The holidays gather families together. We catch up over turkey and dressing, laughing as we bump elbows. Unless we’re coping with Alzheimer’s.
Someone living with this form of dementia finds it challenging to follow a lively debate. Loud voices and clanging pans jar them, leaving them irritated with the cheerful crowd in a hot kitchen.
However, you can find a way to share your feast with a loved one who’s living with Alzheimer’s. It takes a little planning, together with a lot of understanding.
Secret 1: There’s No Place Like Home
The holidays bring back fond memories, tempting you to recreate the celebrations of your childhood. Certainly, Mom, too, looks forward to joining a big, traditional family gathering in your home.
But does she?
In Mom’s mind, this celebration is not hers, and neither is your home, even if she once actually lived there. Your furnishings and routines seem strangely unfamiliar, even unsettling, to her now as she’s coping with Alzheimer’s symptoms.
By all means, welcome Mom to join you, but take extra care to help her navigate new surroundings.
Plan the routes Mom travels to AND inside your home
- Will she need a walker or wheelchair?
- How will you help her handle stairs?
- Are there clear pathways from the entryway to the living room, dining room and bathroom?
- Is a sturdy armchair easily accessible in the living room and at the table
- Is there enough space for someone to help in the bathroom?
- Do you have a quiet place she can rest if festivities overwhelm her?
Someone Mom trusts should stay by her side. Remind them to tactfully introduce her to loved ones she may not recognize as well as to watch for signs of fatigue or distress.
As you seat people at the table, make sure Mom is next to someone who understands how to help her eat — with dignity.
Most importantly, devise an “escape plan.” Mom may surprise you by announcing she’s ready to leave just as you carve the turkey. Gentle urging and pleading are unlikely to change her mind. Line up a trusted family member to serve as either your stand-in at the table or your mother’s chauffeur.
Finally, consider whether Mom might prefer a quiet feast in her own home instead.
- If she lives in an assisted living or memory care residence, ask when it celebrates Thanksgiving and whether you may join in. (Afterwards, kiss her goodbye, then return to host your traditional dinner.)
- Consider celebrating on another day of Thanksgiving week for a private celebration, perhaps in a private room or quiet corner of Mom’s resident dining room.
Secret 2: Find One True Thing
The key to happiness – particularly when coping with Alzheimer’s – is living in the moment. In other words, we enjoy our loved ones most when we leave their past in the past. Rather than look back, focus on the person in front of you — just as they are. Enjoy your time together.
It’s true that Mom no longer has the stamina for long hours in the kitchen. She can’t orchestrate a complicated meal, either. So simplify!
What is the ONE thing Mom most loved as she prepared her feast? Was it arranging the perfect tablescape? Making her famous cornbread? Saying a heartfelt grace? Give her THAT moment.
Make it simple. Ask Mom to put out the napkins, but not every place setting. Suggest she brings a dish she’s prepared ahead, perhaps with the help of understanding caregivers. Begin asking what she’s thankful for days ahead of time, so you can prompt her as she prays.
Don’t pressure her to get things as perfectly as she once did. After all, no one will get upset if napkins end up on the wrong side of the plates.
Finally, try to remember that even Mom’s “one true thing” may be too much for her on such a big day. If she doesn’t want to say grace or put out the napkins in front of this friendly crowd of strangers, let someone else quietly step in to finish. Concentrate on making the most of your family’s time together.
Secret 3: Every Day is a Time for Thanksgiving
Alzheimer’s loosens Mom’s ties to the traditional calendar. Why not let it relax yours, too?
Feel free to choose the best time and place to celebrate. Mom appreciates a special occasion tailored to her preferences — whenever guests can join her. It’s okay if you eat Thanksgiving dinner together on Tuesday, so don’t feel guilty when you dine at different tables on Thursday.
Secret 4: Timing is Everything When Coping With Alzheimer’s
First, control your expectations, and then carefully plan a schedule to keep Mom safe and comfortable. For example,
- If your home is 15 minutes away from Mom’s, pick her up 30 minutes before you expect to sit down for dinner.
- Upon arrival, spend 15 minutes visiting.
- Fill Mom’s plate first, then the dish of the person who plans to drive her home.
- Plan to say your goodbyes soon after you finish dinner
Spending a long day in unfamiliar surroundings may leave Mom overtired. Cut her visit short as soon as she seems weak, restless or upset. Too much “fun” may leave her overstimulated, agitated and miserable, unable to sleep through the night.
Secret 5 (the most important when coping with Alzheimer’s): Be Prepared
Even if the visit is short, Mom should pack a small bag with essential supplies you usually don’t keep on hand. These might include
- A favorite sweater or blanket,
- Continence supplies,
- A change of clothes and
- Emergency medication.
Bonus Secret: Where to Learn More About Coping With Alzheimer’s During the Holidays!
The following resources also offer valuable advice as you plan your holiday get-together:
“The Holidays and Alzheimer’s.” Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia, Alzheimer’s Association, www.alz.org/help-support/resources/holidays.
“Alzheimer’s: Tips to Make Holidays More Enjoyable.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 5 Dec. 2018, www.mayoclicnic.org/healthy-lifestyle/caregivers/in-depth/alzheimers/art-20047715
“Holiday Hints for Alzheimer’s Caregivers.” National Institute on Aging, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 18 May 2017, www.nia.nih.gov/health/holiday-hints-alzheimers-caregivers.