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For people with Alzheimer’s, holidays can be stressful; preparation, understanding needed

By Teri Shirk
Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Kentucky and Southern Indiana

With all their potential for joyous reunions with family members and friends, the holidays also can generate a great deal of angst at the prospect of visiting a loved one diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or another memory disorder.  The upcoming visit may lead to several questions:

• How should I respond when Aunt Mary tells the same story over and over, or when she forgets who I am?
• How can I help Dad deal with his anger and frustration over Mom’s behavior?
• What can I suggest to my young children and teens to help them enjoy the visit with Grandpa?

Spending time, even just a few hours, with someone who has Alzheimer’s can be stressful without some advance preparation to manage expectations and develop a list of activities and conversation topics. The goal is to create conditions where everyone – the patient and the visitors – can experience the pleasure of just being together.

A pre-visit discussion (in person, by phone or on the Internet) among those who will be joining the person with Alzheimer’s can help set expectations and plan activities. Agree to keep in mind that the priority is to ensure that the person with Alzheimer’s has a good time – whether that means enjoying the entire visit or just experiencing a few, separate moments of joy while you’re together -and that achieving this goal may require some adjustments to the family’s traditional celebration activities. For example:

• Stick to the loved one’s current routine so that the visit isn’t disruptive or confusing. Big surprises don’t always work well for a person with Alzheimer’s.
• Consider changing the traditional family Christmas dinner to a brunch or lunch, when Aunt Mary is less tired.
• Reduce the number of people in the gathering, and allow others to help by bringing food.
• Focus on activities that are meaningful to the loved one, such as having a holiday sing-a-long of familiar tunes; reading short, well-known holiday stories; or looking through photo albums.
• Plan time for breaks, rest and respite throughout the holiday preparations – for yourself, for the loved one with Alzheimer’s, and for the loved one’s caretaker. For extended visits, slip away for a few minutes or a few hours when you can to regain your perspective.
• Allow Grandma or Grandpa to help in a way they can be successful, whether it’s setting the table (who cares if the fork ends up on the right or if you have to get up during dinner to retrieve a forgotten utensil?), helping wrap gifts (if cutting and taping is too difficult, try suggesting he or she put stick-on bows onto gifts) or decorating cookies or the tree.

If your loved one lives in a care facility, think about celebrating by joining activities already planned by the facility, or by bringing a long-favorite dish to enjoy together.  Come prepared with a few much-loved family holiday stories to re-tell or a few traditional songs to sing.

Even in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, the loved one may repeat himself often or have trouble following conversations.  If telling a story again and again makes Aunt Mary smile or even laugh out loud, or if the inaccurate facts she keeps repeating are not relevant to how she feels at that moment, the best reaction may be simply to enjoy the retelling and ignore the discrepancies.  It may help to remember that Grandpa’s behavior, mood and memory changes are due to the disease, and not something that he can consciously correct. Once lost, the brain connections destroyed by Alzheimer’s don’t repair themselves. Over time, Mom simply does not realize her missteps; correcting or berating her will not help improve her memory.

For loved ones you don’t regularly see, determining whether the memory loss is due to Alzheimer’s or another condition can be difficult.  The Alzheimer’s Association posts numerous resources on its website, www.alz.org, including the 10 signs of Alzheimer’s and the seven stages of the disease. 

The Association also offers Alzheimer’s Navigator,™ an online tool to help caregivers and people with dementia evaluate their needs, identify action steps and connect with local programs and services. Users can reassess needs and adjust care plans as the disease progresses. Additionally, a social networking community called ALZConnected™ enables caregivers and people with dementia to connect and communicate with others who understand their challenges 24 hours a day. Members can pose questions, offer solutions, create public and private groups and contribute to message boards. The Alzheimer’s Association also operates a 24-hour helpline at 800-272-3900.

Living with Alzheimer’s peaceably often means just enjoying the moment at hand. And when it comes to spending time with family and other loved ones, that may be the best advice of all.

Teri Shirk is President and CEO of the Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Kentucky and Southern Indiana.
You might also be interested in reading

Ginger Sanders’ Alzheimer’s Diary.

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