Athene Lee, PhD, Memory and Aging Program neuropsychologist
Cheryl Kechichian, RN, Memory and Aging Program nurse coordinator
We all want to enjoy a happy holiday season, but there’s no denying the holidays also bring some added stress. This is particularly true for those affected by Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, as well as for their caregivers. If you’re caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s or dementia, here are five ways to stress less so that you both can have a happier holiday season.
1. Have a plan for holiday parties.
[SPECIAL NOTE: We recognize that in 2020, the health threat presented by the COVID-19 pandemic means that holiday parties with those outside of your household are not possible to attend safely, particularly for at-risk individuals like those with Alzheimer’s and dementia. However we are still including the information in this section, originally written in 2018, as a helpful guide for the future.]
Visiting multiple different places for a flurry of holiday parties can be overwhelming, stressful and confusing for people with Alzheimer’s, and even those with only mild memory loss. To avoid this, approach holiday parties with a plan.
If you’re hosting the party, keep it on the smaller side and have it earlier in the day – evenings tend to be more difficult in general for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia, and this is magnified when there’s a change in routine.
When attending parties or gatherings elsewhere, try to attend early as well. You’ll also want to keep the visit on the shorter side. Find a room or out-of-the-way spot where things are less crowded and chaotic. If there are children or animals at the party, see if you can arrange some quiet time with them for your loved one. People with Alzheimer’s often really enjoy kids and animals, and can find their presence calming. This is also an excellent opportunity for your loved one and young family members to spend time together! If at all possible, keep a few days between each party or visit to allow your loved one to decompress and de-stress by returning to their routine.
2. Leave the holiday “heavy lifting” to someone else.
If you or your loved one has always loved to bake or cook during the holidays, by all means still do so together – but only in your own home, and only when you can take your time. People with Alzheimer’s can usually only handle one task at a time and can’t be rushed, or they’ll become frustrated. So let someone else host the holiday dinners. If you’d like to bring a dish to a party but time or patience are running short, don’t push it – simply pick something up from the store.
3. Simplify gift giving.
Shopping for and wrapping gifts can be stressful for almost anyone and as a caregiver, you now have to shop and wrap for two, but with much less time (and perhaps money) because you’re busy caring for your loved one. So take every opportunity to simplify things and keep gift giving enjoyable. Shop online from home, or opt for gift cards; use gift bags, which are quicker and easier than wrapping gifts; scale back your lists, buying only for immediate family and exchange heartfelt holiday cards with others.
4. Keep holiday traditions flexible and focus on the feeling, not the particular activity.
As with the example of holiday baking and gift giving, it’s OK if the holiday traditions you and your loved one used to enjoy together have to be adjusted now. It’s not the doing that’s important, but the feeling. If what you used to do now brings feelings of anxiety instead of happiness, it’s better to create a new tradition that you can both still enjoy together.
5. Give yourself the gift of self-care, and be willing to accept it from others.
In our work with those affected by Alzheimer’s at the Memory and Aging Program, we worry about the caregiver as much as the patient. Caregiver stress can be overwhelming if you don’t take time for yourself, too. Your loved one is going to be fine – he or she is well taken care of because you’ve made sure of it. But that’s a big job, and what about you? You won’t have the strength to continue caring for your loved one if you don’t also make time to care for yourself. The best holiday gift you can give yourself, or to someone else who is a caregiver, is a break. If someone offers to lighten your load by taking a task off your hands or offering to stay with your loved one while you go out, accept their offer; it is perhaps the most valuable gift they could give you this holiday season. And if they don’t offer, don’t hesitate to ask! A family member or close friend is sure to be more than willing to spend some time at home with your loved one so that you can go out to enjoy a holiday party on your own, bake cookies with friends, or do some holiday shopping.
The bottom line is that the holidays may be a bit different now, but they should still be joyful. Stay flexible, stay in tune with how you both are feeling, and adjust your activities accordingly. Let go of the holiday hustle and bustle and embrace the quiet, peaceful moments that happy memories are made of – after all, those are what the holidays are really all about.
About the Authors
Athene Lee, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in Psychiatry and Human Behavior (Clinical) at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and a licensed neuropsychologist at the Memory and Aging Program at Butler Hospital. Dr. Lee is dedicated to early identification and intervention for cognitive decline, and has considerable experience working with older adults with cognitive complaints. She collaborates on neuroimaging research and clinical trials for a range of memory disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease. She also conducts clinical neuropsychological evaluations for patients referred by geriatricians, neurologists, and primary care physicians.
Cheryl Kechichian, RN, has been with the Memory & Aging Program at Butler Hospital as a nurse coordinator since 2007. Previously, she worked as an RN in a variety of settings including hospitals, community centers, home care, and long-term care. After diversifying her career and trying different nursing domains, she realized that working with adults and elders with memory issues was her calling. She has been involved with a wide range of clinical trials during her tenure with the program.
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