Imagine a keyring containing many keys of various sizes. Some you may not even be sure what they open. One key dominates. Large, old fashioned and gold, it obviously opens something important. Each key has its purpose, but this one is more significant than all the rest.
This is the key to a great Christmas.
Is the suspense overwhelming? (Maybe we could have a drum roll at this point?)
The Key: Know your elder
If it sounds simplistic and maybe a bit condescending, hear me out. So many families make the mistake of remembering what was important in the past or even last year, but with dementia, that mistake can ruin a family time. Even without cognitive decline, physical changes can turn what was once a pleasure into a chore. Take a few minutes to assess.
1) Did this tradition/activity give pleasure to them in the past? If the answer is yes, perhaps a modified form of it would bring joy and purpose now. For example, maybe mom took great pride in the mounds of Christmas cookies her kitchen produced. Perhaps sitting with you and rolling out sugar cookies or adding sprinkles could be fun and meaningful. Or that same activity may serve to point out her inabilities. Know your elder.
2) Last year dad's best time was when all the grandchildren visited. Perhaps you could plan for a similar event this year. Or it may be that the roughhousing of little boys will trigger anger in him. Know your elder.
Having said this, there are always surprises, good and bad. Nothing is 100 percent certain, and you need to give yourself the freedom to fail. If something didn't work as you hoped, retain your sense of humour and move on.
Does your family favour large gatherings with all cousins and grandchildren? These are lovely, but might be too much of a good thing for your elder. You may need to skip it, or perhaps some modification would work. Is there a room where they can visit with family a few at a time? Or perhaps the family would visit at home in small groups. Explain to those involved how small groups and short visits make the time stress-free and meaningful.
Way of Escape
Some elders can handle and in fact, thrive with the large, family group. However, even these benefit from a way of escape. If aggression or anxiety is something they deal with, watch closely for signs of this and have a room available for them to withdraw to. After a period of time, they may be able to return, or others can visit them there.
No Name Game
Educate your family regarding how to approach your elder. They probably won't know names and relationships may not be important to them. Teach people to introduce themselves in the most natural way possible. "Hello, Grandpa, it's Charlie." Never, never put them in the position of guessing a name. It's a game sure to bring anxiety and failure and serves no positive purpose.
Keep the Routine
One of the difficulties of the holidays is that the pace brings exhaustion. A crazy paradox isn't it? The holidays wear us out. One way to reduce the stress for your elder is to keep whatever routine is normal for them as much as possible. If a nap after lunch is normal, look for ways to make that possible. Familiar routine is a precious gift.
Encourage the Gift of Time
"What shall I give Grandpa? Does he need anything?" You may hear this question many times. The answer is always the same. Give the gift of time. Multiple short visits throughout the year are the most precious gift. Give other family members ideas about how to spend meaningful time. Suggest looking through old photo albums together, a stroll through the garden or sharing fun family stories are all ways to enjoy precious time together all year.
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Care Partner Wednesday--The Key to a Fulfilled, Guilt-Free Christmas