The holidays can be a happy time for many people. Those living with dementia, however, often feel some agitation or distress during the season because of the many losses they have experienced, which they may be unable to process or adequately grieve. Likewise, caregivers may experience increased stress, which is amplified further this year by the risks for older adults associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
When “Happy Holidays” feels like an oxymoron, CICOA’s CareAware staff recommends keeping it simple, remaining flexible and practicing self-care, especially good nutrition, hydration and adequate sleep.
“There is never a good time of year to ignore your own wellness needs!” said Kate Kunk, CICOA caregiver options counselor.
How to make the holidays safer and less stressful for dementia caregivers
This advice is adapted from the Alzheimer’s Association.
- Adjust Expectations: Give yourself permission to do less, especially this year. Make a list of everything that you traditionally do over the holidays, and then ask yourself what actually needs to be done. You should not expect to uphold every tradition.
- Accept Help: Ask others for help with tasks like grocery shopping, gift buying and cooking. If someone asks what you want as a gift, suggest gift cards to use for grocery and meal delivery or a gift certificate for laundry services.
- Involve Your Loved One: Involve your loved with small tasks they enjoy. Do they like matching socks or folding towels? Put them to work! If your loved one is artistic, they can make cards or help with gift wrapping, decorating or cookie making. Be sure to avoid using decorations that can be mistaken for food.
- Prepare Visitors: Relatives who do not usually interact with the person with dementia may be unaware of some of the changes that can occur as a result. Consider writing a letter or email to relatives in advance informing them of changes to the loved one’s behavior and reminding them that these are a result of the dementia. Encourage them to review communication tips from the Alzheimer’s Association or attend CICOA’s virtual Dementia Friends training.
- Celebrate Early in the Day: You may find it easier to observe holiday traditions earlier in the day, rather than later. Often, people living with dementia become more agitated in the late afternoon.
- Maintain Routine: However you celebrate the holidays this year, make sure you maintain daily routines as much as possible. Avoiding disruptions will reduce the likelihood that the holidays become confusing and overwhelming for a person living with the dementia.
How to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection during holiday celebrations
- Virtual Celebrations: This is the safest way to celebrate the holidays. Examples include caroling over Zoom or Skype and using video chat while opening gifts. While some people living with dementia enjoy video chat, others may find it adds confusion and worsens dementia symptoms. Using the phone to dial in to Zoom or sticking to traditional phone calls are alternatives.
- Outdoor Visits: With COVID-19 cases increasing, most health officials are advising against in-person gatherings with people outside of your own household. If you choose to have in-person visits, consider weather-dependent outdoor visits. Examples include an outdoor visit with blankets and hot chocolate, a window visit, or taking a walk to look at decorations. However, be aware that some decorations may overwhelm someone living with dementia.
- Smaller Gatherings: Close contact with anyone outside your household, especially indoors, increases the risk of spreading COVID-19. If you choose to engage in a holiday gathering, limit the number of people in attendance, and make sure everyone takes COVID-19 precautions. Having all attendees quarantine for two weeks before attending is one way to reduce the risk of spreading the disease. Smaller gatherings not only reduce the risk of COVID-19, but they also reduce confusion and agitation for the person with dementia. You might also have a designated quiet room, where the person with dementia can go if they become overwhelmed and need solitude.
- Long-Term Care Facilities: If you have a loved one in a long-term care facility, call and ask about their visitation policies. Video chat, window visits, and dropping off favorite holiday foods are all safer ways to celebrate the holidays this year.
Remember to still enjoy this holiday season! Baking cookies, singing songs, watching holiday movies and looking through old photos are fun and festive ways to connect with your loved one.
If you know someone who could benefit from guidance and coaching on their caregiving journey, please contact CICOA’s caregiver support service. CICOA’s Dementia Friends Indiana program offers one-hour virtual sessions to educate anyone in the community about dementia-friendly communication and is a great learning opportunity for anyone visiting a loved one with dementia this holiday season. The Alzheimer’s Association’s 24/7 helpline, 800-272-3900, is also a great resource for those needing extra support, and it operates 365 days a year.
Katherine Starr, an AmeriCorps VISTA at CICOA, brings her passion and skill to the Meals & More Nutrition and Wellness project this year. Throughout college, Katherine volunteered 60 hours a semester at a dementia care facility, and she is now excited to help people with dementia and their caregivers live well within their own communities. Katherine received a bachelor’s degree in economics from Washington & Jefferson College in Pennsylvania and completed a dementia care certification through Presbyterian Senior Care Network and California University of Pennsylvania.