December 21st, 2011 at 10:19 am
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Elders, Alzheimer’s and the holidays

by Carol Bursack

Most caregivers want to give their loved ones the very best holiday possible. We tell ourselves that whether or not the care receiver can actively participate in the festivities, they should be included in the fun. I’ve seen wonderful events in private homes, assisted livings center and nursing homes, where delighted elders help caregivers decorate trees, wrap gifts, bake and do many other traditional tasks in preparation for celebrations.

However, if the person has Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia, what you intended to be a joyful celebration can in reality be a frustrating and confusion to the elder.

A Canadian Press article tells the story well. A 62-year-old woman whose husband has Alzheimer’s says:

“I wasn’t prepared for the effects of this disease on Jim…This year I am. I know that too much noise, overcrowding, all of this excessive stimulation is very agitating for him … it was too much to take in, conversations were hard to follow and he just kind of withdrew…Then he wanted to come home and when we came home he went straight to bed, at 2 in the afternoon. And that was Christmas.”

Alzheimer’s and the holidays

When you think of the whole holiday frenzy through the eyes of someone who may not remember what all the hoopla is about, some caution seems sensible. A tree where there has always been a chair? Bright lights hanging on a handrail? Children hyped on Christmas energy running around making noise and even some trouble? What’s happening?

The confusion isn’t just about memory issues. It’s about comprehending relationships between what the person sees and what it all means. It’s the struggle of a mind compromised by Alzheimer’s trying to make sense of changed environment. Also, there’s over-stimulation to consider. When too much is happening at once, agitation can be the result. Often a slow introduction into a new environment is easier for someone with cognitive problems. So the Christmas elements–tree, lights, packages, smells and sounds –can be overwhelming.

None of this is to suggest that you don’t include your aging loved one in the holidays. I went to great length to decorate my loved ones homes–and when the time came–nursing home rooms, each holiday. I brought Christmas treats and played Christmas music. I brought the grandchildren for special visits, and played Christmas music.

But we did it all in small doses.

Helping elders deal with the holidays

I found, with several elders needing my care at one time, plus children at home, I had no choice but to simplify my holiday routine. Not if I wanted to maintain what was left of my sanity, anyway. So, simplify, I did. However, I found by doing so that my elders seemed to enjoy the holidays more than when they were overwhelmed. I tried to stay tuned into the needs of each person, but I also tried to stay tuned into what I, as a caregiver, could reasonably do. In the end, a simple Christmas, split between my home and the environments that felt most comfortable to each of our elders, worked best.

Everyone one of you caregivers will need to make choices this year. You may find you are disappointed that some of your efforts aren’t appreciated, or even backfire. Don’t take it personally. Remember that your loved one has an unpredictable disease. You have to be flexible and ready to adapt. Don’t make so much work for yourself that everything you did seems “wasted” if each song isn’t heard, each cookie tasted or each decoration hung. Play it lose.

You and your loved ones–all of your loved ones–can enjoy the holidays on a simpler scale. You may find that the joy of a simple holiday stays with you long after the need to do so has passed. After all, that’s how Christmas began. Simply.

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