Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Tweak holiday plans for treasured moments

Thanksgiving and Christmas are right around the corner. Plan ahead how to best include your family member who has Alzheimer’s. The Alzheimer’s Association offers great suggestions in their article Holidays and Alzheimer’s Families. I might add that you want to more than simply include him or her—you want your loved one’s comfort and peace. And you want him or her to feel loved.

My father had Alzheimer’s for about 12 years, and it wasn’t until the last four or five years that we adjusted our family celebrations to be Alzheimer’s-friendly. In our family I usually hosted Christmas and Mother’s Day parties. My sister hosted Thanksgiving and Father’s Day. Birthdays were usually in my parents’ home, sometimes in the dining hall of their assisted living complex. Here are some of our tough holiday decisions:

·     When he could no longer rely on words coming to his mind, Dad got very quiet in groups. We could almost see him shriveling up in his chair as lively conversation became unfollowable. Since he could still work jigsaw puzzles, my sister or I were sure to have a few puzzles on hand. After clearing dinner dishes, we’d spread out puzzle pieces on the dining table and solve it together. Whenever Dad triumphantly tapped a piece into the puzzle, we’d give him some encouraging words.

·     When our family was young, Mom and Dad welcomed our friends and sometimes strangers to our holiday meals, and both my sister and I as adults like to do that, too. One of the hardest things I had to do when Dad’s Alzheimer’s worsened was to tell nieces and nephews I couldn’t welcome their friends into our home. I felt I needed to protect Dad from needless disorientation. He was only sure who his wife and children were; he had already become confused about his grandchildren and their spouses. And I kept wondering if this would be Dad’s last Christmas with us, and I wanted to preserve warm, loving family time.

·     Many people with Alzheimer’s enter a nursing facility when the disease has progressed into later stages. For a variety of reasons, my father was admitted when he was still fairly high-functioning. He became depressed to be separated from his wife of 60+ years and his familiar home. We were heartbroken for his heartbreak. During that first year or so in the nursing home, he could still walk, so we could have gotten him to his home or to the dining hall. But he’d eaten at that dining hall with Mom frequently; would he remember it as something he missed? He’d lived in that home with Mom for 15 or so years; would he be upset that he couldn’t stay there after the party? We had no way of knowing, and we did not want to risk causing him further emotional pain. So we began finding little meeting rooms and lounges in the nursing home to set up Dad’s birthday and Father’s Day parties. After he’d lived in the nursing home for a while, scenery changes (like hospital visits) agitated him, so then certainly in his later Alzheimer’s stages, partying in his familiar environment was better for him. For his last birthday, we even limited the partyers to two people on one day and one person on a separate day for quieter, calming scenarios.

Thanksgiving and Christmas are times to treasure your loved one with Alzheimer’s. Two of my favorite photos of my dad were taken on the last Mother’s Day he was able to come to my house. He didn’t remember the party, but I still do. It was a happy, happy day in a very, very long season of sadness.

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