Alzheimer’s Association offers tips to celebrate the holidays while adjusting to a diagnosis

Published: Nov. 19, 2021 at 8:08 PM CST
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - Many families plan to celebrate the holidays together, but it can also pose new challenges for those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Samantha Whittaker, program manager for the Greater Missouri Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, says a person’s interests and physical capabilities may change from the disease.

“Talk about the family traditions you want to keep,” Whittaker says. “Be honest as a caregiver. As family coming in, what traditions are important to us. How can we modify these to make sure that it is meeting the needs of everyone.”

A diagnosis can take some time for family members to adjust.

“It’s hard and it’s heartbreaking, changing traditions that maybe you’ve done for 30-plus years,” Whittaker says. “Honesty is the best policy. Reach out to the people who are going to be engaging in holiday celebrations and be honest about the changes that they’re going to encounter in communication, in appearances, in the way they maybe walk through the room.”

Whittaker says being a good listener is key.

“It’s important to be compassionate, be kind and be patient,” Whittaker says. “Remember that they may need a tap on the shoulder. Even though you’ve known them for years, you may need to say your name and how you know them. Maybe they have forgotten.”

Sheila Groves has been married to her husband Lionel for 51 years. Last month, doctors officially diagnosed him with Alzheimer’s.

Groves says she’s been honest about her husband’s diagnosis with her family.

“Dad’s not doing this anymore, so maybe when you come, we won’t go out to dinner anymore,” Groves says.

Because of that, they’re able to set new expectations for the holidays.

”Every single day has to be treasured because nobody knows,” Groves says. “They have ups and downs. He has good days and bad days and we just deal with that.”

That means the holidays are going to look different for their family this year.

“He gets very nervous and agitated shall we say when there’s too many people and he can’t keep up,” Groves says. “He does pretty well, but there’s times. He knows how to remove himself from the situation and go into the other room.”

That can cause traditions to change.

“Maybe they don’t have an interest,” Whittaker says. “Maybe they don’t understand. Maybe they’re not physically able to do those things they’ve done in the past. How do we make sure that the individual with dementia, and the caregiver, and all the people that are participating in holiday traditions are continuing to have a beneficial and loving time together.”

Whittaker says it’s also crucial to support the caregivers.

“Allow them to take some time to also enjoy the holiday,” Whittaker says. “It begins with honesty and being compassionate, not only towards the individual with dementia, but the caregiver. Caregiving is a 24/7 job that is usually for someone who you hold dear that is battling a horrible disease. They also need the ability and opportunity to enjoy the holidays so offer to help.”

Whittaker says to show them support not only emotionally, but by chipping in around the house as well.

“Maybe you’ve always stayed with them in their home,” Whittaker says. “Maybe you need to ask to stay somewhere else. Ask to run errands. Ask to chip in.”

For Groves, her family is already helping for the holidays. Her granddaughter has already offered to cook the big Thanksgiving dinner.

“Grandma, I don’t want you to do anything, just bring Grandpa,” Groves says. “Obviously we don’t stay as long because it’s just too much for him and he gets too tired. Before he was the life of the party.”

The changes don’t make the holidays any less special.

“Enjoy what time you have with them and you treasure that,” Groves says.

Whittaker says there’s always the opportunity to make new traditions as a family.

“As we age, we grow and our lives change,” Whittaker says. “Just because we’re not doing the traditions we’ve done for years doesn’t mean that we can’t build new traditions with the individuals that we love and build new traditions with the individual with dementia. That can be a new tradition that we carry on through our lives that mean a lot to our children and our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren.”

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