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Prepping for the Holidays
For most families, holidays are filled with opportunities for togetherness, sharing, laughter and memories. But for families coping with Alzheimer's disease, holidays also can be filled with stress, disappointment and sadness.
One of the first things you should do is to realize that the holidays may not be the same as in the past and adjust your expectations accordingly. No one, including yourself, should expect you to maintain every family tradition or event. Give yourself permission to do only what you can reasonably manage. If you've always invited fifteen people to your home for a seven-course dinner, consider inviting five people for a more simple meal. Ask others to bring "potluck" dishes or host the meal at their home. Those close to you and your loved one may welcome this opportunity to help.
To avoid unpleasant surprises or hurt feelings, you may want to discuss holiday celebrations with relatives and close friends ahead of time. Make sure that all family members understand the situation and have realistic expectations for their visit. You may wish to familiarize them with the situation in advance by calling or sending a letter that makes these points:
"While we're looking forward to your visit, we thought it might be helpful if you understood our current situation before you arrive. Because Mom sometimes has problems remembering and thinking clearly, her behavior is a little unpredictable. Please understand that she may repeat conversations and may not remember who you are or confuse you with someone else. Please don't feel offended by this. She appreciates your company and so do I."
Enjoy the moments when meaningful communication and interaction occur, however short and infrequent they may be. If your loved one can engage in conversation with a grandchild for only two minutes, treasure those two minutes rather than measuring it against the entire four-hour holiday gathering. Involve the person with Alzheimer's disease throughout all stages of holiday preparation. Pick manageable activities: wrapping gifts, setting the table, or preparing simple foods such as appetizers. Avoid more complicated and potentially frightening activities such as lighting a menorah or hanging blinking lights.
"A holiday is still a holiday whether it is celebrated with your loved one at home or in a residential care facility," says Anna Ortigara, vice president of program development for Life Services Network which operates residential care facilities. "The most important thing is to spend time together, enjoying the moment for what it is."
Families should carefully evaluate whether persons with Alzheimer's disease should spend the holiday in their usual environment or elsewhere. Some people do not deal with change very well, and spending the holiday away from home or their facility may not be pleasurable for them. If the person with Alzheimer's disease must stay at a residential care facility, think of ways to celebrate the holiday together. Visiting a loved one in a residential care facility can be a wonderful experience for everyone. Bring a favorite holiday food or sing holiday songs with other residents to make the day comfortable and special.
Other ways you can make the holidays enjoyable:
Maintain your loved one's normal routine as much as possible in order to limit disruption and confusion. For example, if the person goes on a daily walk try to continue that practice even on the holiday.
Build on past traditions and memories and experiment with new holiday traditions such as renting seasonal videos that the less active person may enjoy.
Sign your loved one's name to some of the presents you give. This will help the person contribute to the holiday celebration.
During the holiday gathering be alert for signs of agitation and frustration in your loved one. Do not seat him or her in the middle of a noisy room as it may result in over-stimulation and agitation.
Give yourself a gift:
Caregiving is a labor of love. Those who provide care to others often overlook their own needs believing that they must take a backseat to their loved ones. They can grow depressed, lonely, and frustrated particularly around the holidays. Do you get enough exercise, watch your own nutrition, or get enough sleep? You will be a better, stronger caregiver if you don't neglect your own needs. When friends or family members ask you what you want for a gift suggest a gift certificate for a local restaurant, dry cleaner, laundromat, or cleaning service. If you don't receive what you'd like for the holidays, treat yourself to whatever you'd like.
Ask for help and support. Develop a list of tasks that need to be done so that when someone asks, "What can I do to help?" you can respond with a specific idea. Close friends and family will appreciate the opportunity to help you in this difficult situation.
Adapted from The Alzheimer's Association Newsletter Advances, Vol. 20 No.4 Winter 2001
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