Helping your loved one find joy in the holidays

November 17, 2017 Providence Health Team

Creating joy for people living with Alzheimer’s and dementia

While most of us delight in returning home and surrounding ourselves with nostalgia, people living with Alzheimer’s or similar illness, a often have a tough time finding joy in the season. If you have a loved one living with dementia, certain festivities around the holidays can end up agitating them if not approached with care. To truly make the most of your Thanksgiving or Christmas, try these spirit-lifting activities that will help your loved one find joy as recommended by Ira Byock, M.D., Founder and Chief Medical Offer of Providence’s Institute for Human Caring:

Skip the phone call

According to Dr. Byock, “Holidays can often be painful reminders for elderly people, not just those living with degenerative diseases. Maybe they’ve had painful experiences in their lives, like losing a child or a parent, and spending the holidays alone only increases their sadness. If you can’t make it to them, don’t just phone it in. Try using FaceTime or Skype to make them feel closer to you.”

Interact with music

“Often, when family members are having a difficult time interacting with their loved ones with either Alzheimer’s or dementia, I’ve found that activities that don’t require responses work best. Look for things to simply enjoy together. If you know a song that will remind them of a happier time, play it. Your whole family can listen together, and it’s often a fun and meaningful experience to share,” says Byock.

Introduce a lovable companion

Dr, Byock continues, “Sometimes our loved ones feel frustrated that they can’t participate in activities like they used to. In early to moderate dementia, sometimes introducine the person to a young child just to hold or gently play with can make them feel needed and included again. Often, placing a young child in the lap of a frail elderly woman with mild dementia, will elicit delight that looks like a miracle.”

Don’t withhold affection

“People with later stage dementia, may not be comfortable being hugged. If touching is bothersome, find other ways of giving your loved one attention. Simply smiling and making eye contact when speaking to them may give a sense of connection,” says Byock. “When hugs are allowed, they often provide the interaction that people need to stimulate their mood. Bringing a cuddly, furry companion like a kitten or puppy may cheer them up.”

Practice patience

Byock goes on to say, “People with Alzheimer’s can often have difficulty organizing their thoughts and speaking in their usual way. Asking them short, simple-to-answer questions can help facilitate a conversation. Instead of, “How are you feeling?” try, “Are you hurting?” or “Would you like some cake?” Dementia makes it hard to process information, so answers may be delayed. Allowing extra time, makes people more comfortable. You may be rewarded for your patience by a clear answer finally comes.”

Go beyond alleviating boredom

“I always tell people, go for joy. There are so many small gestures you can use to relieve sadness or boredom and stimulate delight. Whether it’s serving up a little bit of their favorite chocolate pudding, playing soothing music or combing their hair, there are all sorts of tiny interactions that can enhance family time and help them feel included,” says Byock.

Beyond these activities, Dr. Byock emphasizes the importance of love. “Caring for someone you love with dementia is hard. It’s normal to feel frayed at times. Take good care of yourself as well. When doubts and questions arise, love is likely the answer. Love enhances a sense of purpose and a person’s contribution to the group and puts a smile on your family member’s face. Take time to acknowledge your love for them, and open your heart to yourself.”

Sign up for our newsletter to get more information on dealing with Alzheimer’s, or speak with a mental health professional today if you and your loved one need a little extra support getting through the holidays.

About the Author

The Providence Health Team brings together caregivers from diverse backgrounds to bring you clinically-sound, data-driven advice to help you live your happiest and healthiest selves.

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