A few simple strategies can help draw isolated Alzheimer's patients back into holiday gatherings.
"Too much holiday noise and activity can confuse patients with Alzheimer's disease, causing them to withdraw from surrounding social activity," said Dr. Mary Kenan, a psychologist with the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. "Disruption of routine for those with Alzheimer's can trigger behavioral symptoms, which makes care giving more difficult."
To cut down on confusion, Kenan suggests asking family and friends to arrive at different times or visit in small groups. If everyone is coming together, find the Alzheimer's patient a side room with soft music and lighting where he or she can escape with one other person.
"Conversations can be very hard for people with Alzheimer's to follow if many people are participating," Kenan said. "One to one conversation allows them to focus their attention and engage."
In order to make this season with your loved one as joyful and meaningful as possible, Kenan offers the following dos and don'ts to caregivers:
- Compare the present with the past. If you aspire to a picture-perfect holiday, you are likely to be disappointed.
- Test your loved one's memory by asking, "Do you remember who this is?" Testing memory does not preserve it, and often demoralizes the person with AD. Instead, introduce the family member to your loved one by name and state his or her relationship to your loved one. For example, say, "Bob, your nephew David wants to wish you happy holidays. Say hello to your nephew David."
- Include the person with Alzheimer's in the activities of the day. An Alzheimer's patient may help with meal preparation, such as peeling vegetables, stirring batter, tossing salad, folding napkins or setting the table.
- Be aware that active, loud children may distress the person with AD. Try to have some activities planned for the kids, ideally those that they can do with the Alzheimer's patient such as making holiday decorations or decorating cookies. Watch for any signs of anxiety or distress in your loved one and intervene immediately by redirecting the children to another room or by taking the person with Alzheimer's on a walk, sitting together for awhile in a quiet room or taking a short drive around the neighborhood.
- Try to maintain routine as much as possible. If your loved one customarily takes a walk after eating lunch, try to maintain this activity and go with him or her.
- Develop new ways of marking the holiday season. For example, ask family and friends to come prepared to tell a favorite story from past holiday seasons involving the loved one with Alzheimer's. Reminiscing is an important therapeutic tool that benefits those with Alzheimer's.
- Use the sights, sounds, smells of the holidays to stimulate your loved one's senses. Your loved one may be able to participate in the singing of well-learned holiday songs.
- Ask for help. Your stress increases the stress of your loved one with Alzheimer's. Delegate holiday responsibilities to family or friends.
"Patients with Alzheimer's disease can still enjoy the holidays," Kenan said. "Be sensitive to your loved one's strengths and limitations, as well as your own as a caregiver, and celebrate accordingly."