Holiday gatherings can be hard when a family member has dementia. Experts share tips.
Holiday family gatherings can be challenging under the best of circumstances.
Expectations are often too high. Relatives feud about traditions, food, alcohol, long-ago slights, politics, and just about anything you can imagine. Noisy kids run wild.
Celebrating with a beloved family member or friend with dementia can be another added stressor. Dementia experts can’t help you with Uncle Joe’s crazy conspiracy theories, but they say planning, reasonable expectations, and flexibility can help everyone enjoy a party when a guest has Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia.
We spoke with some experts — Denise Brown, founder of The Caregiving Years Training Academy ; Kellie Butsak, associate director of programs for the Alzheimer’s Association Delaware Valley Chapter; and Felicia Greenfield, a social worker who is executive director of the Penn Memory Center — about how to arrange holiday celebrations so that everybody, including people with dementia and their caregivers, can have a good time.
Remember that we’re 20 months into the pandemic now. Many people with dementia have had less contact with family members and friends than usual. “People change so much in two years, especially teenagers and young adults and kids,” Brown said. Isolation, Butsak said, has led to faster mental decline for many. This could lead to more forgetfulness, confusion, and unruly behavior at social events. “Things will feel less familiar,” Butsak said. “Places will look less familiar.”
Keep in mind that it’s the healthy people in the room who need to make adjustments. The person with dementia may not be able to because of their disease.
Start with realistic hosting ideas. A host who is also a caregiver may not have the energy to make a big meal or lots of cookies. This may be a good time for others to bring more food or buy prepared food from the shop or a restaurant. There’s no shame in asking for help.
Educate other guests about what to expect from the person with dementia before the event. This should be an update on how functioning has changed in the past year, what stresses the person out, and what kind of conversation is possible. Tell guests if the person with dementia may not remember them. “If this happens, it’s OK,” Butsak said. “We can’t change it. We just kind of have to go with the flow.” They can still enjoy each other’s company.
Some caregivers still try to hide a loved one’s dementia, but experts think openness works better. Besides, Greenfield said, “the people you’re trying to hide it from probably already picked up on something.” If you’re still processing a new diagnosis yourself, Brown said, it’s alright to tell guests what you know but add that you’re not ready to talk about it more.