Dementia and Holiday Gatherings

An elderly loved one's dementia can be like the elephant in the room during family get-togethers. During the holiday season, Life Care Planning Law Firms are in a unique position to help family members adjust to their challenging new reality.

Living with a person who has dementia often means dealing with one curve ball after another, especially during the holiday season. Laurel Hed, LSW, GCM, an elder care coordinator at Thomason, Swanson & Zahn, PLLC, a Life Care Planning Law Firm in Park Rapids, Minnesota, offers a few tips for family members who want to make the most of the holidays when an elderly loved one has dementia.

1. Learn all you can about the disease. “It’s the best thing you can do as a family,” said Laurel. “It won’t make it any easier, but it can keep you from being quite so surprised as the changes begin to happen.”
2. Don’t expect too much of yourself. This will be a difficult time for your loved one, your family as well as yourself. There will be a ‘new normal’ starting and with that comes lots of adjusting on everyone’s part.
3. Don’t expect the disease to make sense. One day, your loved one seems like the person you always knew; the next day, you don’t know who they are. “It is best to not set yourself up for disappointment because the past will never be again,” Laurel advised. “It’s important to focus making this new normal the best it can be.”
4. Create new traditions and memories. If your loved one lives with you, include him or her in activities as they are able. Keep things simple but praise them for whatever they can help with. “This allows them to feel they are contributing,” said Laurel, noting that it’s important to be prepared for change. “The time may come when large holiday gatherings become too much. When that happens, take a meal to your loved one’s home and create a smaller-scale celebration for the two of you, complete with a festive table cloth and nice dishes.”
5. If you are the caregiver, make time for you. Find someone to stay with your loved one so you can go shopping, visit friends, or have a spa day.
6. Don’t be afraid to initiate. As dementia progresses, the elder may want to participate in social gatherings but the ability to initiate contact may slip away. It’s then up to the family to take turns visiting. “Memories and events from the past are always a good conversation starter,” Laurel counsels. “Look at photo albums together and ask about childhood memories.”
7. Be prepared for repetition. People with dementia may tell the same stories over and over. Remind yourself that this is okay. It brings them joy and they have no recollection that they are repeating themselves. Each time is the first time to them.
8. Just be there. As the disease progresses, conversation may become too difficult for people with dementia. The simple act of sitting quietly while holding your loved one’s hand can be very comforting.
9. Sing a song. Music is always a welcome sound to people with dementia, no matter where they are in the disease process. “Play familiar songs and sing along,” Laurel added. “You will be surprised at how well people with dementia are able to join in, even if they haven’t spoken in some time.”

Your loved one’s dementia doesn’t have to mean the end of holiday gatherings. With a little planning and foresight, you can create new memories for the whole family.