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How to Enjoy a Loved One with Dementia During the Holidays

Families and holidays – a combination that many movies and novels have made millions off of, because the truth can really hit home. But what about real life, when your spouse, mom or grandfather has dementia? Instead of dreading family gatherings this holiday season, here are some tips that can help you enjoy the ones you love.

Never underestimate the importance of family gatherings. No matter your religion or heritage, gathering with friends and family during the holidays is what makes it memorable. The experience of getting together with the ones you love far surpasses any material things. Most of these occasions involve some level of stress. Getting together with family and friends is memorable but involves a break in routine and at times can be chaotic for the average person.  Meal preparation, eating, entertaining, music, laughter and a variety of personalities make for a fun but trying time for some.  Now, imagine if your family member has dementia.  Dementia changes everything, but it doesn’t have to be any less enjoyable or memorable.

Dementia is not a specific disease but an overall term that describes a group of symptoms associated with a decline in memory or other thinking skills severe enough to reduce a person's ability to perform everyday activities. Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common disease with dementia.  It should not be a secret that is hidden. Inform family members before gathering that Mom has dementia and she may exhibit some behaviors that may seem odd. Even small children should be told of the dementia and coached on how to best interact with the person with dementia.  Education among family members is key. Make sure they know some of the dementia care-giving techniques basics:

NEVER ARGUE, INSTEAD AGREE: Meet the person with dementia in their own reality. If they think you are their sister Sue, when in fact you are the daughter Jane, you are Sue for today.  

NEVER REMEMBER, INSTEAD REMINISCE: A common thing that families do is ask their loved one to REMEMBER. Part of the disease of the brain is memory loss; they DO NOT REMEMBER, so asking them if they remember is not helpful. 

Instead of stating “Mom, remember I am your daughter? Sue died years ago”

Say: “Tell me what is was like growing up with a sister in Georgia?”

NEVER SHAME, INSTEAD DISTRACT: If they can’t find the restroom in a house that they have been to 100 times, show them where the bathroom is and distract with pointing out pictures on the walls. If they pick up their water glass and pour it over their mashed potatoes like gravy, simply help them clean up and say “I am so sorry, I shouldn’t have put the water where the gravy bowl goes” and get them more mashed potatoes.

By minimizing the behaviors and using simple distraction techniques, crisis can be avoided and your loved one with dementia will be calmer and less agitated.

There are many ways to engage your loved one with dementia and involve them in the festivities. Just because they have memory loss does not mean they need to sit on the couch and be left alone. People with dementia like to feel needed and helpful. Here are a few ideas to engage your loved one.

1.       Food is the cornerstone of most gatherings; involve your loved one in the food! Have them assist in the meal preparation. Have them shuck corn, peel the potatoes, make the green bean casserole or simply sit in the kitchen during the meal preparation and reminisce about the foods that they had growing up. Remember their long-term memory is most likely intact.

2.       Music is in part of the brain that is often the last to be affected by dementia. Music is engaging and evokes emotions that bring back fond memories.  It is an excellent way to reach beyond the disease and to the person.  Turn on classic hits from their era, as well as show tunes, religious hymns and songs from their childhood.  Turn up the music and dance; it is a great way to involve all generations.

3.       Reminisce with your loved one. Ask them questions about their childhood, the city and streets where they grew up. Ask about their friends and teachers and school. You will most likely hear some great stories and learn a lot about their past.

4.       Touch is amazing. Hug your loved one, ask to brush their hair or shave their beard, hold their hand while you sit on the couch beside them watching football or rub their back. All humans crave contact and interaction with others; those suffering from dementia are no different.

People with dementia exhibit a wide range of memory and thinking skills loss. As family members, we should consider it our duty to educate ourselves and our loved ones about the disease and the behaviors affecting our loved ones. It is never too late to enjoy a person with dementia. It takes patience, persistence, a sense of humor and sometimes a bit of detective work to find what works for your loved one. They are worth it!

Happy Holidays,

The Overture Home Care team

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