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Alzheimer’s and the holidays: Tips for caregivers

Adult son and father decorate Christmas tree
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Written by Jennifer Palisoc

The holiday season can be a challenging and stressful time for families and caregivers of a person living with Alzheimer’s or other dementias.

Below are some ways to celebrate this time of year with relatives who have Alzheimer’s, and involve them in family gatherings with a bit more peace, comfort and joy.

Be flexible

There’s often a lot of activity happening during the holiday season as we rush from event to event. Still, this time of togetherness can lead to feelings of being overwhelmed.

“It’s impossible to predict how the person with dementia might react,” says Dr. Nathan Herrmann, psychiatrist and head of geriatric psychiatry at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. “Unfortunately, for some people with dementia, this can be over-stimulating and may result in anxiety and agitation.”

As friends and families reconnect, holiday greetings may lead some people with dementia to withdraw from the conversation.

“This might appear as if the person is unable to initiate conversation or even becoming unresponsive to direct questioning,” says Dr. Herrmann.

He recommends that caregivers be flexible and take note of how their relative is responding to different situations.

“Allow the behaviour of the person with dementia to guide you,” says Dr. Herrmann. “If they appear to be enjoying the experience, allow them to continue until they appear to be fatigued. Should they appear anxious or withdrawn, you could consider putting them in a separate room with only one or two other individuals, or you might even consider taking them home early.”

It may even help to plan in advance, and create or find a quiet space dedicated to being a place of comfort or rest for a person with dementia to go to, if needed.

Ho-ho-hold the alcohol

During the holiday season, there are many reasons to celebrate and raise a toast, but it is important that alcohol consumption be limited.

“The person with dementia should not be allowed to drink any more than a sip of wine, as alcohol might increase confusion and/or lead to disruptive behaviours,” Dr. Herrmann explains.

Another option?

“Should it be necessary, providing the individual with non-alcoholic cocktails or de-alcoholized beer can be considered,” he says.

Alzheimer’s caregivers: Taking time during the holidays for yourself

For those taking care of an individual with Alzheimer’s or dementia, it’s important to make time for yourself despite the busy-ness of the season. While that may be easier said than done, finding the time can help you recharge your batteries, reduce stress, and hopefully help you enjoy the holiday season.

  • Reaching out to family and friends to help with shopping, cooking or tidying up after a party.
  • Reconsider holiday events – are there ways to simplify your celebration (e.g. less holiday decor or having a potluck instead of doing the cooking yourself) or perhaps consider attending fewer activities to help make things less stressful
  • If you’d like to attend an event that the person with dementia cannot, consider asking a friend or family member to help or spend time with the individual.

By planning, preparing and being flexible with changes along the way, celebrating the holidays with relatives who have Alzheimer’s or other dementias can have moments that are meaningful, merry and bright.

Get more helpful tips on dementia and the holidays

About the author

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Jennifer Palisoc

Jennifer Palisoc is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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