Expert, family member offer tips on sharing holidays with a loved one with dementia

Preparation is crucial for gatherings

A caregiver sits with an Alzheimer's disease patient March 1, 2012, while listening to a reading from Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Fayetteville. 
(File Photo/NWA Democrat-Gazette)
A caregiver sits with an Alzheimer's disease patient March 1, 2012, while listening to a reading from Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Fayetteville. (File Photo/NWA Democrat-Gazette)


Consider everybody there -- including yourself, said caregivers to Alzheimer's and dementia patients when asked for advice on holiday gatherings with a loved one with the illness.

"Give yourself a break," said Sandy Hancock of Fort Smith, whose mother, Delores Krieger, 82, has advanced Alzheimer's. "Don't feel guilty for doing the best you can do."

Accommodate the member with dementia as best you can, she said, but don't let the other members of your family miss out on a holiday event. Prepare those other family members also, she said, particularly children.

The family's last holiday at home with Krieger was three years ago. The young children there were well-behaved, but typical children. Their bustle and noise was particularly disorienting for her mom, Hancock said. At any gathering with children, the kids need to know "grandma isn't the same anymore," she said.

Adults need preparation too, Hancock said. Four years ago, a brother traveling home from out of state for a family get-together was taken aback by how far Krieger's memory had degraded, Hancock said. Family members traveling home who have not seen a dementia patient for even a short time need fair warning of how far the condition has progressed, she said.

If you need help, ask for it, said Jill Thompson, director of programs for the Arkansas chapter of the Alzheimer's Association. The association operates a help line 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at (800) 272-3900. The line remains open on Thanksgiving and Christmas, she said.

There are about 58,000 diagnosed cases of Alzheimer's in Arkansas and a need for more medical testing, Thompson said. Holidays provide an opportunity to check on relatives for signs of the condition, she said.

"Give yourself permission to say no, to scale back if you need to," Thompson advised.

In particular, avoid disrupting the routines of those with a dementia condition. Showing recent photos of loved ones who are coming for the holidays can help an Alzheimer's patient recall who's who, she said.

Alzheimer's patients who can't pick up on spoken cues can still pick up on body language. Be aware of this, Thompson advised. They can also pick up on and be sensitive to the tone of one's voice; speak in simple phrases and use simple words, she said. If you want them to participate, give one-step tasks. For instance, instead of asking someone with dementia to set the table, ask them to set one place.

One of the last areas of the brain affected by Alzheimer's is the part that deals with music. Singing familiar Christmas songs is something they may enjoy, she said.

Family caregivers to dementia patients often feel a sense of loneliness, Thompson said. They need to maintain their health and take a break after a holiday family gathering.

At some point, the family of a loved one with dementia needs to be honest about whether including that loved one in a holiday gathering is workable or not, Hancock said.

Now family members visit Krieger -- a trip requiring an hour's drive one way for Hancock. This is because Krieger requires a facility with enhanced security against her repeated attempts to leave any facility she is in.

"There are only a few of these and the ones here were full," Hancock said of those in the Fort Smith area. The nearest one available is in Springdale, she said.


Upcoming Events