November is Alzheimer’s Awareness month and the beginning of the holiday season, a time when expectations are heightened, stress increased and sadness intensified.
There is no denying the terrible devastating impact Alzheimer’s or dementia has on families. In spite of this, some families are able to make the best of the holiday season and truly enjoy this time of year. How do they do it? Here are a few guidelines to help simplify and lighten your holidays, even with Alzheimer’s.
- Now is the time to stop, yes, STOP and take some time to reflect on your expectations for this holiday season. This is a “First Things First” action. Grab a pen and paper and write down all your thoughts and feelings about this year’s holiday season. Include your thoughts and feelings about traditions, wishes, your to-do list, and your loved ones. Have Kleenex on hand, just in case. Write until you feel done. This is a great way to literally get all of those thoughts and feelings that are running around inside of you, OUT! (In business this is called a brain dump.)
- Walk away from what you’ve written and go do something, anything. Let your thoughts and feelings settle. Plan a time within the next 2 days to come back to your writing.
- Come back to your writing. As you read it, separate things into two lists: 1) Things I Can Do and 2) Things I Cannot Do. For instance: I Can’t change the fact that my loved one has Alzheimer’s; I Can’t change the fact that my daughter won’t be here for Thanksgiving this year; I Can’t change the fact that I’m a year older and don’t have as much energy; I Can arrange for respite so I can go shopping without worrying about my loved one. I Can ask everyone to bring something for the family dinner; I Can put myself first in the morning and take a walk to improve my mood and energy. Cull through your original writing to make sure you have everything on one of these two lists.
- Put the Cannot Do List away. It is what it is. If you are having a hard time with this, talk to a friend or call a professional. Grief is real and no one should have to be alone with it.
- Prioritize your Can Do List. Even though you might be capable of doing all of the things on this list, ask yourself if it’s realistic for you to do all of them. One of my favorite mottos is “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”. What are the most important things on your list, the ones that will bring you the most joy? Make those your priorities and your holidays will be much more meaningful, and less stressful.
- While some traditions might have landed on the Can’t Do List, others might be possible with a little tweaking. Get creative. If this isn’t your strong suit, ask someone for help and ideas. Creative people love being asked for their help!
- Include your loved one with Alzheimer’s in activities when appropriate. If you know your loved one has a favorite tradition or has some cherished memories of past holidays spend some time helping to recreate some of those memories, even if it’s only in listening to the story one more time.
- As Alzheimer’s progresses, some people with dementia feel anxious when out of familiar surroundings. Think about your loved one. Are they likely to be more comfortable with a quiet visit from a few relatives than they would be traveling to the reunion in another city or state? While the initial compromise might be hard for you, think about what it will be like if you try to push yourself and your loved one.
- Keep in mind that any stress increases anxiety, ANYTHING out of the ordinary. Know yourself and your limits! Be realistic and don’t exceed them! And know your loved one. If they thrive on being with the little ones, include them in the hoopla. If instead, the exuberance of the children heightens their anxiety, give everyone in the family permission to be ok with grandma’s absence.
- Lastly, stay in touch with your support people. One of the surest ways for you to keep your own sanity and serenity is to have a place to vent, to get away, to laugh or to cry. While it’s humbling to ask for help, it is vitally important to your well-being to be connected to others who understand. The Alzheimer’s Association has a website www.alz.org full of information on a variety of pertinent topics. You can locate your local chapter on this website. They’ll be glad to help you get connected and have wonderful resources available for you as well.
About The Author
Patti Bitter, MSW, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker, and owner of Tapestry Counseling, LLC, in St. Louis, MO. Ms. Bitter provides individual and couples and marriage counseling in the St. Louis area. To learn more about her practice, visit her website at www.tapestrycounseling.com.