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Helpful tips for a dementia-friendly holiday season

Editor's note: As information was being gathered for an upcoming series on the effect that dementia has in Pierce County and the state of Wisconsin, the Herald staff decided that it would be helpful to offer some insight on how to create a positive experience for everyone during the Christmas season. For more information and a variety of tips, strategies, and resources, visit: Merry Christmas.

This holiday season as your family travels or prepares to host a gathering, keep in mind some potentially helpful suggestions on providing an environment that will be enjoyable for all guests or family members, including those with dementia.

No, these aren’t tips about cleaning the basement or designating a spare room for little kids to run around in.

Instead, these are helpful suggestions from various sources to help create a dementia-friendly environment for families.

The goal is to have a pleasant experience with your group over the holidays. To do that avoid unnecessary commotion when possible.

For many, the goal is to keep a person with dementia happy for a longer period of time. St. Croix Aging and Disability Resource Center’s dementia specialist Nancy Abrahamson said improving the experience for someone with dementia is a matter of being flexible.

“We need to adapt environments for these folks and enter their reality,” Abrahamson said. “You can’t bring them to yours, so why beat your head against the wall? Why not just meet them where they’re at and go with it?”

Marty Schreiber, a former Wisconsin governor who wrote My Two Elaines about caring for his wife with dementia, reiterated the need for family members to “go to their world.”

“It’s important to realize that you can’t argue with dementia or Alzheimer’s,” Schreiber said. “Join the world they’re in. If the person with dementia is living a life from 20 years ago, that’s fine. Join them.”

A major component to entering their reality is effective communication.

As you try to help a person with dementia, slow down the thought process as much as you can. Try to ask questions that require yes or no answers.

Abrahamson, who has a lot of first-hand experience from managing a memory-care unit and being involved in dementia advocacy groups, stresses making a person with dementia feel useful and valuable.

She remembers asking a man with dementia about home remedies that he remembered his mom using for different things. She admitted details revealed were a little unsettling, but it was a chance to see laughter and smiles.

“It’s all about Creating Moments of Joy,” said Abrahamson, referring to the book Creating Moments of Joy by Jolene Brackey. The book explains how people with dementia can best be reached as they live with the disease.

Being honest with people and genuinely engaging them creates an environment of love and support within a holiday setting.

The disease makes it so that the memory is sick. Memories still exist for the people, but they can’t easily produce them on command.

Long-term memories are more accessible for people with dementia and given the right conversation triggers, a person can feel at home and welcome among family once again.

“It can be basic questions,” Abrahamson suggested, “Tell me about your first job, or tell me about your childhood.”

Another strategy is listening to light Christmas music. Regardless of how sick the memory is, people remember music.

“Play Christmas carols, do things that are simple,” Schreiber said. “It can be as easy as sitting down with one of the children or grandchildren and coloring.”

As grandchildren are coloring with a grandparent it is an opportunity to create memories for your kids with their grandparent. Abrahamson suggests asking the grandparents when they remember getting their first Christmas gift because, in contrast with the current generation of kids, she said that in previous generations it took some time before kids were old enough to receive Christmas gifts.

The holidays are an opportunity to create lasting memories with family members. As you try not to overwhelm people with dementia, keep in mind that trying is the most important thing of all. When your loved one asks to go home, listen closely to what Abrahamson says they are actually saying.

“When they say they want to go home, they’re just saying that they want to feel safe and secure,” she said. “So, it’s too many people at one time. Sometimes you have to send in one or two at a time.”

It is also important to realize that when a person doesn’t recognize someone, do not be offended.

“Just go with it,” Schreiber uges. “Help the person not feel the anxiety of trying to remember people’s names and simply let that person be who they are without any kinds of judgements or anything. To expect that person with Alzheimer’s  to remember everyone is like expecting someone to run a 100-yard dash with a broken leg.”

Additional links: For more information about Alzheimer's

Information about the Pierce County Aging and Disability Resource Center