The holidays are a time of togetherness, cheer, generosity, kindness and just a little dash of chaos. Amid the merry celebrations, stress can often creep in and dampen the fun. This is especially true for family members and friends with memory loss. There are varying levels and types of dementia and the symptoms could differ from one person to the next. If you are planning to host a loved one for holiday celebrations, picking the right setting can make all the difference.
To better understand the unique needs of your guest, we spoke with Carrie Langford, a licensed medical social worker at Sun Health Research Institute. She shared seven helpful tips for hosts during the holidays.
1. Be aware of loud noises
The happy sounds of children, holiday music and the Thanksgiving Day parade all fade into jolly background noise for most people. For people with dementia, the combination of all these things will simply sound like chaos. Langford mentioned that even strong smells can be enough to create stress for your loved one. To help everyone feel comfortable, try to keep noises coming from one source at a time, by muting the parade or football commentary and keeping the music low. If older kids are being loud, try giving them a room to play in outside of the living space while loved ones with dementia are in the area.
2. Keep the group small
The holidays are about family and friends. It’s tempting to invite all your favorite people to celebrate with good food. While most people would love to see everyone, your loved ones with dementia could be overwhelmed by the task. Just like smaller bites are easier for your digestion, a small group will be much easier to swallow.
If you still want to get together with everyone, Langford offered the alternative of a separate event with just the loved one and your family. For example, you might consider hosting them for a simple holiday-themed breakfast before the rest of the group arrives for dinner. Morning meetings could also mean that minds are clearer and well-rested.
3. Offer a simple job as something to focus on
For loved ones with dementia, a simple hands-on task can be grounding and a good distraction. This could include peeling potatoes, tossing a salad or washing dishes. This tip may not work for everyone. If your loved one struggles with coordination, be sure to pick a task that is safe and with limited steps involved.
4. Enter the event rested
Rest is very important for people with dementia. A rested mind will often be clearer and more capable of handling new information. If the event can follow recent sleep, your window of time will be longer. Be sure to account for travel for the loved one.
5. Make room for a calm retreat
If the loved one is coming to your home, prepare a room where they can go to rest and escape the noise of your event. Langford advised that it may be up to you and others to watch for signs of anxiety in your loved one. If you begin to see the stress building, take it upon yourself to calmly remove them from the situation into a more calming and familiar setting.
6. Kindly reintroduce, whenever necessary
Langford commented that even among close acquaintances, loved ones with memory loss can lose track of who people are. Especially with an audience, she advised NOT to insist that they know someone. When needed, simply reintroduce the person and move on. As a tip, Langford mentioned that a small family album can be helpful as an on-hand reference. Long term memories are usually more accessible, so when the time comes for reacquaintance this may help to spark old memories.
7. Trim the menu
Delicious holiday spreads are a welcome sight for most. However, too many options can be a tad overwhelming for loved ones with dementia. When dishing them up, prep a plate with no more than three options. You may also consider leaving some dishes on the kitchen counter for self-service, paving the way for a simpler tablespace.
How to ensure you (the host) have a good time too!
Langford emphasized that guests aren’t the only ones that need support. She offered a few tips for hosts to make sure that they are also having a good time. After all you, if you’re having fun, your guests are more likely to feel the same way!
1. Assign a caretaker
Let’s face it. You can’t be everywhere at once. Assigning a spouse, adult or responsible teenager to look after the emotions of your loved one with memory loss means that you can check in on the pie in the oven without having to worry that things are going south in the other room.
2. Prioritize people over plans
If you’re planning an event, no matter how small, you already know that things rarely go as planned. This can be doubly true when hosting loved ones with memory loss. As host, keep plans simple and don’t put pressure on yourself to make every detail perfect. Remember, the perfect holiday is one that everyone enjoys, even if the stuffing gets a little cold in the meantime.
3. Delegate, delegate, delegate
Look for simple tasks that you can give to other members of your small group. For example, setting the table, lighting candles, bringing dessert and washing dishes are all jobs that other people can do just as well as you (or almost as well…). You’ll be much less exhausted when you share the load.
4. Focus on the moment
Perhaps the most important tip for anyone who serves loved ones with memory loss – find joy in the now. Short term memory can slip from one minute to the next. Whereas the holidays may be full of core memory moments for your young ones, the best way to enjoy the season with your elders is in the moment. Even if this dinner is a fleeting experience, there’s beauty in a shared smile and a loving laugh. Let’s be grateful for that. Isn’t that what this season is about?
Caring for loved ones with memory loss can feel thankless at times, but Langford shared her deep appreciation for caretakers. “What you do on a daily basis to provide care cannot be duplicated. Please know how important you are in the lives of your loved ones. Happy Holidays to you and yours.”