The relentless glow of cheerful holiday faces in TV commercials stands in sharp contrast with the mood in many Alzheimer families at this "most wonderful time of the year." An ailing parent can weigh heavily on middle-aged children, and their children. And, of course, it's also hard on the elder who may feel especially frustrated by the limitations of their disease.
Up to 70 percent of people with Alzheimer's live at home, usually with other family members, and that number is on the rise as the high cost of skilled nursing facilities leaves elders with nowhere else to turn.
The Alzheimer's Association offer a hotline at 800.272.3900 for caregivers who need advice on how to ease the stress. It also provides a stress test for caregivers who may not even know that they're close to the breaking point.
"Caregivers may feel overwhelmed maintaining holiday traditions while caring for their loved one, and they also hesitate to invite family and friends over to share the holiday for fear they will be uncomfortable with behavior changes in the family member," said Lindsay Brennan, who manages the 24/7 helpline for Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
There are some ways to make the holidays more enjoyable for everyone by adjusting expectations. The key is to let go of some traditions if they're turning into more of a burden than a pleasure.
The association offers these tips:
- Allow yourself to do only what you can manage easily
- Pick a few activities that are most important to you
- Plan an intimate family dinner instead of a big party
- Hang up your apron and order a meal from a caterer or supermarket
- Start a new tradition: a holiday pot-luck where each friend brings a dish.
There are also an array of ways to involve an Alzheimer's patient in the holidays, depending on their abilities. For example, they can help wrap gifts or help bake some time-honored family recipes. They can help set the table, but the association warns caregivers to avoid centerpieces with candies or artificial berries that might be mistaken for snacks.
Elders who used to cook the turkey can now help prepare simple dishes, like appetizers, as their contribution to the family meal.
Time for Sharing
Of course, the holidays are a time for sharing. Be sure to include your parents in conversations about the holidays, writing holiday letters or reading cards you receive from others. And watch a favorite holiday movie together, sing carols or look through albums while reminiscing about holidays of long ago.
If an elder with Alzheimer's lives in a care facility, ask if you can join them in activities planned by the facility - like a sing-along or a holiday party. And, if the facility allows it, bring a favorite holiday food to share with them and perhaps a few others who may feel left out.
When friends and relatives are coming to see your family from out of town, Brennan suggests speaking with them first to ensure everyone understands your caregiving situation and have realistic expectations of what you can (and can't) do.
"We recommend that caregivers let family members who are looking forward to a visit know that they may notice some changes like forgetfulness or confused behavior," said Brennan. "They can tell family and friends that a warm smile and gentle touch on the shoulder is always appreciated even when other things are changing."