Thanksgiving is a time for families to gather and share a meal, to reminisce about old memories and make new ones. However, when a loved one is diagnosed with dementia, such as Alzheimer’s, some past family traditions might cause anxiety and confusion for a loved one, not to mention the additional stress put on a caregiver. Here are some tips to make your holiday celebrations more enjoyable for your loved one, as well as the entire family.
1. Arrange A Quiet Space
Your loved one with dementia can become easily confused and anxious with a crowded space and relatives that may now be unfamiliar to them. Make sure they have a quiet space away from the holiday commotion if they become overwhelmed or exhausted with the day’s activities. If possible, try to host your holiday in a familiar home and reduce travel. Ask that family members come to the home of your loved one or their caregivers. If your loved one resides in a long-term care facility, consider bringing a bit of Thanksgiving to them, instead of checking them out to travel to a relative’s home that they may not be entirely familiar with.
2. Involve Friends & Family
You might have guests in the home who are not aware of the current situation with a family member with Alzheimer’s. It’s important to make everyone who will be joining you for the day aware of your loved one’s condition and status, especially if it is a new diagnosis or their condition has progressed greatly since the last time everyone was together. The added stress of planning Thanksgiving festivities can take a toll on a caregiver. Take advantage of the additional family members in the home for the holiday. Delegate tasks, like cooking or setting up for the meal to other family members to lighten your workload. Or come up with activities for family members to participate in with your loved one with dementia, so the sole responsibility of looking after them doesn’t fall entirely on the shoulders of one person for the day.
3. Celebrate Earlier in the Day
As the day transitions from afternoon to evening, it can have negative effects on those living with dementia. This is known as Sundown syndrome, which can manifest itself in a variety of behaviors, like anger or confusion. One way to reduce its effect on your day is to schedule your primary Thanksgiving meal earlier in the day. If you’ve always celebrated at dinner time, consider moving your holiday meal to lunch or brunch. Not only will this reduce added stress for your loved one, it might even create a new holiday meal tradition.
4. Find Ways to Engage Your Loved One with Dementia
Depending on their mental capacity and physical ability, find small tasks for them to focus on throughout the day. There is much to be done when preparing a large family meal, and there should be some small task for everyone, including your loved one. Can they stir the potatoes? Set the table? Keeping them busy with a familiar task can help calm them down and distract from the unfamiliar aspects of the day. If the usual Thanksgiving preparation tasks aren’t possible for your loved one, establish new traditions that will make them comfortable or reduce their stress level. Have everyone share memories from past holidays, engaging your loved one about what they remember from growing up, or previous celebrations. Look at old photo albums and ask them questions about the past. It’s important to remember to be an active and engaged listener in these situations. Do not interrupt or correct them if they don’t remember the exact version of past events or repeat themselves.
5. Forget the Pressure of the Perfect Holiday
Maybe Thanksgiving this year doesn’t look like it always has, but that’s okay. Your family might not look like it always has either. Instead of focusing on what is different about this year, or how you might be moving away from past traditions, focus on the new traditions you can create.
Traditions and delicious food aside, what Thanksgiving truly comes down to is gratitude and spending time with family and friends, which can be accomplished a variety of ways. It’s important for family to celebrate and not focus on what might have been lost, but instead to celebrate what remains, and remain optimistic about what is to come. If you or someone you know finds themselves struggling with the holiday and caring for a loved one, the Alzheimer’s Association has a helpline that is staffed by clinicians all day, every day (yes, even on Thanksgiving) who can offer support. The number is 800-272-3900.