With the holiday season comes joy, celebrations and traditions. At least that is what this time of year is supposed to bring. Unfortunately, dementia can engender unique challenges to the season. For caregivers and their loved ones with dementia, the holiday season may seem overwhelming and bittersweet.
Perhaps deviating from your routine may not be as feasible as it once was. Your loved one may not react to the large gatherings or loud celebrations as comfortably as they once did. And maybe you notice them drifting off around family and friends, appearing not as present as they once were.
Sara Perry, executive director of Respite Care Charleston, said adjustments to traditions and realistic expectations can save much of the magic of the season for caregivers and their loved ones with dementia.
For more than 25 years, Respite Care Charleston has provided services to families living with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. From one-on-one guidance to support groups and day programs, the nonprofit brings relief to caregivers and joy to those with dementia.
Through Perry’s expertise and experience, she suggests that caregivers for loved ones with dementia continue to try and stick to their regular routine throughout the holidays.
“Folks with dementia tend to do best with a routine,” she said. “Having a predictable schedule gives comfort and consistency, so sticking with your routine can help minimize challenging behaviors.”
And by “challenging behaviors” Perry is referring to sadness, frustration, withdrawal or anger. Some of these behaviors can be brought on by overstimulation, such as being in large groups, unfamiliar territory or auditory or visual overactivity.
With this in mind, Perry and the team at Respite Care Charleston keep group numbers low at their day programs.
“The size of our groups depends on the levels of dementia among the people in the group,” she explained. “There are no hard rules on the size of our programs. Instead, we make decisions on a case-by-case basis so we can keep everyone safe and make the groups successful for each participant.”
Perry suggested that caregivers limit time in large group settings for their loved one with dementia.
“Talk to your family in advance and help them understand the importance of a calm atmosphere. Carve out extra quiet time that day so that your loved one has plenty of quiet time and doesn’t get overstimulated,” she said.
When coaching family members on interacting with your loved one with dementia, Perry said respect and patience are key.
“Don’t treat them like a child. It isn’t necessary to correct them if they say your name wrong. That can actually just confuse them more. Meet them where they are. Correcting them can just make them feel bad,” she pointed out.
She mentioned that sometimes Alzheimer’s patients can’t recognize family members as adults but can remember them as children.
“Keep in mind the lack of memory isn’t personal – it’s the disease,” she said.
Some traditions Perry encourages caregivers to share with their loved ones with dementia are baking cookies, decorating, wrapping gifts and listening to music.
“Cherished ornaments or favorite holiday songs can sometimes stir memories,” said Perry. “When we adjust our expectations and focus on sharing experiences rather than perfection, we can find there’s still plenty of joy in celebrating the season.”
For gift giving, Perry stresses simplicity and reminiscing.
“If Dad was into cars 20 years ago, rather than giving him a model car, try a coffee table book filled with pictures of classic cars,” she said, adding that art materials, large-piece puzzles and music also can be great gifts.
For additional information on dementia or the support and services offered by Respite Care Charleston, call 843-647-7405 or visit www.respitecarecharleston.org.