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5 Tips for Caring for a Difficult Family Member During the Holidays

Advice from a caregiver on how to avoid stress during the most wonderful time of the year.

A Christmas wreath on the door of a white house

Caring for a family member with Alzheimer’s or dementia during the holiday season can be difficult and not always a very jolly experience. I’ve dealt with family members with Alzheimer’s in different stages so I’ve learned a bit along the way.

Here are five tips to make the holidays less stressful for caregivers:

1. Keep celebrations small

The natural assumption may be that your family member should want to spend time with as many loved ones as possible during the holidays, but my experience has proven this not to be true.

In the latter stages, your family member might not even remember grandchildren or great grandchildren. This can cause hurt feelings for the younger ones, especially if they have special memories of Grandma or Grandpa. Even in the earlier stages, when your family member may still remember names and relationships, crowds can make them nervous and agitated.

Sometimes, it’s better to have intimate, short gatherings of two or three persons at a time. Maybe take some holiday group family photos instead and sit quietly with your loved one, describing each person and how they are related. You can also ask each family member to write a personal note on a photo and then attach these to a holiday bulletin board by the bed. It can make your loved ones feel included without causing stress or overload.

Up until a few years ago, we couldn’t bear to leave Mom in her memory care facility on a holiday. We would pick her up and bring her to our home, until we finally realized she was miserable, pacing nervously through the house and looking bewildered. She was much happier in familiar surroundings and having us take turns visiting her in her room.

2. Help your loved one gift shop               

We try to discourage gift giving from our loved ones with Alzheimer’s. My mom would feel so overloaded with stress during the holidays that this was something she considered a burden and was happy to give up.

But my mother-in-law insists on buying each grandchild and great grandchild a present—and they are never age appropriate. It’s very difficult for a ten year old to not express disappointment when they receive a gift geared to a five year old. If possible, convince them that no gifts are necessary, or maybe suggest they slip some cash inside a Christmas card instead.

3. Get creative with your gifts

It’s likely your loved one doesn’t need knick-knacks this year. Try to get creative.

One year, my husband gave my mother personalized digital frame using pictures from her photo albums. We placed it next to her bed so she could watch as the pictures changed. Another year, I had a blanket made from a website using childhood photos of my sisters and me.

Skid-free socks, hand lotions and chocolates can all be useful. Comfy pajamas, high thread count sheets, elastic waist pants or an Atomic clock that tells the day of the week are some other suggestions. Ideally, the gift should meet two criteria: it prompts memories and/or makes your loved ones life easier.

Also, keep your expectations low as far as their reaction to the gifts. They may not respond at all or seem ungrateful. One year my mother opened a gift from me and said, “Why would you think I would want this?” Now, occasionally my husband and I will jokingly say that to each other when we open our gifts.

4. Bless those who bless your loved one

It’s always a good idea to give presents to those who care for your family member.

If your family member lives in a nursing home or memory care facility, show the staff they are appreciated with a little holiday cheer. Mom’s facility accepts a Christmas donation that’s divided among the staff. In addition to contributing that way, my sisters and I will also buy large boxes of assorted chocolates and cookies for the staff to enjoy. Rather than setting them at the front desk, we place them next to Mom’s bed to encourage the staff to visit her more often throughout the day.

If one person in your family provides most of the care for your family member, than I can think of no better gift than some much needed time off and money to enjoy that time.

5. Don’t forget to decorate!

Decorate your loved ones personal space with meaningful ornaments that might spark a memory. Place a cozy, small and lit Christmas tree next to her bed. Music is one of the last things to go, so keep her radio tuned to a channel that continuously plays Christmas carols. If she is still able to enjoy television shows, tune her TV to a Hallmark Christmas movie.

Above all, keep a sense of humor!  One of my favorite gifts of all time is the one my mother-in-law bought me a few years ago. It was a coffee cup with the letter “J” on it. I do not drink coffee and my name does not start with, end with or contain the letter ‘J”, but I treasure this cup and every time I drink non-coffee beverages in it, I can’t help but smile.

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