At Sunday morning mass, I prayed to help remember the true meaning of Christmas. By Sunday afternoon, I was singing Christmas carols with 99-year-old Marie.
Marie does not have dementia, but she does sometimes get her days mixed up. She is one of the women I deliver Eucharist to once a month. She likes to hold my hand while I read her the Gospel and is always in good spirits. Yesterday was no exception.
Her niece got her a Christmas music box that plays a stanza from about a dozen traditional Christmas carols. We had no problem singing songs together.
This time of year is built on traditions. They bring comfort and rituals that everyone can enjoy. They can also be a way to help caregivers and loved ones connect with people with dementia, especially through activities like trimming the tree or baking cookies.
“And even though someone might not verbalize back to you, the activity staff can kind of talk to them—remember when,’ or ‘I remember when my grandma used to make cut-out cookies” says Stephani Geerdes, social worker at the Lutz Wing nursing home on the Mayo Clinic Health Services to the Fairmont Sentinel. “You can reminisce with people even if they might not be able to respond.”
The everyday can be a challenge for people with dementia and their loved ones. It’s important to acknowledge those feelings of frustration, denial and embarrassment, which are normal, says Brandi Medina, director of programs and education at Alzheimer’s Association-Mid South Chapter in Huntsville, Alabama.
“I’ve talked to many families, and they say, ‘This is not my loved one.’ I tell them, ‘You’re right. This is not your loved one. This is the disease.’ The behaviors, the reactions are caused by the disease. They’re not being mean or stubborn (on purpose).”
The Alzheimer’s Association offers these tips to make the holidays as easy as possible.
Be prepared: Let loved ones know what to expect before they visit and advise them how to communicate and connect.
Build on memories: Tweak traditions (or add new ones) to make the season less stressful for residents and their families, such as moving a holiday meal from dinner to lunch to avoid sundowning.
Plan ahead: Prepare for visits and visits away from the facility to meet changing needs for residents with dementia, such as a quiet room for the person with dementia to rest away from noises and distractions.
It’s like the song says: “Christmas Eve’ll find me / Where the love light gleams / I’ll be home for Christmas / If only in my dreams.”
It’s up to us to find Christmas and connect with people with dementia in those small moments. Like singing carols off key while helping someone cut up a blueberry waffle drenched in syrup and butter.