When you wish upon a star

Kathie Erwin, Ed.D., LMHC, NCC, NCGC

From Thanksgiving to Christmas and New Year’s Day, the holiday season is prime time for family gatherings. What is joyous and exciting for the children and adults can be intimidating and confusing for older adults with memory impairment. Sacrificing traditions or excluding the memory impaired elder only puts a damper on the celebration for everyone. The best way to make this time special for all ages is plan with these issues in mind:


Expectations – Focus on being together more than creating an event. If the family tradition has been large holiday open house, scale it down to a smaller number of guests. Understand that the caregiver and memory impaired person need to take breaks away from the group or leave early. If Grandma is not longer able to lead the all day cooking tradition for the family’s Christmas Eve dinner, then plan a simple buffet where everyone brings a dish or dessert.


Prepare to be understanding – Prior to the celebration, prepare the family for the limitations and changes that they will see in the memory impaired elder. In an age appropriate manner, talk about how memory problems can cause unusual behaviors or inability to recognize people. The Alzheimer’s Association has online videos and a list of books on memory impairment that are suitable for children and teens. Encourage the parents to prepare their children to understand that this is an illness and unusual behavior is not intentional.


Candlelight services – The majesty of scores of lighted candles, music and prayer at the Christmas Eve service is special for the family. However, the reduced lighting and flickering candles may be frightening for a memory impaired older adult. Better to remain at home where the family can have a brief prayer time after returning from the service.


Lights and Decorations– Whether candles or twinkling tree lights, the erratic pulse of lights can be frightening to a memory impaired person. Keep the decorator lights on steady and not blinking. Memory impaired individuals often attempt to touch objects in an effort to recall what they are. Candles with flames like a fireplace can be invitations to touch and explore that lead to injury. The same problem occurs with plastic berries or fruits used for decorations that can be mistaken for the real thing.


Opening gifts – The joyous chaos that erupts when children tear into gifts can be overwhelming for the memory impaired older adult. Consider opening gifts in stages; let the younger children start, take a quiet break for hot cocoa and light snack, then invite the adults to open gifts. If the confused elder becomes agitated or wanders away, that’s a signal that the noise and activity is too much to manage.


Share the care – The caregiver is on high alert watching for signs of distress and overload. That means he or she is not fully enjoying the celebration. Take turns sitting with and attending to the memory impaired older adult so the caregiver has some room to participate in the festivities.


Involve the Memory Impaired Elder in the celebration – Identify ways that the elder can participate not merely observe. At Thanksgiving, invite everyone around the table to say why their lives are blessed to know the elder. Make a Thankful Wreath by tracing each family member’s hand, cutting out the prints and placing them around a cardboard wreath. At Christmas, have a tray of fresh baked cookies that are ready for sprinkles and decorations. When the elder hears a familiar name, patiently listen to the reminiscence that card prompts. Sing familiar carols together. Bring out the family albums, gather the younger members and view this treasured generational history. Photos are wonderful ways to bring up memories that are part of your family’s history.

Memory impairment steals so much from everyone in the family. Purpose this year to reclaim the joy, differently yet wonderfully.


Kathie Erwin, Ed.D., LMHC, NCC is a National Certified Gerontological Counselor and Assistant Professor at Regent University. You can contact her at kerwin@regent.edu.

Categories: Recent Research

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