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Modifying Holiday Celebrations for Loved Ones with Dementia

Gurwin Family of Healthcare Services

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Picture-perfect parties, over-the-top decorations, loud and crowded family gatherings and the biggest and best gifts –Hollywood’s depiction of the holidays sets the bar high for celebrations, and can place unnecessary stress on families, especially when caring for a loved one with health issues such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. According to Kathleen Biggs, CTRS, Assistant Director of Therapeutic Recreation in the Gurwin Jewish Nursing & Rehabilitation Center’s Memory Care Unit, “Setting realistic expectations and adjusting traditions can help to alleviate the added challenges dementia presents during the holidays. Planning is key.” The following are some suggestions to help you make the most of your family’s celebration:

Planning stages:

• First and foremost: Educate your guests. Memory issues and changes in behavior are part and parcel of the disease, and not a true reflection of the person. Reasoning with someone who has dementia or Alzheimer’s disease is not possible or productive. Avoid correcting inaccuracies. Diverting the conversation to something more pleasant and simple is the best tool for averting agitation.

• Be flexible with time. Your loved one may be able to stay for the entire celebration – or may not. Have an exit plan in place for a quick getaway should the hustle and bustle of the holiday become too overwhelming.

• Plan for activities your loved one enjoys. If flipping through magazines, doing puzzles or doodling/coloring are calming activities, be sure to have materials readily available. Engaging in calming busy work at the first sign of restlessness can stave off irritability.

• Are animals a trigger or a comfort? If your beloved furry friends are a source of unease, keep them separated in another room, or if possible, consider asking a relative or friend to take them in for a short while.

• Set the mood. For music, choose holiday standards or anything of your loved one’s era that can be used as a soothing agent. Be mindful of the volume; too loud might add to an overwhelming atmosphere and cause agitation.

The Big Day:

• Look good, feel good. Forget about fashion! Loose, easy access clothing helps increase comfort and minimizes frustration. If a sweatshirt is the outfit of choice, so be it!

• Involve your loved one in meaningful activities. Setting the table, folding napkins, or mixing and stirring while you are cooking are simple activities that can help him/her stay busy and feel needed.

• Keep sound levels in check. The din of laughter, multiple conversations, music or TV can be overstimulating.

• Engage in simple, one-on-one conversations, speaking slowly and clearly .

• Don’t make mountains out of mole hills. If your loved one is having a moment, meet them where they are. Go with it! Redirect the conversation to something more pleasant.

Recognize the Signs of Agitation

Being proactive can help minimize dementia-related behaviors and outbursts. Keep a sharp eye out for any hints such as:

1. Increasing confusion

2. Restlessness

3. Irritability

4. Withdrawal

Keep in mind that agitation stems from the confusion and fear that your loved one feels from trying to understand a world that no longer makes sense to him/her. Don’t take angry outbursts personally. Approach your loved one and try to redirect with positive reassurance. Gentle touch, such as a hand massage or soft back rub, can help to reduce agitation and prevent a meltdown. Moving to a quiet, controlled area, leafing through old photos and initiating conversations with visual references in the environment are also helpful in diffusing the situation.

Remember, you don’t have to conform to what society portrays as the “norms” of the holiday. Some detailed planning and support from guests can help create a holiday that you all can treasure.

The Gurwin Jewish Nursing & Rehabilitation Center is a 460-bed nursing care facility in Commack, Long Island, and is part of the Gurwin Healthcare System, a renowned health-care provider offering a full continuum of healthcare and senior living services for the frail and elderly. The Center was named by Fortune Magazine as the #1 Best Workplace in the nation for Aging Services, and is the 2019 Best of Long Island award winner for rehabilitation, adult day care, health aides and assisted living. Services provided at the Center include skilled nursing care, rehabilitation therapy, advanced care, ventilator and respiratory care, on-site dialysis and infusion therapy, memory care, and palliative and hospice care, as well as both medical and social adult day programs and home care programs. The 34-acre campus is also home to Gurwin Jewish~ Fay J. Lindner Residences assisted living community, and a proposed independent living community, Fountaingate Gardens. For more information, visit www.gurwin.org, Follow Gurwin on Facebook (bit.ly/GurwinNursingRehab) and on Twitter (@GurwinJewish).