Best Holiday Stress-Busting Tips for Alzheimer’s Patients, Families

Advice to lessen stress for those caring for people with AD

Family All Together At Christmas Dinner

The holiday season brings people and families together, and stress and frustration can tag along. Those feelings are often heightened when you have a family member living with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) or other forms of dementia.

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But you can smoothly navigate the holidays with these family members, says neuropsychologist Aaron Bonner-Jackson, PhD. The key, he says, is ensuring he or she doesn’t get overstimulated.

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“It’s easy for someone who has Alzheimer’s disease to get overwhelmed,” Dr. Bonner-Jackson says. “Don’t overwhelm them with too many crowds or visits. Don’t pack in too much. If there are too many people around, they’re likely to get tired out.”

When they’ve had enough

No two people with AD respond alike to social gatherings, including the ways they show when they’ve reached their limit, Dr. Bonner-Jackson says.

“Some will get irritable and may lash out or seem angry,” he says. “Others will withdraw, stop talking, and really seem to go into themselves. Or, they may start to exhibit some unusual behaviors.”

In these cases, he suggests these actions:

  • Identify a quiet place away from activity for your family member to relax and calm down
  • Keep visits as short as possible – two hours is usually the limit
  • Avoid all-day engagements

Sometimes, managing events or redirecting your family member isn’t enough. If he wanders off, starts to hallucinate, or starts doing things that could endanger himself or others, it’s time to seek professional medical help, Dr. Bonner-Jackson says.

“If things are causing your family member so much discomfort and bringing on so much distress that nothing can be done, you should seek outside assistance,” he says. “It’s relatively rare, but there are times when their behavior or confusion gets so severe that it necessitates a trip to the emergency room.”

Prep your guests

Tell your guests what to expect from your family member with AD before your holiday event, Dr. Bonner-Jackson says. He suggests sending an e-mail beforehand, describing the extent of your family member’s memory loss, whether he or she forgets names, and any common behaviors.

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Remind your guests not to quiz your family member. It’s a misconception that doing so is good for the brain. Instead, it can feel like an interrogation and increase your family member’s stress. Also, ask that they try to answer repeated questions calmly despite how many times they’re asked.

Best ways to include your loved one

Avoid engaging your family member with AD in fast-paced conversation during the holidays. Instead, opt for quieter, slower-paced talks, Dr. Bonner-Jackson says.

You can focus on these areas to help your loved one:

  • Photos: Have one or two people go through old photos with your family member and discuss memories he or she can remember clearly. It can be emotionally helpful for them to see family members who might not be present.
  • Food preparation: Assign a small kitchen task, such as light chopping or setting out the dishes, which can be fun for someone with AD. Small jobs under supervision can make him or her feel needed and useful.
  • Exercise: Take small walks during family events as a healthy way to remove your family member from bustling situations that could cause confusion.

Take care of yourself, too

The holidays often stress out primary caregivers for individuals with AD more than usual, Dr. Bonner-Jackson says.

“It’s important to remember to give yourself breaks,” he says. “Don’t be afraid to practice self-care and ask someone else to be responsible for your family member for a few hours.”

And be open to scaling back your plans, altering your traditions, or even starting new ones if your family member’s memory loss is new or has worsened, Dr. Bonner-Jackson says.

Ultimately, he advises, embrace the fact that life with a family member with AD won’t always go according to plan.

“Flexibility is the overall theme. You may have plans, and it may become clear you can’t follow through with them. You have to shift,” he says. “Just try to enjoy the time for what it is with the people around you.”

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