Celebrating the Holidays with Alzheimer’s

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays: They’re the joyful messages of the season.

But what if the holidays aren’t so happy and Christmas is less than merry?

What if the joy is tempered by sadness and a sense of loss?

That’s often the case for people with dementia, their families and, especially, their care partners.

“There is a real sense of loss as the disease progresses and people are more attuned to that at Christmas,” says Kathy Hickman, Education Manager at the Alzheimer Society of Ontario.

The person with early stage dementia may be painfully aware of not being able to participate in the holiday season in the same way as before — for example, driving to the mall to shop for presents. The care partner may also feel the loss of the person’s participation in the same ways as in the past. And she herself may be limited in what she can do by her role as caregiver.

Longstanding family traditions may have to change.

“There can be a real sense of sadness about that,” acknowledges Hickman.

And while the holidays are a busier time with more anxiety and stress all around, she says, for people with dementia it can be even more intense.

“When there’s less ability to manage stress,” she says, “the holidays can add to and exaggerate that.”

Hickman recommends “letting go of some things and retaining the really important pieces of tradition and opportunities to connect with family and friends. Celebrate the holidays in meaningful ways, she suggests, but without “the extra bells and whistles and hustle and bustle.”

She cautions, “Even in the early stages of dementia, anything that’s over stimulating — a lot of noise, crowds of people, lights and decorations — can be overwhelming.”

As the disease progresses, the person may be less able to articulate that discomfort and it translates into behavior.

“You might see signs of agitation — pacing, fidgeting, the tone of voice gets more tense,” says Hickman. “It can show up in a lot of different ways.”

What may seem like “wandering” may also be a sign of frustration with the situation, an attempt to get away from the stimulation and noise, she explains.

“For a family dealing with Alzheimer’s, the holidays are often filled with stressful challenges,” says Hickman. “But with the right approach, the season can be smooth and enjoyable for everyone.”

The Alzheimer Society’s tips for presents for people with Alzheimer’s:

Who doesn’t love receiving a gift? Tearing into a parcel in anticipation of its content is a source of fun. But it is also a ritual dating back to childhood and for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, it can be therapeutic by bringing attention to whatever special occasion is being marked.  A gift can remind her who, where and with whom she is. So don’t let them be left out on the fun!

Here are some ideas to help you choose the right one. Keep in mind that some of these options, like a CD, can be given to somebody in any stage of the disease. Also, as a general rule, don’t give more than two or three presents. Too much stimulation can be bad a thing.

Early stages

In this stage of the disease, it is important to keep her active. Gifts that encourage her certain skills will help her maintain these abilities and slow the progression of the disease.  Also, those that promote mental stimulation, remembrance and socializing and aides for independent living can also be helpful. Here are a few ideas:

— Classic movies and TV shows
— Crossword puzzles and strategy games to keep her mind active
— Reading material reflecting his interests
— A homemade memory calendar full of family photos and important dates such as birthdays and anniversaries
— A membership to a health club to encourage him to stay active
— A special clock that displays the date as knowing for sure what day it is can be reassuring
— Offer your services to help with the housekeeping
— Plan an outing to a movie, play, sporting event or other similar activities

Middle to late stages

Remember that as the disease progresses, it will be more and more difficult for him to perform simple tasks and activities he once enjoyed. Simple gifts that provide sensory stimulation are often the best and can help bring back pleasant memories, such as:

— A CD with his favourite music
— Simple games or puzzles
— Pampering toiletries and other products
— Framed photographs/photo collages with the names of the people beneath
— Comfortable and easy to remove clothing
— Nature or other videos that feature visual and auditory stimulation
— Doll or stuffed animal
— A DVD with old family movies and picture