When a person is living with dementia, the changes they experience happen gradually. If you’re their caregiver, you see them every day, so the changes become part of your everyday life. During the holiday season, however, you and your loved one will be interacting with friends and family members who you probably haven’t seen in some time. If this is the case, they may be surprised and unsettled with the changes in your loved one that seem part of everyday life to you. That’s why it’s important to prepare your family for what to expect when seeing your loved one this holiday season, says Erica Labb, Executive Director of Bridges® by EPOCH at Westford.
“Family members know intellectually what is occurring with your loved one, but seeing it in person can be incredibly jarring,” Erica explains. “It can be scary for younger children, who don’t fully understand what’s going on. Older adults may feel uncomfortable because they don’t know how to react. As the caregiver, it’s your responsibility to help prepare other family members as well as your loved one in order to make sure the holiday visits are as successful and meaningful as possible.”
Here are some ways you can help prepare your family for a happy holiday season together.
Write it down.
It may be easier to share information with everyone in a streamlined fashion by writing everything down and sending it via email or text. If you’d prefer to share the information in person, having a list of talking points will help you more easily go over everything in an organized fashion.
Tailor information appropriately.
Sharing information with young family members will be different than sharing it with adults, for example. Younger family members may be okay with an explanation such as, “Grandma has a hard time recognizing people, so she may call you by a different name. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t love you; it just means that you may have to introduce yourself from time to time.” Older adults can get more detailed information about what stage of dementia your loved one is in as well as behaviors to expect.
Answer questions (and fears) honestly and simply.
Younger children may be fearful about the changes happening to their loved one, and often they have lots of questions such as: Will I catch dementia? Will Grandma get better? Why is she acting that way? (Older adults may have questions, too.) You don’t have to go into great detail; just answer questions in an honest, straightforward and neutral way. Remind friends and family members that their loved one is still the same person and their actions are due to the disease – it’s not their fault.
Suggest ways to communicate.
The holidays are a perfect and wonderful time to build connections and make meaningful memories, and your relatives can definitely help be a part of that for your loved one with dementia. Consider sending (or talking about) different ways to communicate and interact with the individual, whether that’s looking through pictures, singing holiday songs, practicing reminiscence therapy or other best-practice approaches for engaging with an individual living with dementia.
Use name tags.
Even if you know everyone in your family, it can get really confusing determining who’s who (and sometimes, what their names are) when you’re in a big group setting. Consider making name tags for everyone, along with how they are related to each other. This will help your loved one feel more at ease and less embarrassed if they can’t remember who the other party attendees are.
Consider your loved one’s comfort.
Large groups of people can quickly become overwhelming for someone with dementia, so if you’re hosting holiday gatherings, consider doing more of them with fewer people. If you’re going to different events at other peoples’ houses, talk to the hosts beforehand and make sure there is a quiet place where you and your loved one can go to relax if things become too overwhelming. This can also be a great space for your loved one to have one-on-one (or small group) contact with others without being distracted by the goings-on of all the other activities.
When a loved one is living with dementia, holidays become a little bittersweet and different, but it’s important to remember that these times are still precious and should be celebrated. By helping prepare your family members for changes in your loved one, you will be better able to navigate this holiday season in a graceful and meaningful way.
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