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Holidays offer a special challenge for those coping with dementia

By Debbie Selsavage

Individuals living with dementia need a quiet, calm environment, low sensory stimulation, and a predictable routine.  The holidays, with their social demands, traditions, and family gatherings can create significant challenges for those caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia.

If your family has traditional gatherings, explain your situation and how hard these events can be for someone with dementia, especially if they take place later in the day or in the evening.  Some of your family may not understand, but it may be necessary to pass on such activities, unless you have the kind of reliable support where you can leave your loved one in someone else’s care while you meet your family obligation.

Do not take your person with dementia shopping.  What many of us consider an exciting and enjoyable tradition of the season is not fun for a person with dementia.  For them, the noise, the bright lights and colors, the crowds, the loud music, and the hustle and bustle in unfamiliar environments can be a horrific experience.

Avoid travel with your loved one, especially for long or overnight trips.  Every change in routine is a disruption that can put your person with dementia into an emotional tailspin.  Especially, avoid air travel.  Airports are a very high stress environment, and the noise and crowded conditions on airplanes can be frightening for one with dementia.

But I do not want to create the impression that the holidays are nothing but bad news for people living with dementia.  There are quiet traditions of the season that may work to a caregiver’s advantage.

For example, music is one of the best therapies for people with dementia.  Try putting on soft, seasonal music.  Don’t use the secular songs played in shopping malls that are designed to make us giddy.  Play old standards and hymns that your person with dementia may associate with a happier time in their life.

While bright lights and flashy decorations may create a problem, try using tiny white, non-blinking lights on your Christmas tree, and ask your loved one to help with simple decorating tasks.  People with dementia want to fit in.  They like to be helpful.

Use the season to bring out old family albums with photos of the relatives your person knew.  Don’t say, “Do you remember?”  Rather, if your person is attracted to a particular photo, just point to it and say, “Tell me about this.”  They may tell you a story that is entirely wrong, but this is okay.  Do not correct them.  Let them reminisce in their own way.

We all want the holidays to be a happy time, and this is no less true for a person with dementia.  But it will require some adjustment in how you observe the traditions of the season.  Focus on the quiet, low-stimulation activities that your loved one seems to enjoy, and avoid the disruptive and stressful activities.

To guide your decisions, ask, “Is this something I am doing for myself, or in the best interest of the person I am caring for?”

If it is something you want to do for yourself, ask yourself: “Is this something that will break our routine and increase visual or auditory stimulation?”  If it is, simply avoid it, or find a less stimulating substitute activity.

Honestly answering these questions can keep the holidays happy for both you and your loved one with dementia.

Debbie Selsavage is a certified trainer in the Positive Approach to Care, a Certified Dementia Practitioner, and President of the Alzheimer’s Family Organization.  Her company, Coping with Dementia LLC, is dedicated to making life easier for individuals living with dementia.  Contact Debbie at deb@coping.today.