While many of your residents suffer from feelings of loss and sadness during the holidays, these emotions for those with dementia can be even more complex. The holidays for people with dementia do not often come with the same feelings that they do for you and I. Even if the person once loved the holidays, cognitive changes can lead to a lack of interest and understanding surrounding this time of year, and they can be overwhelming. This blog on dementia and the holidays has tips to ease the stresses of the holiday season for both your residents and caregivers.
Offer Enjoyable & Engaging Activities
Keeping residents engaged is always important, but at the holidays it can be more difficult, especially for those with dementia. Although things are a bit different this year, the holidays typically include more visits from family (especially those that they don’t typically see) and trips out to loved ones’ homes that they don’t often make.
Providing festive holiday activities for residents, along with keeping their routine, is key to coping with dementia during the holidays. It’s also important to learn how your resident felt about the holidays before they had dementia and if they experienced any difficulties around this time of year. If your resident did not enjoy the holidays before or has a negative association with them, they are likely to still feel that way, but may not be able to express it. These factors coupled with encouraging them to participate in holiday themed activities and events can lead to difficult behaviors and/or depression in your residents. These behaviors can be stressful and sometimes dangerous for your residents, but can also be very difficult for caregivers to manage.
After you’ve determined the appropriate level of holiday engagement for your resident, it’s important to include them in activities that they will enjoy and are appropriate for their cognitive level. It’s also nice if you can incorporate physical movement into the activity to help keep them going. Here are a handful of fun holiday activities you can offer to residents with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia:
- Wrapping gifts
- Reminiscing over old holiday photo albums
- Stringing popcorn garland
- Hanging ornaments
- Baking cookies
- Listening to holiday music
- Singing holiday songs
In years past, many facilities would encourage carolers or local schools to come perform and spend time with residents. This year, that likely will not be possible (always check your state and local guidelines), but you can still find many of these things virtually. The internet and YouTube in particular offer numerous videos that include holiday performances, caroling, religious choirs, and even light shows/tours. You may also be able to take some of your residents out on a special bus ride to see the decorations in your community, if your local COVID guidelines allow for it. Just make sure that you don’t interrupt their dinner routine to do this, and do it as early in the evening as possible.
Keep Residents Connected
If your local guidelines allow for it, arrange for visits in an area that your resident will be comfortable. For those with dementia, visits at the holidays often re-introduce loved ones that they haven’t seen in a while, which can cause anxiety. It’s important that their physical environment is comfortable and familiar to them to help ease any stress. While you may experience less of these types of visits this year due to COVID, it’s always good to be prepared for any visit in this way. It’s also important to recommend a time of day that the resident’s loved ones visit. Your caregivers know when their residents are at their best and this can help prevent a visit during a difficult time of day or when a resident might be sundowning.
Connecting From Afar
Residents’ families may not be able to visit them in-person due to COVID-19, distance, or other factors, but there are still ways to connect. Residents with dementia can “see” family through a variety of video chat apps (e.g. Zoom or FaceTime) and devices (e.g. Amazon Echo Show). While this isn’t the same as being together in-person, it still provides valuable opportunities for connection. It may also be less stressful for the resident, as large family gatherings and being out of their routine can quickly become overwhelming.
Avoid Potential Triggers
Celebrating in familiar surroundings (like your community) can go a long way towards keeping seniors with dementia relaxed. However, even familiar spaces can have triggers related to dementia and the holidays. These include (but are not limited to):
- Excessive noise (loud conversations, jarring music, etc.)
- Extreme lighting (either too bright or too dark)
- Unfamiliar foods that the senior’s body isn’t accustomed to
- Alcoholic beverages
- Decorations with blinking lights or that make noise on their own
If you are able to have visits, remind the resident’s family of any potential triggers or concerns so they can have a successful visit with their loved one. You should also let them know how to reach someone if their loved one becomes upset, anxious, or needs assistance in general. This will help preserve the resident’s dignity if the visit doesn’t go as planned.
Caring for Residents and Caregivers
It’s always important for caregivers to be compassionate, patient, and understanding. However, this is even more important during the holidays, especially for those with dementia. Empower and encourage your caregivers to use their knowledge of the resident’s preferences to make it an enjoyable time for the resident and the caregiver. Although their main objective is to provide care, do your best to allow time for your caregivers to join in on holiday activities, caroling, etc. as an extra “perk of the job.” This can help keep them positive and upbeat, and in turn, help them be that way with residents. It’s also important to educate your staff on why the holidays can be harder on those with dementia, and make sure they are provided with extra training and tips on how to make this time of year enjoyable. All of the tips listed above are a great place to start.