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Holiday tips for families affected by Alzheimer's

Holiday celebrations are often joyous occasions that families look forward to all year, but they can be challenging for the millions of people living with Alzheimer's disease and dementia, according to the Alzheimer's Association. Alzheimer's disease affects an estimated 5.7 million people in the U.S., and more than nearly 16 million people care for someone with the disease.

"Remember to adjust any of your holiday practices to how dementia affects a person. Any activity, task or gathering that requires problem-solving, raises anxiety, asks them to remember things or people which they can't will create anxiety and reduced functioning," said ADRC Dementia Care Specialist Nancy Abrahamson. "Help your person be as able as possible by creating the environment in which they function best. Get help from friends and family if you are the caregiver so you can have time away doing what you enjoy or to relax. One-to-one visits by friends with the person diagnosed will provide added friendship and stimulation."

"The hustle and bustle that accompanies the holidays can be stressful for people living with Alzheimer's," said Sharlene Bellefeuille, outreach specialist, Alzheimer's Association Greater Wisconsin chapter. "Changes in the daily routine, large gatherings and noisy environments — all holiday hallmarks — can create extra anxiety for someone living with dementia."

To help families navigate holiday-related challenges, the Alzheimer's Association is offering these simple tips to ensure an enjoyable holiday for all.

Prepare your guests: The holidays are full of emotions, so let guests know what to expect before they arrive and tell them how they can help. Suggest activities to engage the person with Alzheimer's or best ways to communicate with them. "Cross talk or simultaneous conversations can be challenging for people living with Alzheimer's, so try engaging them one-on-one or in smaller group settings," Bellefeuille advises.

Build on traditions and memories: Take time to experiment with new traditions that might be less stressful or a better fit with your caregiving responsibilities. If evening confusion and agitation are a problem, turn your holiday dinner into a holiday lunch or brunch.

"Traditions can be simplified if you choose not to begin new ones. Simplify decorating or baking. Choose one or two of the most important family gatherings or make it several smaller visits. Have the adult children bring the meal. Singing can be a very meaningful activity this time of year," Abrahamson said.

Involve the person living 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 the person to rest when they get tired, away from the noise and distractions.

"Or you may need to avoid large, noisy and chaotic gatherings," Abrahamson said.

Adapt gift giving to ensure safe and useful gifts: Diminishing capacity may make some gifts unusable or even dangerous to a person with dementia. If someone asks for gift ideas, suggest items people living with the disease can easily enjoy, such as comfortable clothing, favorite music, videos and photo albums.

"Picture books about your loved one's interests can be great gifts. Whether their interest is in birds, farm equipment, seasons, children, or pets there are numerous calendar or books they might enjoy," Abrahamson said.

Here is an example of what is possible, according to Abrahamson:

Maureen was living in a memory unit because, while she was Irish and loved family, she had begun to lash out at the young children and say hurtful things. This was a result of the disease causing her to be unable to figure out what the appropriate response was. So when the holidays were approaching her family asked how they should approach their Christmas gathering. It was suggested they open gifts and have their meal early so all the excitement and chaos of both would be over. They could then come for Maureen. At that point the children would be playing with their new toys and the adults could sit by the fire with dessert and have a short visit. When Maureen became restless it meant she was ready to return to memory care.

"It worked beautifully and everyone remembers the occasion in a positive way. Individuals with dementia at most stages respond to situations by how they feel. Calm settings will help them feel calm and in control. Chaos will create anxiety, fear, desire to leave, anger, or aggression. Best to avoid that," Abrahamson said.

And if families have questions about how to handle dementia induced behavior they can contact their local ADRC or aging office. In St Croix county the Dementia Care Specialist is at 715-381-4411. In Pierce County it's 715-372-6780.

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