by Rebecca G. Logsdon, Ph.D.
We usually think of holidays as pleasant times, when we look forward to festive visits with family and friends. But holidays can also be stressful, lonely, or disappointing. This may be particularly true for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and their caregivers. Because of the memory problems and increased confusion that are caused by AD, the holiday season may be quite different than it has been in the past. The bustle of visitors may be disturbing if the person with AD does not remember friends or relatives. Decorations and blinking lights may frighten or upset some individuals. Caregivers may feel added burden as they single-handedly shoulder responsibilities for shopping, entertaining, wrapping gifts, and planning activities. Families whose loved one has moved to a residential care facility may worry about how to include their relative in holiday celebrations without disturbing the person with AD or disrupting the celebration. Added together, these may lead to feelings of exhaustion, guilt, and sadness—what is commonly referred to as the “Holiday Blues.”
If you notice that you feel stressed, overwhelmed, or blue during the holidays, it may help if you take some action. Create new traditions to replace old ones that are no longer pleasant. Give yourself permission to do only what you can reasonably manage and truly enjoy. Ask others for help with holiday-related tasks. Often family and friends would like to help, if you can tell them what needs to be done. Make your requests specific. If you love pumpkin pie, ask a friend who bakes if they could make an extra one. If sending cards is important to you, perhaps a neighbor would take them to the post office for you. Grandchildren often love to put up decorations or wrap packages. Make that big holiday dinner you have always prepared a “potluck,” or pass the tradition on to another family member.
If shopping is difficult for you, consider ordering gifts from catalogs or on-line, or buy tickets to concerts, plays, or sports events by telephone. Make a charitable donation in the recipient's name. Give a gift certificate to a shop or restaurant that the recipient will enjoy.
For the person with AD, maintaining a familiar routine of sleeping, eating, and carrying out daily activities helps provide stability and security. If you have guests, explain the routine to them in advance, so that they can adjust their own schedules accordingly. If guests are visiting, it may also be especially important for the person with AD to have a break from the activity—a nap in the afternoon, or a quiet place of retreat when the activities become too overwhelming.
If your family member lives in a residential care facility, get a schedule of planned holiday activities, and invite friends or family to visit the person during those activities. The structure provided by the activity and the comfort of a familiar and/or attentive person to share it may be the best gift you could give your loved one. Some people with AD enjoy being with the family for holiday festivities, but for others leaving their usual routine and being surrounded by bustle and extended family may be overwhelming. Talk to the caregiving staff at the residence about your own holiday plans; they may have suggestions about how much activity the person can tolerate. If you want to enjoy a family gathering but feel it would be too much for your loved one, plan ahead to spend a quieter time with your loved one before or after the big celebration, and then allow yourself to enjoy the family celebration.
If you are buying gifts for a caregiver or person with AD, consider the types of gifts that will be most useful to them. Videos, magazine subscriptions, comfortable clothing, albums with family photos, tapes or CD’s of favorite music are all gifts that can be shared and appreciated. Services that you can provide throughout the year may be especially appreciated; a dessert once a week, a day-trip to a favorite place, help with house cleaning, a caregiver’s day out while you spend time with the person with AD are all ideas.
Although there is no single solution to holiday stress that works for everyone, thinking about what you like and don’t like about holidays can help you make a plan that will make your holiday meaningful and enjoyable.