making family gatherings easier for those with dementia

Advice on family gatherings with those with dementia

Family gatherings might include struggling with many emotionally-charged issues, including a family member with dementia. Nationally-known educator and occupational therapist Teepa Snow, M.S., OTR/L, FAOTA, recently led a virtual presentation through Norton Neuroscience Institute Resource Center and shared some tips on coping with family gatherings and dementia patients.

  1. Think smaller: People with dementia often have trouble making decisions, recognizing faces of people they don’t see often, and moving around in large spaces.
    “This can look like offering fewer dishes at a meal, inviting fewer people and staying in one or two rooms of a home,” said Teepa, Teepa “Also, smaller plates and smaller portions,” so the person doesn’t feel overwhelmed or pressured to eat.
  2. Simplify: Find ways to reduce the demands on the person physically and emotionally. An example would be instead of having a marathon meal, just get together for coffee and dessert.
    “Instead of doing many big events, think of ways to make it easier on yourself as the planner and the person as the participant,” Teepa said.
  3. Shorten the duration: It’s important to understand the potential to overwhelm a person who has dementia. Shortening the length of time they are asked to participate can make for a smoother event for everyone.
  4. Support for sensory issues: “Ask where the person is sensory-wise,” Teepa said. “What can they handle visually and aurally?”
    Will the person find background noise or small children overwhelming or irritating? If you’re in a place where people need to wear masks, will that create stress as the person tries to understand conversations that might be hard to hear? Scents — including perfumes, body washes/soaps and fragranced candles — also may pose an issue for people with dementia.
  5. Social support: Have someone assigned to hang out with the person throughout the event. It should be someone the person knows, but not a host or hostess who would be very busy with the rest of the event. The support person would help with hydration, bathroom breaks and other tasks.
  6. Spatial support: This means helping the person transition from space to space, such as inside to outside, room to room or home to home. The person may feel confused or overwhelmed, so it is important to communicate the transitions to the person with dementia.
  7. Circadian sensitivity: Ask yourself when the person will be at their best. What time of day are they usually the most alert and awake? When do they struggle? If you can’t change the timing of an event, can you shorten the length of time the person is present?
  8. Be flexible: If it’s not working out for some reason, it’s OK to leave the event. By the same token, if it is going well, don’t try to push for more.

Teepa’s overall message is to focus on the celebration, be willing to pivot when needed and support those people in our lives with dementia.

Teepa recently was featured on “Good Morning America,” highlighting her popular TikTok videos about how to care for someone with dementia.

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