Increased activity during the holiday season can be challenging. More large group gatherings, more shopping and a general increase in the speed of life raises stress levels for everyone. If you are the primary caregiver for an individual living with dementia it can feel like too much.
So how do you survive the holiday season?
While there are more people around during the holidays, the flip side is that there are more hands to help. I encourage you to use this opportunity to ask for and be open to receiving help.
Caring for Yourself as Caregiver
One of the most important things to do is to think about caring for yourself. As the primary caregiver, you are on the front lines. And if you burn out, it is bad for everyone. So, take some time to think about your own mental and physical health.
List Specific Things that Would be Helpful.
Prepare a list of things that would be helpful. From grocery shopping to mailing Christmas cards. Whatever your needs are, list them all out. The important thing is to be as specific as possible. Make it easy for someone to look at the list and say — “I could do that”.
When my brother visits my Dad he always cooks a lot of different soups and freezes them for later use. These simple to prepare meals are stuffed full of good things (he is expert at hiding kale!). Easy for my dad to prepare and a relief to all of us because we know he is eating well.
Also, plan some time to just get a break from your everyday responsibilities. Whether it is a bit of respite care — or a visit from a family member, plan to let go for a few hours. Taking a break can help you come back refreshed. Plan to do something that is just for you. And if you are the person offering the break, encourage your mom, dad, or sibling to really take a break. Sending them off for a few hours of relaxation will be good for everyone.
Create Bonds of Generosity
Ask for help when you can. Having a list of specific things helps others in a very concrete way. They can see what is needed and respond with what they can do. They can choose to help in ways that are meaningful to them. Some people love shopping. Asking them to shop for you is a gift they can easily give to you. Some people prefer to cook or bake. Others (maybe surprisingly) love to clean or organize. Offering your list for their consideration is a less intimidating way to ask for help. The emotional pressure on both you and the individual you are asking is reduced. This helps the interaction to be more positive.
Another of the positive aspects of asking for help is creating bonds of community and support around you. You build your social network, which is good for you. We know from research that a strong social network reduces dementia risk. We also know that primary caregivers are at significantly elevated risk for negative health outcomes. It is vital therefore, that you consciously nurture your social network.
A strong social network reduces the isolation and loneliness that many caregivers experience. When the relationship with your loved one changes, the support that you previously received diminishes. You will need to cultivate other social supports.
The individual you are caring for will also need more social interaction. Individuals with dementia report desiring more social interactions. Since it is more difficult for them to initiate conversations and interactions, it is an area where a friendly visitor can make a significant difference.
The Gift of Giving
The opportunity to give is a gift. When you ask for help, you are giving a gift to the person you ask. Asking someone to be generous with their time or talents helps them as much as it helps you. The opportunity to be generous with our time can lead to great personal growth.
Life is very busy. It is easy to get totally wrapped up in your own concerns. It reminds me of one of my favourite quotes from Benjamin Franklin:
“A man wrapped up in himself makes a very small bundle.”
Giving of our time is an important way to get out of ourselves. Noticing the needs of another human being helps us grow. It can also help individuals avoid depression. When we are not focused solely on our own concerns, we get perspective on our own challenges. It reduces the “poor me” syndrome that we all fall prey to.
Don’t feel embarrassed asking for help. It may feel like a humbling action, but it creates possibilities for others to grow. So don’t think about asking as helping you — think about it as helping them.
Emotional Memory is Strong
Another consideration with the holiday season is to focus on emotional memory. When factual memory starts to fail, emotional memory will still be strong. Use this holiday season to build positive emotional memories with your loved one.
Emotional memory is the memory we have of feelings. People, places, smells… these are all things that will trigger an emotional response. Emotional memory is very strong and can be positive or negative.
So even if your mom or dad does not remember facts, they will remember how they felt. Think about creating memories that build on this capacity. Plan activities that give you an opportunity to express affection. Whether it is visiting with a photograph album or sharing some Christmas baking, aim to create positive moments.
Remember to include as many factual memory cues as you can. For example: label every photograph with the names of the people who are in the pictures. This will create confidence for the individual whose factual memory may be a little shaky.
Simple things, like smiling and speaking slowly, can go a long way to creating a positive moment. Physical affection, like a gentle hug or holding hands, should also be part of your interaction. Consider including interactive activities like puzzles, adult colouring books, or Fit Minds activities.
Encourage other family members to also participate in thinking about things that will create positive memories. Approaching this as a group effort can help strengthen family bonds.
To get other practical tips for surviving the holidays, click here.
Your goal is to not only survive but thrive during the holidays. Families do come together during this time. So use it wisely to build a legacy of love that your children and grandchildren will build on in the years to come.
Nicole has trained hundreds of professional and family caregivers who have touched the lives of thousands of individuals living with a cognitive impairment. Nicole also holds a law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School, a Master’s in Law from Queen’s University specializing in Negotiations and is a Certified Professional Consultant on Aging.