BYLINE: Patti Zielinski

Newswise — Although the holiday season brings joy to many, it may bring added stress for a family supporting a loved one with memory loss.

Mary-Catherine Lundquist, program director of Care2Caregivers, a peer counseling helpline (800-424-2494) for caregivers of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and related memory disorders operated by Rutgers Behavioral Health Care, discussed how families can make the most of the season.

How should families approach traditional holiday gatherings?
If you have a family member with memory loss, the best thing you can do is adjust your expectations. Rituals and traditions that your family may have enjoyed in the past may be too overwhelming this year.

Be selective in the activities you choose and have an exit plan in case your loved one is uncomfortable and needs to leave early. Instead of attending the concert, maybe listen to music at home or enjoy a sing along. Scale back with cooking and gift-giving responsibilities. It’s OK to use paper plates or get takeout for a holiday meal. Purchasing gift cards online can help you avoid the holiday stress of shopping.

How can families deal with challenging emotions around the holidays?
Many families supporting a loved one with memory loss report feelings of grief and sadness during the holidays. They remember how the person used to be and grieve because their loved one is just not the same. Maybe their mother used to do all the cooking and decorating and now she is unable.

There may be times when the person with memory loss does not remember the names of family members or gets confused and thinks for instance that their daughter is their sister. This can be upsetting for family members. It’s best to avoid asking the person with memory loss to remember. Instead of saying, “Do you remember when we used to …” say “I remember when we used to …?” And instead of expecting the person with memory loss to know who you are, it’s best to say, “Hi Dad, I am Joe, your son.”

How can caregivers prepare traveling family members for the changes in their loved one?
Talk with your out-of-town family beforehand and let them know that their loved one may be different than last year so they are not shocked by changes.

Be specific. Say, for example, “He’s not talking a lot” or “She may ask the same questions over and over again” or “He may not know who you are.” Discuss some behaviors they might witness, such as walking around the house, needing assistance in using the bathroom or having difficulty when eating.

What are the best ways family members can spend quality time with a loved one during a visit?
Even though things aren’t as they used to be, we can still appreciate the time we have together and make new connections with who the person is now. If you are visiting a family member with memory loss, bring a bag of activities: snacks, coloring books, crafts, photographs or memorabilia. There are so many ways we can connect with each other even when a person can no longer talk or remember a shared history.

Music – especially singing songs together – is a wonderful way to share an experience. Although people lose the ability to converse, their ability to sing is preserved in a beautiful way. Plus, the holidays present a roster of familiar carols. 

Inviting the person to help you make some traditional food or looking at holiday cards together are other ideas for positive ways to connect.

How can we support family and friends whose loved ones may be in a nursing home or whose loved one may have died?
If you know someone whose loved one is a nursing home or someone who may have lost a loved one to death this year, you can make a difference by reaching out as these friends likely are having a difficult holiday season.

Call them to check in, send a hand-written note, drop off flowers or food or send a text to say, “Thinking of you.” Let them know that just because their loved one is not in the house with them anymore, they are not forgotten.

If your loved one is in a nursing home, you can always visit them and celebrate the holiday another day that week, especially if that will allow you to celebrate the holiday with other friends and family.

How can family members reduce the stress of caregiving during the holiday?
Drop whatever is causing stress! Scale back wherever you can. The best gift you can give to a loved one with memory loss and their caregiver is your presence. Caregivers often do not get out and are lonely. Whatever you can do to brighten their day is appreciated, whether it’s bringing them a meal or, better yet, offering to stay with the person so the caregiver can attend a family gathering or take time for him or herself.

The holidays are a time to be together and cherish each other. In the end what’s important is to find realistic ways for your family connect with the meaning of the season.