Tips for Celebrating the Holidays with Seniors in Memory Care
When a brisk winter chill is in the air, and pumpkin spice is practically everywhere, you know it’s got to be that special time of year — the holidays. Yes, we love fall, pulling out our favorite fleece pajamas, putting a log on the fire, and most of all… spending extra time with the ones we love. As they say, it really is the most wonderful time of the year. The holidays are filled with moments in which our most cherished memories live on.
But for those who suffer from dementia, the holidays are perhaps even more special, because they create an opportunity to look back upon beloved remote memories, memories from the distant past that are more cemented, and bring them joy. Your mom, dad, or grandparent with early-to-middle stage dementia or Alzheimer’s may not remember what they did four hours ago, or who they were with, but they may remember that adorable five-year-old child excitedly opening Christmas presents underneath a silver tinsel-covered tree. Yes, those memories of you as a small child likely still bring them great joy, though in late-stage dementia they may no longer remember your face.
That’s why every moment is a treasure with a loved one who is experiencing dementia, because you cannot know which moments will stay with them, and which will fade. Visiting a senior loved one with dementia during the holidays can be a special time for families. And when you visit your aging mom or dad, grandma or grandpa at their memory care community, it can be a lovely experience for you, your children, your spouse, and anyone else who’s dear to your heart. But as you’ve probably learned already there is a new set of guidelines, that when followed will make your visits more productive and joyous. Let’s look at some helpful tips that you can share with family members before the big holiday visits to your loved one’s memory care community begin, tips that can help the whole family understand your loved one better, and thus make everyone’s time together the happiest it can be.
Make Their World, Your World
As you likely know, but your family members may not, the world that exists around your loved one with dementia is perhaps all that they know. Yes, distant memories may still be in their mind, but they may not necessarily connect those memories to you. Therefore, the here and now, is what you have to share. Let your family members know the style of conversation they may have had with ‘grandma’ or ‘grandpa’ in the past likely won’t be possible anymore. Help them to understand that conversations now will be focused more on the immediate, based more in emotional content… and then, visiting a loved one with dementia during the holidays will be a warmer, more satisfying experience for all. Conversations that start with, “remember that time when we…” will likely be frustrating for them, as they may not be able to recall even the smallest detail of what you’re discussing, so it’s best to not venture into this area. Instead, take cues from the present: for example, consider a squirrel in the tree outside the window as it dances skillfully through the red and orange leaves of fall. You can all take joy from watching one of nature’s most acrobatic creatures make a day in its natural world. And, while enjoying these ‘here and now’ moments, you may unearth some happy remote memories that your loved one will choose to share with you. Maybe the squirrel’s acrobatics will bring up a distant memory of a child who chased a squirrel once, and maybe that child was you.
Whatever the scenario, when you exist in the moment, it could lead to something deeper that you can share together. — We have to live in the world that they live in, because there is no other one for them any longer. When that is accepted, everyone can get more joy out of this holiday time together. Bringing the community’s care team into the conversation can be helpful because they’ve worked hard to build bonds with residents and learn their routines.
Be Patient, Always, Even When It’s Hard:
Accepting Frustration & Dealing with Anger Outbursts
Remember, as frustrating as it is for you, that you can no longer communicate as you did, with your mom or dad who suffers from dementia, it’s much more frustrating for them. Depending on the stage they’re at with their memory disorder, they may have an awareness that their memory is fading, or not. No one welcomes dementia into their life, though some accept its ravages more easily than others, obviously because everyone is an individual, different each one.
Instruct family members who may be visiting from afar that the rules have changed so to speak, that everyone needs to let the visit happen on your loved one’s terms, solely. If your loved one asks the same question again and again, calmly give them the answer that they’re seeking. In time, usually quickly, the moment will pass, and you’ll be on to the next thing. Help your family members to understand this, and you’ll be laying the groundwork for their expectations to be actual, and possible, and this will help keep everyone from getting frustrated.
However, even if you give a master class in ‘what to expect’ to your holiday-visiting family members before you arrive at the memory care community, anger outbursts can still occur. If your dementia-suffering loved one expresses anger, try to avoid taking it personally, because it’s really not personal. Let your family know that patience truly is… a virtue.
There are many reasons dementia sufferers have angry outbursts. Physical pain is a common reason. As we age, our bodies naturally develop more soreness and pain. From the muscles to the joints, aging takes a toll on us and pain is a natural symptom that occurs in some as they age. As communication skills are diminished in someone suffering from a memory disorder, they may not always be able to communicate how they’re feeling physically, and may act out in anger because of their physical pain. Remember, it’s not about you, so share your concern with them that they’re not feeling well, and let the moment pass calmly.
Other common reasons anger outbursts occur, especially in those who are in an early or middle stage of their disorder’s development, are fear and frustration. Help your visiting family members understand that what your loved one is going through is frightening to them as it would be to anyone who realizes that they’re losing control of abilities they once took for granted. And this fear, and the frustration of losing some control of their abilities, can certainly cause your loved one to lose control of their emotions as well, and lash out verbally at family members. Acceptance is key, so accept that anger outbursts may come, and know that it’s not personal, and again, let the moment pass. Surely happier moments will come shortly; wait for them and enjoy the time you all have together.
A Gentle Touch
Touch is an important emotional communicator. We hug to welcome home old friends who’ve returned for a visit. We embrace to show love to our family members. We touch the hands and shoulders of the ones we love when we share intimate conversations or a funny story that makes us laugh. A caring touch says a lot, and it’s an important part of our humanity.
A simple touch to the shoulder or hand, before you communicate with your loved one who suffers from dementia, can ease them to attention, and your loving comments will then be best received. A touch beforehand can help to prevent startling or frightening your loved one, so it’s a good way to initiate your moments together. Remember, much of your communication going forward, as dementia takes hold, could be non-verbal, so touching and eye contact are both excellent ways to show you care, and help you make that connection. Talk to your family about the importance of touch, before your visits to the community to spend time with your loved one with dementia during the holidays, and everyone’s time together will be the best it can be, sharing time with the ones you love in spite of the mental challenges.
Make This Holiday Season Special!
It can be challenging to adjust to new modes of communication with a parent or grandparent suffering from dementia, and it may require some time for family members who are unfamiliar to acclimate. But even if it feels different, your loved one is still with you, and their love and support has made you into the person you are today. Dementia is unpredictable and there’s a lot that medical science has yet to discover, but no matter where your loved one is on the dementia spectrum, everyone deserves to lead rewarding lives filled with happiness. So, this holiday season, we hope that you’ll enjoy every moment your family can share together. Happy holidays, from our family at Rockbridge Oaks, to yours.