Holidays and the Alzheimer's Family

During the holidays, the added pressure of shopping, finishing year-end work, and organizing family get-togethers make it all too easy to lose sight of the specialness of the season. This can be especially true for family caregivers.

Families come in all shapes and sizes, but one family model that I find is often ignored is what I call The Alzheimer’s Family. You may be thinking, “What the heck is The Alzheimer’s Family?” Essentially, it’s anyone with a family member suffering from Alzheimer’s: an insidious, degenerative disease that can affect the entire family physically, sometimes financially and certainly emotionally.

Currently in the United States, there are nearly 5 million people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s (Alzheimer's Association). And for every one person with Alzheimer’s, there are, on average, three family members providing care behind the scenes. The math is simple: there are an estimated 15 million family members (Alzheimer's Association) working to provide the best quality of life for Alzheimer’s patients on any given day.

Holidays are a time of joy and celebration but they can be challenging for the millions of Alzheimer’s families in America. When I speak with family caregivers, it is easy to sense the stress they feel. They feel stressed about their loved one’s health, their behavior in a large group setting, and how this unpredictability can influence what’s supposed to be a day of peace and harmony.

In an effort to help make the holidays happier for Alzheimer’s families, I spoke with Monica Moreno, Director of Early-Stage Initiatives for the Alzheimer’s Association. Monica believes that when families stay flexible, develop realistic expectations, educate themselves about Alzheimer’s, and are committed to supporting their loved one, they create the optimal environment for enjoying their holidays as a family.

Here are a few tips from Monica to help ensure you make the most out of your holiday season:

· Keep everyone in the loop: Let guests know what to expect before they arrive and tell them how they can help. For example, what activities can they do with an Alzheimer’s patient or what’s the best way to communicate with them.

· Build on traditions and memories: Take time to experiment with new traditions that might be less stressful or a better fit for your caregiving responsibilities. For instance, if confusion and agitation peak in the evening, turn your holiday dinner into a holiday brunch or lunch.

· Involve the person with Alzheimer’s: Depending on abilities and preferences, make sure to keep the person with Alzheimer’s involved in the celebrations, such as packing cookies in tins or helping wrap gifts.

· Plan ahead: When attending a holiday party, prepare the host for special needs, such as a quiet room for your loved one to rest in, away from noise and distractions.

These suggestions will help a loved one with Alzheimer’s and the family surrounding them to better appreciate and enjoy one another during the holidays they share.

And, there is one more thought that is equally important… Be good to yourself.

When you’re supporting a loved one with this disease, it is easy to get lost in daily activities and the thoughts swirling around you. Providing care, proactively anticipating your loved one’s needs, and considering the “what ifs” you may experience can take a personal toll. There is a reason family caregivers of loved ones with Alzheimer’s report high levels of stress and depression: this undercurrent of chronic anxiety ultimately results in a deterioration of physical and emotional health (Family Caregiver Alliance).

To help better prepare for the holidays, make your needs a priority by taking care of your well-being. This isn’t selfish; it’s essential. Ask for support from family and friends and ensure you set aside “me time” each day to attend to your own needs. A wonderful resource filled with dedicated and knowledgeable professionals is The Alzheimer’s Association Alzheimer’s Dementia Caregiver Center (https://www.alz.org/care/). Please check it out and you will quickly be reminded that you are not alone!

Wishing you a peaceful and restorative holiday season.

Help yourself. Help others.

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