When A Parent Has Alzheimer's: Honoring Your Traditions By Changing Them

The holiday season centers on family and tradition. We take pictures with grandma and grandpa. We use the carving knife passed down from previous ancestors. We make cookies exactly the way our mother learned to make them from her grandmother.

As our parents and other adults in our lives continue to age, it seems that more and more are being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease or other dementias. In fact, 5.2 million Americans aged 65 and older currently live with Alzheimer's disease, according to the Alzheimer's Association. As these family members face the painful struggle of memory loss, we feel compelled to find a way to integrate them into our traditional holiday activities.

However, when faced with this challenge, it is imperative that we take a step back and ask ourselves an important question: Are we doing all this for them? Or for us?

A colleague recently told me of her experience this past Thanksgiving with her aunt, a former physician with early onset Alzheimer's. In keeping with tradition -- and doing what they thought was simply the right thing to do -- my colleague picked her up on Thanksgiving morning to join the family celebration. So, there she was: spending Thanksgiving with people who love her, and who were diligently working to make the day comfortable and enjoyable for her. But, in the end, it was neither.

Her aunt struggled throughout the day. She usually eats at noon. The feast was at 2 p.m. She didn't know whose house she was in. She was unable to recognize what used to be familiar family faces. She was away from her home, out of her comfort zone, off her schedule, with people she no longer knew -- and it was an unpleasant experience for both her and the entire family.

Unfortunately, this story is all too common. In our struggle to keep our parents and other family members with Alzheimer's in our lives, we often make things more difficult than they need to be -- for ourselves and for them.

We all want to create good memories. But we can't blindly follow tradition.

Tradition is about continuity and connection -- and sometimes those traditions need to be adapted and refreshed to keep that connection alive. Instead of throwing a loved one with Alzheimer's off their usual routine and in a strange place with people that are no longer recognizable, I challenge you to contemplate alternatives that accomplish the goal of spending the holidays together. What about bringing brunch to Grandma's house, which achieves both maintaining her regular meal schedule and keeping her in familiar surroundings? If she still retains memories from her youth, would she enjoy helping make cookies or decorating the tree before the big day?

Think about the positive memories you can create with your family, while making the holidays easier on yourself and your parents. Although it is difficult, acknowledge that you may need to change your traditions in order to do so.