Holidays are exciting times of the year, but they can be very stressful and fraught with many pitfalls if you don’t plan carefully beforehand. When planning for those special events you must take into consideration how far into the dementia your loved-one is, how much help they will need, how quickly they become overstimulated, how much rest they require, and how much recuperation time they must have after the event is over.
My first hints are geared toward an event where you are not traveling far … perhaps you are going to visit local family members or they are coming to you:
- Taking your loved-one with dementia out to see the Christmas decorations is fun and will help to instill some holiday spirit, but take them to see the little children sitting on Santa’s lap or go to the mall to look at the decorated shop windows. Don’t try to shop with them among the throngs of people or waiting in long lines at the cash registers. Perhaps arrange for a companion or friend to do this for a short time while you attend to the serious shopping!
- Plan their holiday activities early in the day if possible, or after a refreshing nap. Attending parties after dark is much more confusing for the person with dementia. After dark they don’t see as well, and lights and shadows may disturb them as they get further into the disease.
- The smaller the group of people, the better. All of us want to “put our best foot forward” and the person with dementia will try to rise to the occasion and put on a pretty good show of normalcy. This, however, takes an enormous amount of effort, and they tire pretty quickly. Parties also tend to be noisy, and many folks with dementia are bothered by lots of conversations going on at once in the same room, not to mention music playing in the background that makes it so hard for them to “stay with” a particular conversation. The decorations and noise can increase hallucinations. It makes their brains just want to shut down! It is better to have friends and family visit in small groups spread out over a few days, rather than all at once. If you must attend a large party, try to sit your loved-one in a less busy, quiet room. As the person with dementia progresses, they will lose sight of you much easier, so stay nearby. Introduce them to each person who talks with them so they don’t have to wonder to whom they are speaking. They will pretend that they know, but they usually don’t.
- Provide ample rest and relaxation before and after holiday events. New surroundings and lots of people cause confusion and “brain fade”. It can take a couple of days for the person with dementia to recoup from attending an event, returning to their normal day-to-day activities.
- Limit the amount of alcoholic beverages they are served. Alcohol may react with their medications and certainly does not keep thinking clear.
- It may not be possible, but the suggestion of all attendees wearing name tags is the perfect option. I’m sure if all the folks attending know that it will help your loved-one, they will be glad to comply!
If you are traveling away from home, you have many more things to plan for in order to have a smooth trip:
- Travel to a destination that they have been to before, so that hopefully they will feel comfortable being there. My husband and I were scuba divers and we liked a particular hotel on a Caribbean island, so we visited many times as Jim was progressing. It was a simple layout and it caused less confusion and stress.
- Pack way ahead of time, but don’t necessarily tell your loved-one way ahead so you don’t get the familiar “how many days until we leave” question.
- Choose a flight plan with the minimum number of stops/changes that you can, and make sure to ask for a wheelchair on your loved-ones’ ticket. Going from gate to gate will be much easier, especially if your time between flights is unexpectedly shortened. The other advantage of asking for a wheelchair is that you both get to board first before the general public. Never have the person with dementia fly alone!
- Carry all medications for both of you as well as a list of them in your purse or carry-on so that if your baggage gets lost you have fewer worries.
- Carry an up-to-date photo of the person with dementia, in case you get separated and you need to notify airport authorities or police for search purposes.
- Use bathrooms marked “family” so you can go in with them. Having them use their normal gender specific bathroom is way too worrisome if you can’t go in with them!
- Always have a Safe-Return bracelet/necklace for both of you in case you get separated or something happens to you. It’s a good idea to carry separate notes stating your destination address and phone number that can be easily discovered … in your jacket pocket or purse.
- When my mother-in-law, who also had dementia, traveled with us we always put a sign on her back that read, “Please be patient, I have Alzheimer’s”. It helped tremendously. Of course we would take the sign off when she was at our destination.
- Have copies of tickets and passports or ID cards in a separate place from the original ones in case the originals are lost. Also bring a copy of your health insurance card.
- Book accommodations that have a walk-in shower.
- Bring a mattress protector for the bed if at all necessary, or other undergarment protection.
For all family who don’t visit often, it is a good idea to update them on the status of the person with dementia so that they are not shocked when they visit. You can do this by phone, or by writing an email to all involved. At this time you can also give them ideas for conversations with your loved-one so as to ease their meeting and enjoyment. (Tips for talking: don’t ask a lot of questions, keep your sentences short, etc.)
I hope that this will help make your holidays run smoothly. It can be a magical and wonderful time if you keep things simple!