Facing the holidays as an Alzheimer’s caregiver: Tips from those who have done it

The holidays, with all their hustle and bustle, can add additional stress and strain for caregivers, particularly people caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease or a similar memory-related illness.

I hope the following tips and ideas will help keep your holidays merry and bright.

Simplify the season
Make this the season to simplify. Instead of the usual six-course family dinner, maybe you can do a potluck or a simple brunch. One caregiver—who always had her holidays cards in the mail on Thanksgiving Day—decided instead to send an email to her family and friends wishing them a happy holiday.

She explained she would not be sending out cards because her focus this holiday was on caring for her parents—and herself. Good for her!

Give the gift of yourself
When I look back, I recall countless hours spent perusing catalogs and stores trying to find the “perfect gift” for my mother.

I also recall, as her Alzheimer’s disease progressed, watching her happily unwrapping gifts but not understanding who the gift was for or what to do with it.

What she did understand, and enjoyed, were the moments we spent on the couch holding hands, talking and giggling. She understood when my father put on music and danced with her. She understood her home was filled with laughter and people who loved her. She taught me it wasn’t about the stuff and that the “perfect gift” was the gift of family and love.

Create new traditions
We all have family traditions we hold near and dear. After my grandmother passed, my mother took over the family tradition of cooking Christmas dinner for the entire family. My mother would spend weeks in advance cooking and getting the house ready for everyone.

Every year, without fail, we would hear her say the same thing: “This is the last year I’m doing this! It’s too much work! Never again!” but the following year, a few weeks before Christmas, she’d start cooking again. It was tradition.

As Mom’s Alzheimer’s progressed, her ability to cook began to disappear along with many traditions. We were forced to come up with new traditions—so we did. While she could no longer cook the traditional Christmas dinner, she was able to help us set the table and decorate.

She could still stir the gravy and put the mashed potatoes into a bowl.

Look at what abilities your loved ones still have and find things they can do, independent and alongside you. Be willing to let go of what was and, instead, embrace what is. You never know—you might enjoy the new traditions as much (or even more!) than the old ones. And then they will become your family tradition.

Give yourself the gift of time
The Golden Rule of Caregiving is: Take Care of Yourself First.

I remind caregivers of this every time I talk because it’s not just important, it’s also critical. Statistics show that caregivers have high levels of stress, depression and are at an increased risk of getting sick (or worse). The holidays bring with them their own added stressors, so this season put yourself at the top of your holiday gift list.

Give yourself the gift of 10 or 15 minutes a day just for you! Sit quietly with a cup of tea or go for a walk. Schedule time to have lunch with a friend or to get a massage.

Caregivers often tell me they don’t have the time or ability to take time for themselves. Over and over, caregivers have told me they heard me encourage them to follow the Golden Rule of Caregiving but they chose not to—and ended up getting sick.

They all said they thought it couldn’t happen to them. But it did. And when they got sick, everything began to unravel.

My dad and I were guilty of this so I get it. And, like the caregivers I just mentioned, it resulted in an impact on our physical, mental and emotional health. For that reason, it was important for me to include ideas in my book from other caregivers on how to find time for yourself. I encourage you to look through them so you can make you a priority in your day—and life—as a caregiver.

Take a moment for gratitude
I always encourage caregivers to search for the blessings in the day. Put a notepad on your nightstand or next to the coffeepot and every evening (or first thing in the morning), write down one thing for which you are grateful.

If you’re struggling to find something, you might want to begin with the fact that you’re awake, standing at the coffeepot and have been blessed with another day.

Eventually, try to increase it to writing three things a day. When you begin to shift your focus to the blessings of the day—rather than the hardships—you can literally begin to shift your life.

It is my heartfelt hope that this holiday season brings you and yours an abundance of love, laughter and blessings.

Patti Kerr

Patti Kerr is a Certified Alzheimer’s Educator, speaker and the author of “I Love You, Who Are You?: Loving and Caring for a Parent with Alzheimer’s.” To learn more about her or her book, visit her website at www.pattikerr.com

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