The Alzheimer’s Caregiver: Tips for the Holidays

The holidays are a difficult time for Alzheimer’s caregivers. At this time of year more than any other, we long to connect with our loved ones as they once were.

One of the best ways to connect with someone you love who has Alzheimer’s disease is through reminiscence — telling old stories, reading familiar texts, singing favorite songs, and looking at familiar objects.

And there is no better time to do this than the holidays.

If you have old ornaments, an old menorah, a wedding dress, a piece of family jewelry or any other significant object the person may remember from the distant past, bring those out and talk about them. Family photos can be a wonderful springboard for memory. One woman of our acquaintance cannot remember what she had for breakfast, but can tell every story connected with the photos taken while she and her husband were dating over 50 years ago.

Read familiar scripture or stories in the version the person would have heard as a child or young adult. Ask the person when he first heard or read this. Ask him about holidays past — the food that was served, who did the cooking, the presents that were received, or if the family made an annual trek to the woods to get a tree. Anything that might help him retrieve his memories.

One word of caution: You should ask only one question at a time and patiently wait for the answer. Multiple rapid fire questions will only confuse a person with Alzheimer’s.

Music is an amazing tool in connecting. Because music uses more parts of the brain than any other activity, the chances of connecting with the person increase greatly. Sing songs from her childhood. If she is religious, or was in childhood, sing the religious songs she would have sung early in her life.

Less than 24 hours before he died, Daniel’s father had not spoken in 6 months, but could sing the hymns of his childhood. Daniel’s grandmother was born in 1898 and was a church organist for many years. Even debilitated by dementia, she could play her favorite hymns. Interestingly enough, the hymns would always transform themselves into the “St. Louis Blues,” a song from her Ragtime teens and twenties. Precious memories of a church organist who still had spunk into her 90s.

If there are children in the family, involve them in this reminiscence process. We both had grandparents with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, and our daughters lost a grandfather to Alzheimer’s disease. The moments of connection help children to know and remember their grandparent, and can help preserve for future generations the family stories that are being lost to the disease process.

We would be remiss if we did not talk about the additional confusion often experienced by people with Alzheimer’s around the holidays. The person’s routine is disturbed. Your home may be crowded with guests, or you may visit the homes of family and friends. Crowds and unfamiliar environments confuse people with Alzheimer’s disease.

As the caregiver, you are torn between wanting to see family and friends, and wanting to keep your loved one in a stable, calm environment. While you probably cannot eliminate the confusion completely, you can enlist family members and friends to help you keep it to a minimum.

Communicate in advance with the people you’ll spend the holidays with. Explain that your loved one is confused by crowds, loud noises, unfamiliar people and places, etc. Share with them the techniques above and ask for their help. If they see the person with Alzheimer’s disease leaving the house, accompany him. Wandering is a very real danger! If they see him growing agitated, take him to a quieter room or for a walk. If they see him eating to the point it may make him sick, redirect him away from the food.

If everyone helps, the holidays can be a joyous time for the caregiver, the person with Alzheimer’s disease, and other family and friends.

About the Author

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Between the two of them, Ellen Woodward Potts and her husband, neurologist Dr. Daniel Potts, helped care for eight family members (four grandparents, three great aunts and Daniel’s father) with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. Their book, A Pocket Guide for the Alzheimer’s Caregiver, summarizes all the things they wish they and their families had known as they traveled their caregiving journey. When not writing and speaking about Alzheimer’s disease, Ellen serves as Executive Director for Habitat for Humanity of Tuscaloosa, and teaches as an adjunct professor at the University of Alabama Honors College. She and Daniel live in Tuscaloosa with their two daughters, Julie and Maria, and their miniature dachshund, Heidi.

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