By Ava M. Stinnett
Holidays are festive occasions that celebrate being with the people we love, honoring family traditions, recalling old memories, and creating new ones. For caregivers and people living with dementia-related conditions such as Alzheimer’s, however, there will come a time when it’s just not feasible or practical to do everything you once did. How do we celebrate special occasions when one of the people involved doesn’t remember or even understand what the celebration is about? How do caregivers on the dementia journey with a loved one—not just on the holidays, but all day every day—manage to keep it together?
The holiday season can be stressful, so it’s critical to adjust expectations. Caregiver expert Amy Goyer describes caregiver burnout, saying, “The prolonged stress builds up, we are robbed of energy, and sometimes we reach a point of total emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion. We may lose motivation completely or feel we just don’t care about our loved ones, our other relationships, or our work. We may feel that we’ve lost ourselves in the vastness of caregiving and that nothing we can do will make a difference. If you feel like this most of the time, you may have reached burnout” (Goyer, 2015). The following tips may help caregivers weather the holiday season.
As much as possible, maintain a similar routine for your loved one and yourself so that holiday preparations don’t become stressful or disruptive. Changes to the daily schedule can increase disorientation and anxiety for those with cognitive impairment.
Trust your instincts. Keeping past traditions alive, such as eating favorite holiday foods, visiting with family and good friends, or looking at family photo albums and heirlooms—activities that take advantage of long-term memory—can help a person with dementia connect to holiday celebrations. Determine how much you and your loved one can handle without feeling overwhelmed. Feel free to reschedule or decline invitations when needed.
Music, whether seasonal or not, can cause a positive shift in mood. Try engaging the individual in singing along to familiar songs. It’s important to remember that a particular melody that evokes a soothing memory for one person might be upsetting for another. Depending on the setting, it may be more practical to have ambient music playing in the background.
Caregivers need to take time for themselves whether it’s having a break to go to a movie, taking a walk, meeting a friend for lunch, or having someone cook a meal or help clean the house. Paying attention to your own needs and getting support from others is of utmost importance.
Be aware that the holidays may evoke memories of better times—not just for your loved one but for you as a caregiver. Talking with a close friend or a counselor often helps one manage the emotions that come with holidays and other special days. You can also find help for caregivers from the Family Caregiver Alliance, AARP, your local Alzheimer’s Association chapter, or support groups through hospitals, mental health programs, and community support organizations.
The Alzheimer's Association. (n.d.). Holidays and Alzheimer’s families. Retrieved from https://www.alz.org/care/alzheimers-dementia-holidays.asp
Family Caregiver Alliance. (2014, December 31). Caregiving and the holidays: From stress to success! Retrieved from https://www.caregiver.org/caregiving-and-holidays-stress-success
Goyer, A. (2015). Juggling life, work, and caregiving. Chicago: American Bar Association.