Navigating the Holiday Season with Alzheimer’s Disease

The holidays can be a stressful time of year under the best of circumstances. But if you add to that a family illness like Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, a whole new layer of exhaustion and complication comes up.  So what can you do to make the holidays go as smoothly as possible?  

First of all, take care of yourself.  As a caregiver to a loved one with memory loss or Alzheimer’s, you are undergoing a lot of stress and the weight of the world on your shoulders.  I want you to do an exercise with me now.  Quiet your mind.  Wherever you might live in the world, somewhere where the weather never dips below 60 or somewhere where the snow came a little too early this year, I want you to imagine you are sitting in front of a crackling fire. Listen to the sounds of the fire popping, smell the scent of the wood as it burns, and feel the warmth it’s giving off.  Imagine that there are small snowflakes falling outside, not so much that it’s overwhelming, but enough that it’s starting to look like a winter wonderland outside.  Picture the twinkling lights all around you that you hung last night.  Their glow is lighting up the room as the darkness falls outside.  Smell the apple cider that’s heating on the stove.  Inhale the mix of cinnamon and nutmeg, taste the sharp tang of the apple.  Lean a little closer to the Christmas tree on your right.  Take in the evergreen and the delicate red and gold ornaments perfectly placed on the branches.  A lot is going to happen in the next few weeks.  There will be parties and present shopping and dementia.  There will be family dynamics and the last minute cooking rush.  But right now, in this moment, sit with this picture.  Let it wash over you: the comfort and the joy and the intoxicating smells of the holiday season.  In the next few weeks, any time that you feel overwhelmed or exhausted or like all of this is just too much, come back to this image.  Find a quiet place and close your eyes and sit with the beauty.  And maybe you need to tweak this image a bit for whatever your perfect holiday season resembles. Make it yours.  Just keep coming back to it when everything else is just too much.  

So now that we’ve established that, let’s get to some of the practical.  

  1. Plan – planning during the holiday season can help reduce a lot of stress.  And if you know there will be a lot of invitations or parties or options, pick the three activities or traditions that you know you will be heartbroken if you don’t do and schedule those three first.  Those are the most important.  Ask your loved one with Alzheimer’s if there are any holiday traditions or activities that they don’t want to miss and make sure to do at least one or two of those.  
  2. Prepare the person with Alzheimer’s for the family gathering – show them photos of who will be coming, have a quiet room for them to escape to if they get overwhelmed, and play music that is familiar to them.  
  3. Be smart with gift giving – encourage family and friends to give useful, practical gifts for the person such as identification bracelet. Other gifts that would be helpful are comfortable easy-to-remove clothing, CDs of favorite music, and photo albums. Make sure they don’t give gifts such as dangerous tools or instruments, utensils, challenging board games, complicated electronic equipment, or pets.
  4. Prepare family members and friends who will be coming – help them know what to expect, encourage them to interact with the person with Alzheimer’s or dementia but make sure to give them tips on how best to do that.

The holidays can be stressful, but now you have some tools to go forward and be proactive with.  And don’t forget to care for yourself in the midst of all the holiday craziness.