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Memory Matters: Holidays and Dementia

Memory Matters
Holidays and Dementia

Holidays, celebrations, festivals- these words conjure up visions of family and friends gathering together, eating, laughing and enjoying each others company. But for the person with dementia, holidays can be puzzling, confusing and even frightening. And for family members, who may not have visited for awhile, the changes they see in their loved one can be an emotional shock.
"Dementia" is a word that describes any disease or condition that causes global, progressive deterioration of memory, language, thought, behavior and/or mood. There are many different causes of dementia, but whatever the cause, the result is life-changing for the person with dementia, family and friends.
Holidays and celebrations can still be enjoyable for families, friends, and the person with dementia, but adaptations need to be made.
Helpful hints for happy holidays for all:
* Draw on your faith and traditions
* Plan ahead
* Involve your loved one
* Be flexible
* Pick and choose; simplify, set limits
* Delegate
* Adapt, if necessary, holiday times and some traditions
* Making this holiday joyful for the loved one counts so much more than re-creating past extravaganzas or meeting unrealistic expectations
* Avoid long days and late-day activities
* Gracefully accept help
Some useful tips for preparing the person with memory loss for the Holidays:
* Talk about and show pictures of people who are coming to visit.
* Persons with dementia may recognize faces of family members and friends, but can't recall their names--name tags for visitors are helpful.
* Have a "quiet room" if things get too hectic and have someone familiar stay with the person with dementia.
* Prepare distractions (e.g. photo album).
* Involve the person with dementia in preparing food, hanging decorations, wrapping packages, setting the table, or whatever is possible.
* Play familiar holiday music and serve traditional holiday foods.
Maintaining safety is always a priority, but sometimes in our zeal to make the holidays festive, safety issues get pushed aside.
Safety issues to keep in mind:
* Create a clear pathway for walking; avoid wires, cords or throw rugs.
* Use ribbon or yarn instead of sharp hooks to hang ornaments and decorations.
* Avoid decorating with items that look edible.
* Avoid confusing, blinking lights.
* Do not leave lighted candles or fireplace unattended.
* Use plastic or silk mistletoe rather than real; if eaten it is toxic.
* Use non-alcoholic beer, wine, or sparkling cider.
All causes of dementia are progressive, so what worked last year likely will not work this year. The gift happily received last year may be received with indifference this year.
Knowing where your loved one is in the disease process can be very helpful.
Early Stage
The early stage of dementia might be described by saying that a dementia is clearly present, but remains in the background, affecting, but not necessarily hindering, everyday life. Symptoms may include forgetfulness, misplacing items, or even occasional episodes of getting lost or failing to recognize people or places. Though relatively minor in its impact on life, the disease is there, enough to convince the person, family and friends that something is wrong.
The Middle Stage
The middle stage of dementia is best described as when the disease has now progressed to a point where the person needs help with most everyday tasks. The attention span is shorter and safety issues arise. The person may become confused and wander away, becoming lost even in familiar places They are aware they are having problems and do everything they can to cope. Life is a constant battle involving frustration, mishaps, and episodes of upset.
The End Stage
In the end or late stage of dementia, capacity to deal with anything complicated is diminished so comprehension and understanding are poor. The person usually has little or no verbal communication skills and is dependent for most self-care tasks. While it may appear the person is unable to participate in celebrations, they can still enjoy the company of a familiar face.
Gift giving is usually an integral part of holiday celebrations. Both the person with dementia and the caregiver appreciate thoughtful gifts, not necessarily expensive ones.
Gift ideas for the person with memory loss:
* Safe Return bracelet (call 1-888-572-8566 for application)
* Soft pillows or stuffed animals
* Memory aids (calendar, large clock, wipe-off message board)
* Night lights
* Simple and familiar games (early stage)
* Tickets to a ball game, circus, or concert (early stage)
* Taxi charge account (early stage)
* Materials to sort
* Music, books with large pictures and few words
* Short car trips
* Photo albums (late stage)
* Pet visits (late stage)
* Lotion for hand/body massage (late stage)
* Warn gift givers about difficult or unsafe gifts
* Small, wrapped gifts for the person to give to others
* Your listening and hugs
Gift ideas for the caregiver:
* Something frivolous, but fun (massage, spa treatment)
* A supply of frozen home-made meals
* Books, magazine subscription
* Personal cassette player and tapes
* Battery powered intercom
* Respite
* House-cleaning service
* Home-made coupon book with offers to provide transportation, run errands, buy groceries/supplies, etc.
* Your listening and hugs
Remember that the holidays are different in several ways and past traditions and expectations have to be modified. Balance quiet time and activity so as not to overwhelm the person with dementia.

The Alzheimer's Association is a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization. The Association enhances care and support for people with Alzheimer's disease, their families, and caregivers and encourages support for research. Local office: 5 Public Square, Ste. 307, Hagerstown, MD, 301.797.4892; fax, 301.797.0150; email,,

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