Memory Loss and the Holidays

December 11, 2019

Whatever holiday you celebrate, whatever your traditions are, one thing we all share during this time of year is a house full of family, friends, and, let’s be honest: a little bit of chaos. Whether you’re hosting or going to someone else’s home this year, if you’re caring for someone with memory loss, you might be feeling a little anxious about how your loved one will behave and even about how others will react towards him/her. Well, rest assured: we’re here to give you a few tips on how to help you, your loved one and your family enjoy the holidays, even with memory loss present in your life. A little planning ahead can go a long way.

1.  Prepare your guests.

Be sure to take time before everyone is together to inform your family/friends about your loved one’s memory impairment. Some family members and friends might not have seen your loved one for a while, and they might have unrealistic expectations, or they have trouble understanding what’s going on. Below is a great script from the Alzheimer's Association to help guide you through this conversation.

"I'm writing to let you know how things are going at our house. While we're looking forward to your visit, we thought it might be helpful if you understood our current situation before you arrive.

You may notice that ___ has changed since you last saw him/her. Among the changes you may notice are ___. I’ve enclosed a picture so you know how ___ looks now. Because ___ sometimes has problems remembering and thinking clearly, his/her behavior is a little unpredictable. 

Please understand that ___ may not remember who you are and may confuse you with someone else. Please don't feel offended by this. He/she appreciates your being with us and so do we. Please treat ___ as you would any person. A warm smile and a gentle touch on ___’s shoulder or hand will be appreciated more than you know. 

We would ask that you call when you’re nearby so we can prepare for your arrival. With your help and support, we can create a holiday memory that we’ll all treasure." 
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2.  Be flexible.

Depending on how advanced your loved one’s memory loss is, s/he may or may not be able to sit with everyone at the table. And that’s ok. Remember to meet your loved one where they are. If you sense that your loved one might feel anxious sitting at the main table, set up a smaller table or seating area ahead of time in another room and have some activities ready to go. Perhaps a few old photo albums or a favorite movie queued up on the TV. You can send different family members to check on your loved one frequently, maybe every thirty minutes or so. Your loved one might not be able to stay at the main table, but they still want to feel included, and this is an excellent opportunity for everyone to have some individualized time with them. 

3.  Make your loved one feel useful.

Maybe your mom used to coordinate the entire holiday, and your dad was in charge of all the grocery shopping, but those aren’t realistic expectations this year. Still, they want to feel included without feeling inadequate, so create some simple activities that allow your loved one to feel purposeful. Perhaps they can organize the Christmas cards on the mantle, decorate place cards (they may or may not be able to write the names of the guests), assemble a salad (ingredients might have to be pre-cut), or even set the table. If the forks get placed where the knives should be and the spoons where the forks should be, don’t make a fuss about it. Remember to pick your battles and focus on what is important; a loving environment and quality time spent with family. 

4.  Wear name tags.

Even in the best of circumstances, it can be tough to remember someone’s name, so imagine how it must feel for someone with memory loss at a table full of talking people. Your loved one will likely feel embarrassed that they can’t remember their own grandchild’s name. But they don’t have to feel that way. A simple name tag goes a long way. It might feel silly wearing name tags with your own family, but it makes a world of difference to the person living with memory impairment. You can even have some fun with it and have people include a fun fact, or decorate their tag with stickers and markers — a perfect opportunity for everyone to show a bit of self-expression.

5.  Utilize signs.

Again, it might feel a little awkward putting up a sign in your own home, but it’s such a simple thing to do and can have such a profound impact. After all, you want your loved one to remain and feel as independent as possible. A sign indicating where the bathroom is could be helpful, not only for your loved one but to anyone who is visiting your home for the first time. Also, you might consider posting a sign identifying the front door (we want to prevent your loved one from wandering outside) and any doors that should remain closed. 

Everyone’s holiday traditions are different, everyone’s story about memory loss is different, and we’re all at a different place in this complicated journey. These are just a few general tips, but we encourage you to tweak them as needed to work for you and your family. There are many other ways to make your loved one feel included, purposeful and safe; brainstorm a few ideas with your family and friends and let us know what you come up with in the comments below. In the meantime, we wish you a holiday season full of love, from our family to yours.

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