When a loved one suffers from dementia or Alzheimer’s, deciding how to or how not to celebrate the holidays with them can be a difficult decision. The very characteristics of the disease can make holidays non-existent for the patient. However, the family is celebrating and to exclude the patient can seem cruel and unloving. How is the family to make these emotionally packed decisions in a loving and responsible, yet realistic manner? Here are some suggestions.
Break down the decision into small, logistical pieces and work through them.
1: Can the patient travel? Long distances are often not a good idea because the patient should remain close to his or her physician. However, can the patient tolerate a short drive to a local party?
Be aware of the physical, mental, and emotional status of the loved one. Sometimes a dementia or Alzheimer’s patient who still has moments of clarity will suddenly become agitated when removed from their daily environment, even for a brief time. Even surrounded by family, the patient will want to leave immediately. If the patient lives in a care facility, the staff can give great insight into the current status of the patient in this regard.
2: What is the emotional state and personality of the loved one? Has the disease caused agitation and anger or is the patient calm and amicable?
If dementia or Alzheimer’s is causing agitation and anger, a holiday celebration will not make the person “happy.” The personality changes caused by the disease cannot be handled as they were before the disease. Noise and chaos will at a family gathering will increase agitation and any other impairments such as hearing loss will make it even worse.
3: What is the physical condition of the loved one? Can they walk easily? Do they have balance problems?
Depending upon the stage of dementia and Alzheimer’s many other physical ailments may now exist- swallowing may be impaired, digestion may be difficult, and incontinence can be a frequent symptom. Other physical ailments can be risky for non-clinicians to handle.
4: What is the family dynamic? Be honest in this assessment. Is the family easy going and relaxed or are there embedded tensions and stress? What are the ages of family members? Are there infants and young children, or is the family older?
Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia take away more from the patient than just their ability to remember names and faces. These diseases change the emotional fabric of the person. They may become fearful where before they were adventurous. They may become shy and easily intimidated by strong personalities whereas before they were gregarious and outgoing. People who suffer from these diseases also become more child-like, which means they are much more susceptible to the emotional tenor of the room.
After these questions have been answered honestly, it is time to make a decision. On the one hand consider the traditions of the family and on the other hand look at the answers to these questions. When combined, the best approach to the holidays will begin to emerge.
The important thing to remember is that the family can still share a different type of holiday celebration with the patient. S/he is still here and can still be loved.