Even for those suffering from Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia, it doesn’t take much — the smell of cinnamon-scented pine cones, Bing Crosby crooning, “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas,” old family photos or a fresh-cut wreath — to bring back a rush of holiday memories. This holds especially true for anyone suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or other form of memory loss. Those multi-sensory triggers call up memories signaled by a look of contentment and a smile. Yet some family members and friends might feel uneasy visiting someone with dementia — or anyone living in a nursing home. What do you give them? What do you say? Should you bring the grandchildren? Will it be depressing? This guide to celebrating the holidays with an Alzheimer’s or dementia patient will help you prepare yourself and your loved ones to have a good holiday visit.
Thousands of families will celebrate the Christmas and Hanukkah holidays with loved ones who have Alzheimer's Disease or are memory impaired, while thousands more are living in nursing homes. Without your visits and thoughtful gifts, they – like many people during this season – are at risk of holiday depression. That’s why Walter Kingera, executive director of Green Ridge Village of Presbyterian Senior Living in Newville, Pennsylvania, wants you to come visit. “When you spend time and interact with someone with memory loss or dementia, you send them the message that they are still part of Christmas and they remain part of the family. You’re letting them know they are loved,” Kingera said. So what can you do to make a visit from you and your family the best it can be?
Explaining Alzheimer’s to children and teens
Alzheimer’s Disease is difficult to understand – but it’s best to explain it to younger people before they visit. The level of detail you’ll share with young people will vary depending on their age. But the core points to make are:
- This is a disease that affects the brain.
- None of us can get it from visiting.
- Scientists don’t know why people get Alzheimer's disease, but they do know it wasn’t caused by anything any of us did.
If the children are old enough to make sense of the term “Alzheimer’s,” then tell them the name of the disease or use the term “dementia.”
Explain what they can expect when interacting with a dementia or Alzheimer's patient. He or she might forget your name and repeat the same sentence or story. He or she could get upset or suddenly not understand what’s going on or become scared. If there is an angry outburst, explain it, otherwise there is no need to make kids apprehensive about visiting.
Just remember that if something like that happens, your family member still loves you. It’s just that his or her brain isn’t working like it used to. For information and lists of books for kids and teens to better understand Alzheimer’s, visit alz.org.
Maria’s Shriver’s book, “What’s Happening to Grandpa?” – for children ages 5-10 – is a winner.
Things to do with people with dementia
Planning activities ahead of time will make the visit go more smoothly. If you’d like a private space to visit with your loved one rather than in their room, or if you want to share a meal, call the nursing staff or activity coordinator ahead of time and ask if they would make arrangements for you. Here is a list of 10 activities geared toward people with memory loss:
- Bring a “Memory Box” of things that will trigger the memory, such as photos, a keepsake, an old watch, a flower or a postcard from a favorite vacation. Open it together and listen to what your family member has to say when he or she looks at each item. This is especially great for the grandchildren.
- Bring a CD and portable player of old songs popular during their younger days. Print out the lyrics, play the music and sing along. People with Alzheimer’s and stroke victims might not be able to speak but they can often sing.
- Bring a picture of them during the holidays when they were young. Frame it and share it with them. They might talk about it, and it is a nice conversation starter for staff when they are caring for your loved one.
- Bring old greeting cards and magazine pictures featuring the holidays and create Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year’s cards together by cutting and pasting on card stock.
- Walk around the nursing home together and look at the holiday decorations. Search for items or bring items that have scents, such as cinnamon-scented pine cones, a candle that smells like sugar cookies or evergreen stems.
- Make tree ornaments together using Play Doh.
- If it won’t be too overwhelming, take them for a ride around the neighborhood to look at Christmas lights. Have hot chocolate when you return.
- Offer to give them a manicure and a hand massage with lotion, but only do so if they find this soothing. Men like this, too.
- Play Lawrence Welk music, sing along and blow bubbles.
- Here’s an activity for every older person living in a retirement community: bring a laptop computer and sign up for Skype. Get other long-distance family members to do the same. You’ll be able to see and talk to each other for free on the computer.
The bottom line
- The holidays can be depressing for those with Alzheimer’s or for people in nursing homes. Spread the cheer by visiting your loved ones—and don’t forget to bring the whole family!
- Make sure kids and teens are informed beforehand about Alzheimer’s and dementia. Explain what they can expect. A great resource is alz.org
- There are plenty of ways to show that you care, with many activities suited to Alzheimer’s patients, such as listening to familiar music, looking at pictures, going for a walk or getting a manicure.
- Don’t forget—a little bit of planning ahead of time will often make the visit run more smoothly.