By Kathie Erwin, Ed.D.
It is estimated that approximately 37, 566 Americans will develop Alzheimer’s just this month. Like any other health challenge, Alzheimer’s always affects an entire family—not just one individual. Celebrating holidays with a family member who has Alzheimer’s can be challenging and stressful.
As a Christian counselor, you will likely interact with clients who are burdened by the care-giving role of a loved one with Alzheimer’s. Other clients may be wrestling to make sense of the changes that Alzheimer’s brings to their life and family. Their questions may include:
Here’s some ideas for helping these clients navigate holiday stress and take necessary precautions to avoid conflict and anxiety, whenever possible.
Decorate wisely, avoiding delicate, dangling, or dangerous items.
Twinkling lights, fake snow and re-arranged furniture to accommodate a large tree are common elements of many Christmas celebrations. However, for a person with Alzheimer’s disease, these elegant holiday scenes can create confusion, anxiety and behavioral outbursts that stun family and friends. To minimize distractions and maintain the holiday spirit, eliminate the 3 D’s—items that are Delicate, Dangling, or Dangerous.
Keep in mind that a person with Alzheimer’s disease needs to touch to connect with things in the environment and your favorite glass ornaments can be crushed or broken if dropped. Lights that flash to music or bling intermittently can trigger hallucinations. Real holly, mistletoe and poinsettias are poisonous if ingested, so a better alternative is silk versions.
When the regular furniture is moved to make room for the Christmas tree, these changes can be extremely frustrating and disorienting to an individual with Alzheimer’s. Maintain a clear walk path, even if some furniture needs to go to the garage temporarily. Make sure to keep the patient’s favorite chair is its usual place.
The sudden appearance of a lighted Christmas tree may provoke a fear reaction. Start by showing the tree in daylight without the lights. The next day, bring the person with Alzheimer’s into the room and let him or her see you turn on the tree lights. This can help the adjustment to an unfamiliar object.
Moderate the activity and energy level of holiday gatherings.
The best way for everyone to enjoy gatherings with family and friends is to moderate the level of activity. Stagger the arrival of guests so that the person with Alzheimer’s does not feel overwhelmed by a crowd. You may even need to help the individual take periodic breaks in another room away from the noise.
Accept that as the disease progresses, many people who were formerly dear may now be seen as strangers. The Alzheimer’s Association offers several suggestions for brief explanation such as: “Please understand that ___ may not remember who you are and may confuse you with someone else. Please don’t feel offended by this. He/she appreciates your being with us and so do I.”
Educate your children/grandchildren and others who will be visiting.
Prepare the children by telling them that Grandma or Grandpa has a health problem and because of that may not remember everyone’s name. There are excellent books for children (preK-3rd grade, grades 4-7) and the Alzheimer’s Association video program for children and teens that explain this disease in age appropriate ways.
Send this information in advance and ask the parents to review these resources with their children/grandchildren prior to arrival. If the Alzheimer’s patient becomes angry or frightened during the celebration, remind the children and teens that it is part of the illness and they did nothing wrong to cause this reaction.
Attending Christmas eve service, particularly a candlelight event where there is darkness and flickering candles can be frightening and disorienting for some Alzheimer’s patients. Consider choosing a different service or arrange for care while the family attends. A church that provides a dementia care group during the service would be a true blessing for Alzheimer’s caregivers.
Bake familiar recipes, and invite the individual with Alzheimer’s to help.
The vivid scents of baking are another way to help the Alzheimer’s patient connect with the holiday spirit. Let him or her help press out cookies or mix ingredients. Grandmothers who formerly had control of the holiday food preparation will feel comfort by being part, even in a small way, in the kitchen activity.
Alzheimer’s disease changes many aspects of a care-giving family’s lives; however, it does not have to destroy the holidays! Always encourage your care-giving clients to seek out support from family, friends, and their church. With thoughtful preparation, Alzheimer’s does not have to be the Scrooge in their Christmas!
Kathie Erwin, Ed.D., Assistant Professor at Regent University, is a National Certified Gerontological Counselor, National Certified Counselor and Licensed Mental Health Counselor in Largo, FL. Author of five counseling books, ethical thriller novel and an award winning screenplay, Dr. Erwin’s latest book is Group Techniques for Aging Adults, 2nd Edition.