David Troxel: 5 tips to help your loved one with dementia enjoy the holidays

The holiday season can be a time of joy for many families, filled with reunions, gift giving and parties. This can also be a challenging time for families involved in dementia care. Prestige Senior Living’s dementia care consultant David Troxel, MPH, shares five tips for caregivers who are navigating the holiday season with a person living with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia.

1. Keep it short and simple: Attend or host holiday events whenever possible, but consider being with smaller groups and shortening the length of stay. Be prepared to leave a holiday event early if you see your family member getting stressed or agitated.

2. Celebrate life stories: Persons with dementia can often tell you about events from long ago. Write down highlights of your family member’s life such as occupation, family, awards, hobbies or special talents. Since it’s the holiday season, take special note of holiday traditions. Did your mom have a favorite cookie recipe? Did your family come from the south and eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day for good luck? These holiday stories, along with other memories, support opportunities for reminiscing, and can be an essential tool when your family member has in-home help, attends a day center or moves into residential care.

3. Embrace meaningful activities that foster connection: Ask your mom to help you wrap presents. Tactile skills like tying a knot or holding down the ribbon on a package often remain late into dementia. Use a simple activity to ask mom for an opinion — do you prefer the red bow or the green bow? Asking mom for her opinion, even a simple one, helps her feel valued.

Most of us enjoy doing something for others during the holiday season. Consider spending time with your family member baking dog biscuits for family dogs (or the local shelter), making cookies for family members or first responders, creating nice decorations for a holiday table or writing holiday cards and notes together. These meaningful activities can bring a sense of purpose to your loved one, and that can go a long way.

4. Celebrate the spirit: If your family member belongs to a faith community, this can be a time to enjoy favorite spiritual readings, prayer or spiritual music. Attend a holiday service, perhaps one during a time of week or day that’s less crowded. Even people who don’t identify as religious are often touched by broader spiritual activities including music and art, time spent outdoors in nature or time spent with children and animals.

5. Give yourself a holiday present: As the famed Alzheimer’s researcher and writer Dr. Tom Kitwood once said, “Caregivers are physicians of the human spirit.” Take some time this holiday season to practice self-care. Attend a support group. Consider asking friends and family for a gift of time, to be with your family member while you take a short trip or day to visit old friends.

With some creativity, planning, and some help from family and friends, the holiday season can still be a time for meaningful activity and celebration. Bob Hope, legendary entertainer, made many holiday themed movies and often entertained the troops over the holiday season. He said his idea of Christmas and the holiday season was “...very simple: loving others. Come to think of it, why do we have to wait for Christmas to do that?”

David Troxel, MPH, is an internationally recognized expert in Alzheimer’s disease and memory care. He has co-authored six influential books relating to dementia care as well as staff development and training. He is a consultant for Carson Tahoe Expressions Memory Care at Carson Tahoe Care Center opening January 2019.


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