Make holidays easier for those with dementia

holidayThe holidays are upon us and everyone know how busy and stressful they can be. For families with a loved one who has Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia, multiply that level of stress many times. However, it doesn’t have to be so hard say the experts at Arbors of Del Rey, an assisted living community specializing in caring for those who are, as they say at Arbors, “walking with forgetfulness.”

Between them, Lupe Rios, executive director of Arbors of Del Rey, Mary Lopez, social services director, Krystal Pouliot, director of nursing, and Michael Manzanares, business office manager, have decades of experience working with this special population. Here are some of their tips to make the holidays less stressful and more enjoyable for everyone.

Prepare family members who will be visiting
Inform your friends and family who will be joining you for the holidays about the changes they may observe in your loved one. You could say something like, “You may notice that Dad has changed since you last saw him. Because he sometimes has problems remembering and thinking clearly, his behavior can be a little unpredictable. Please understand that Dad may not remember who you are or may confuse you with someone else. Please do not be offended by this. He appreciates you being here and so do I.”

Ideas for the kids
The holidays often include children, but lots of exuberant kids may overstimulate your family member who has dementia. Some tips include:
• Explain to the kids, as their age and understanding allows, that grandma or grandpa may have trouble remembering things or could become agitated. Give the youngsters strategies for coping such as offering a hug, changing the topic of conversation if it is upsetting, or letting another adult know that their elderly family member is upset.

• Noisy, playful kids may be overwhelming. Consider having another room for the kids to play or a safe, quiet place for your elder to go if overstimulated.

• Consider celebrating with your elder on a separate day or time than with the children.

Arbors of Del Rey elder Ben Garcia helping to decorate the Christmas tree.
Arbors of Del Rey elder Ben Garcia helping to decorate the Christmas tree.
Downsizing the holidays
They also recommend limiting the number of people who will be at your gathering or reducing the number of activities you plan. Lupe suggests, “Make your dinner a smaller party and do it early in the day.” Mary adds, “If they’re used to three people, than anything more than three can be overwhelming.”

Michael points out, “It may be Christmas for us, but in their mindset it could just another day. It’s important to involve them, but not to overwhelm them with involvement in the holiday. And sight, sound, and smell always trigger memories, so if we want to celebrate the holiday with them, those are a plus. A favorite drink or meal, or a certain decoration that they love, could evoke a memory. Even though they might not recognize that it’s the holiday season, they may recognize the meal they’re preparing or the craft they’re making.”

Ditch the guilt
If you’re the holiday planner, you want everything to be perfect for everyone. The decorations, the meal, the entire event has to be just so, and that includes all of your guests having a great time and creating new holiday memories. However, you may have to accept that the day may not quite match the perfect Thanksgiving or Christmas you have envisioned.

“You really have to prepare yourself. It shouldn’t be stressful. Caregivers try to do so much, if you have to cut your dinner party down, don’t feel guilty. Spend the quality time with your loved one … every moment is precious. You take it day by day, moment by moment. It’s a stressful time. Trying to make everything perfect, you’re so exhausted, you don’t get to enjoy your guests,” Lupe says.

She continues, “The whole point of the holiday is to get together with your family and loved ones, not to stress. We forget what it is about and when you have this loved one who is on this journey that there is no cure for, we recommend savoring every moment and embracing their changes. You have to embrace their changes.”

Consider the following ideas:
• If you wish to include your loved one on the day of the holiday, consider making your gathering more intimate. Be more selective in the traditions you’ll carry on that day. Pick activities and traditions that mean the most to you and focus on those.

• Consider a brunch or lunch with your loved one as those with dementia do best in the morning. Lupe says, “Some elders are able to go home for holidays, but we suggest not taking them home all day. Don’t do an eight-hour day. It might throw them off. If you start noticing agitation, do some redirections or dim the lights.”

They may enjoy the holidays more at home
If your loved one is at home at a place like Arbors of Del Rey, he or she may be most content staying there for the holidays, where the structure and routine are comforting. Mary says, “Depending on the stages, maybe just coming and spending some time with your loved ones would be what makes them happy. We’ve had families do a special day a week before. For example, here, this is their home. We’re celebrating life with them daily. We celebrate and live their life daily with them. We just do a little bit extra for the holidays.”

They all stress that family members shouldn’t feel guilty if they can’t visit with their elder on the holiday itself. Lupe says, “It’s OK to enjoy your life. Your loved one would want that! Pick another day and make that a special day with them. Make that their Christmas.”

Take the holiday to your loved one where they live. Consider doing something on a separate day and take some baked goods or treats to them and share with their friends. Maybe it would be better for your elder to spend the holiday quietly and have a different special day with you.

At Arbors of Del Rey, the staff reaches out to the elders in their care to make them a part of Christmas and other holidays. Lupe says, “We know our elders, we know their backgrounds, we know their traditions and their cultures, so we know what they did at home. Because this is home, we continue those traditions with them.”

Michael adds, “They are so many of us and we all have something to contribute to the holiday.”

Staff members bring what makes the holiday special for them, including their own children, who spend time with the elders. They may also bring food that is special in their family, be it a cheese ball, posole, or (non-alcoholic) egg nog.”

Michael says, “Our staff bring their children in on Christmas day, to say hello to the elders and give them a hug. Or they help prepare everything and spend time with them.”

Mary says that the elders’ families are an extension of the family at Arbors of Del Rey. “We include the family as a whole, the children. We’re not just taking care of the elders, we’re taking care of the families.”

Don’t push them to remember
We all know how frustrating it is to try to remember a name or something we need to pick up at the store. Imagine if many of your memories were that elusive. Don’t say, “Remember last Christmas?” Lupe says that can be very frustrating and suggests instead to take it to another level, saying “You know what I remember, Mom?” and share what you recall. She says, “It can make them feel good that you have so many great memories.”

For those with more advanced disease, Michael says, “Even if it’s a 30-second glimpse of Christmas, it’s worth them being there. To give them a glimpse of the moment, that’s all worthwhile.”

Mary advises, “Never argue. Always be patient knowing that they’re there, but mentally, they’re not. As they’re changing, we are, too. We’re going with them on that journey.”

Support is out there
Sometimes family members who live in a different area from their aging parents think things are just fine when talking on the phone, but when they get together at the holidays, they discover that things are not the same. Lupe says, “Families need to know they’re not alone. There are people out there going through the same thing. We do a lot of one-on-one visits with families this time of year. You don’t have to have a family member living here to get help from Arbors.”

To provide more help to caregivers, Arbors of Del Rey hosts a weekly support group that meets Thursdays at 11:30 a.m. at Uno Pizzeria & Grill, 2101 Telshor. Facilitators from Arbors of Del Rey offer information and interventions to help make every day the best it can be for those walking with forgetfulness and their caregivers, family, and friends.

Finally, Lupe says that people should be proud of continuing the traditions that their parents and grandparents began with them. She points out, “Be proud that you are carrying on traditions even if that loved one isn’t physically here right now. That’s probably the biggest gift you can give them: respect their dignity, and to honor and carry on what they taught you.”

Arbors of Del Rey is located at 3731 Del Rey Blvd. in Las Cruces. They can be reached at 382-5200 or on the web at