Celebrating the Holidays When Caring for a Loved One With Dementia

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by Ray Burow |

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Someone once said, “It’s better to be a day late than a dollar short.” Given that the United States celebrated Halloween yesterday, this column is coming up a bit short. However, as Allhallows Eve is the harbinger of the holiday season, I am hoping that the contents of this piece will provide tricks to help you and your loved one through the coming months.

Rather than feeling merry and bright, carers and loved ones in the grips of Alzheimer’s disease may feel despondent and dim, finding it difficult to look forward to Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s Eve, and other celebratory events. Maybe you once embraced the holidays, but the monotony of caregiving and a strictly focused routine has created dread. You want to feel excited about the coming months, but life has changed.

Preparing and celebrating the holidays used to be fun, but the season might not bring the same happiness it once did. Searching for the perfect tree, hanging lights, or setting up your family’s beautiful menorah are things you have to do because it’s the holidays. You complete those tasks for your kids, grandkids, or spouse, but going through the motions, a cloud of despondency surrounds you. You desperately wish to enjoy the holidays, and you want that for your loved one, too.

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Reclaiming holiday spirit in the face of loss

My mother loved everything about Christmas, and she was a hostess extraordinaire. Growing up in rural West Virginia, we trudged along behind my dad, through tamped-down snow and overgrown acreage, to cut down one of his many Christmas trees to deck the living room. He and Mom grew them for fun. Occasionally, they’d sell one or two, but they gave away more than they sold. They also raised turkeys for fun, just to grace the holiday table of a neighbor, friend, family member, or sometimes a perfect stranger.

Fast-forward to many years later when my mother was diagnosed with dementia. In the early stage of the disease, she was able to embrace Christmas and other holidays, but in time, she couldn’t distinguish one day from the other.

This was hard for her family. We wanted the smell of cookies wafting through the house with Handel’s “Messiah” playing in the background. But most of all, we wanted Mom to still embrace it all. We could flip on the radio, bake cookies, and skip off to church on Christmas Eve, and we did, but it wasn’t the same without our mom embracing each little nuance of the holidays.

It affected me. A little gray cloud hovered, but we all soldiered on, and guess what? Soldiering on has its rewards. The cloud never completely disappeared, but we learned to search for and expect a silver lining.

Change focus

I acknowledge that it’s very difficult to embrace the alterations that occur with dementia, so it seems the only solution is not to embrace them. To clarify, don’t live in denial, but to the best of your ability, move forward in your present situation. Embrace the holidays by limiting the amount of work you do on top of caregiving.

Hold on to traditions that loved ones can tolerate

If it was upsetting for your loved one when trick-or-treaters rang the bell over and over again on Halloween, remember to avoid it next year. You can still celebrate the fun, but place a note at the bell requesting that trick-or-treaters don’t ring it. Leave a big bowl of candy with a separate note. Of course, you’ll have to trust parents and kids to be thoughtful and remember those that follow.

If your loved one with dementia enjoys interaction, bundle up for the October night and sit outside to hand out a few rounds of treats. They may enjoy seeing the costumed kids and parents.

Embrace meaning

My family was fortunate. Even in the late stages of dementia, my mother was able to embrace the meaning behind the holidays. Now, we had to remind her that it was indeed a special day, because she didn’t wake up remembering that it was a holiday. However, on a good day, when she was able to be somewhat present at the moment, she could participate.

Arriving at her turn at the table, she was able to share what she was thankful for on Thanksgiving. She was also able to embrace the Christ child at Christmas and all that his arrival entailed.

If during the holidays your loved one is unable to recall the past or embrace the present, you still can. Embrace meaning and expressions of faith. Talk with your loved one about the menorah, the Nativity, etc., and why you’re celebrating. Sharing stories may not stir a loved one’s memory, but it helps awaken our own hearts to celebrate.

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Note: Alzheimer’s News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Alzheimer’s News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Alzheimer’s disease.

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