The holidays can be an especially challenging time for family caregivers of people with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. To help families navigate holiday visits, Rutgers Today spoke with Mary Catherine Lundquist, program director of Care2Caregivers, a peer counseling helpline (800-424-2494) for caregivers of people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease operated by Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care.
How should families approach traditional holiday gatherings?
Lundquist: If you have a family member with memory loss, the best thing you can do is adjust your expectations. There are so many changes and challenges with Alzheimer’s disease that the key to success at the holidays is being flexible and creative.
Adult children who have one parent with dementia and the other as the caregiver should consider what is in the best interest of each parent when planning events. For example, while children might long to visit their parents with their families on one special day for the sake of tradition, that might be the last thing the caregiver desires. Mom might have been up all night caring for Dad and the house might be disorderly because she is too busy to clean.
Structure and routine are important for a person with dementia. If there is any change – like attending a gathering at another home – he or she could be out of sorts for the next few days, adding stress to the caregiver. Sometimes, it’s best for the loved one to stay at home and receive visits of 30 minutes or less from a small number of guests stretched out over a period of days. Keep the number of guests to a minimum; sometimes even having two extra people in the room can be too much stimulation.
How can caregivers prepare traveling family members for the changes in their loved one?
Lundquist: Talk with your out-of-town family beforehand and let them know that their loved one may be different than last year so they are not shocked by changes. Be specific. Say, for example, ‘He’s not talking a lot’ or ‘She may ask the same questions over and over again’ or ‘He may not know who you are.’ Discuss some behaviors they might witness, such as walking around the house, needing assistance in using the bathroom or being messy when eating.
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