The holiday season can be a mixed bag for those with Alzheimer’s

Caregivers might be aware of losses as they manage to keep up the celebrations

Ray Burow avatar

by Ray Burow |

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When someone you love is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, celebrating anything is a challenge.

For our family, dementia was an overarching cloud that never cleared up, even during upbeat moments. Yes, we had joyful times with my mother during her bout with Alzheimer’s, but at the same time, we were mourning our loss and the slow progression of her disease.

Still, birthdays and holidays continued to arrive, and we stretched ourselves to celebrate. Perhaps you’re in a similar situation.

Stretching to celebrate

The days, weeks, and months seem to meld amid the many tasks associated with caregiving, and if you’re not careful, the holidays maximize sadness rather than joy.

For instance, before the middle to late stages of her Alzheimer’s, my mother enjoyed entertaining family and friends around elaborately dressed tables laden with holiday treats. She’d pull a book from a shelf to press golden leaves before autumn turned them crisp and crumbly. She also packaged a few in a flat box, pressed between napkins, and sent them to her grandchildren in Florida, where the leaves remain green regardless of season.

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In her advanced seasons of living with Alzheimer’s, the changing weather and accompanying holidays revealed losses my mother still suffered. I’m uncertain whether she lost interest or her memories, or both, but the holidays landed differently for her and for us. In a sense, she’d passed the mantle.

I don’t want to rush anyone into thinking about the coming holidays. Since they’re right around the corner, however, caregiving families might find that beginning to prepare now is a good idea.

Sandwich generation” caregivers, especially — those caring for parents and young children simultaneously — don’t have the luxury of saving tasks related to Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa until the last minute. No caregiver does. But is it possible to balance caregiving and holiday prep?

Probably not, but perhaps an off-centered, off-kilter balance can be achieved. One duty of caregiving, or at least one that we took on, was attempting to spark my mother’s interest in things that once lit up her eyes. Helping that happen was an honor.

Does anyone send Christmas cards anymore?

For years, my mother carefully chose the right Christmas card to send to her friends, but the disease removed the prompts that turned her in that direction. So we became her prompt, presenting her with card choices and encouraging her to make a list for them. That involved reminding her of friends and family who could be recipients.

In the early to middle stages of Alzheimer’s, Mom could write names in her own hand. She could think of a few names on her own, though occasionally, an odd name would appear. I distinctly remember her adding George W. Bush to the list. I had to remind her that he was the president of the United States, and she didn’t know him personally. She could also strike off Judge Judy‘s name, though she was less convinced that they weren’t friends.

Once her list was complete, we’d devise a simple note on the computer,  print it out, and include it with the card. For a good while, Mom could sign her name on the card. I’d seal it, stamp it, and see that it landed in the post. It was a small but enjoyable way to include my mother in the holiday traditions. She wouldn’t remember that she’d done it, but she had fun in the moment.

Those holiday mailings took a chunk of time, so it was imperative that we begin the process well before Christmas.

Halloween kicks off the holiday season

It’s already too late to get much ahead of Halloween, but if you want to clarify why the doorbell continues to ring after dark, a careful and simple explanation might be in order.

On another front, my mother-in-law told me that when she was a little girl, trick-or-treating included visiting elders and entertaining them with a nursery rhyme, song, or similar offering before receiving a treat. Revising this tradition might be fun for the children who darken your door this Halloween, and you and your loved one might find it amusing as well. My mother enjoyed watching my kids play make-believe in their Halloween costumes.

Nowadays, it’s not advisable to invite children inside your home, but for short periods, weather permitting, perhaps you and your loved one might sit outside or near the front door. The parade of wee witches, princes, princesses, and such might be entertaining. While it’s easier for caregivers to turn off the lights to discourage trick-or-treaters, playing double duty as caregiver and celebrant is a viable option.

Coupling caregiving with anything extra is a challenge, but stretching to celebrate an occasion is a happier option.

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.


Robin Gladstein avatar

Robin Gladstein

These suggestions are helpful; unfortunately my loved one’s disease has advanced to the point that including her in holiday activities often triggers anxiety. This year she won’t be joining us on the actual holiday, but will will have a smaller gathering with her a few days before thanksgiving. Less stress for her and for us, too.


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