During the first holiday season my mom spent as a resident of the memory care unit at Sunrise Living, I arrived for a visit to find her talking to a care manager about Hanukkah gift options for her mother. Considering that my grandmother died before I was born, I froze when the care manager said she and my mom had settled on pearl earrings to match the strand of pearls my mom had already given her.
Being the literalist that I am, I felt the words forming: “But your mom died more than 40 years ago.” A look on the care manager’s face stopped me. Instead, I said, “Yes, Mom. I think she’d love that.” My mom smiled, relieved at having decided. I felt relief at my decision, too, albeit a bit guilty for having lied.
I made the right choice, said Michelle Tardie, coordinator of reminiscence at Sunrise at George Mason—the memory care unit where my mom lives in Fairfax, Va. I met my mom in her reality, which is important for interacting with people with dementia at all times, but especially during the holiday season.
The impulse is to include your loved one in family gatherings and holiday parties, and it can be hard to realize that the gift exchange or New Year’s Eve extravaganza may be better enjoyed without them.
Holidays bring new challenges for caregivers
This time of year can be difficult for caregivers of people with dementia. The impulse is to include them in family gatherings and holiday parties, and it can be hard to realize that the gift exchange or New Year’s Eve extravaganza may be better enjoyed without them.
I sat down with Tardie to get some tips on dealing with these conflicting emotions while still making holiday memories. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length.
The holidays can be really stressful. How can caregivers make sure they make the most of the season for their loved ones, but also for themselves?
If you have your loved one at home, I think it’s important to get some extra help so that you can go out and enjoy holiday shopping or enjoy an afternoon baking or whatever it is you like to do for the holidays. Whether it’s getting a friend to come over and stay with your loved one or hiring someone from outside, it’s important to get yourself some help and catch a break. If you’re the primary caregiver and you’ve burned yourself out, you can’t take care of your loved one. If they are in a facility, you have the help. Don’t feel guilty about not coming in for a few days and doing what you need to do.
How can caregivers carry on holiday traditions when their loved ones have memory impairment?
Usually the longer-term memories are more intact. So, they are more likely to remember if you can pull out those older traditions, even from their childhood if you can find those. That can trigger the good moments for them. If they’re not remembering them, start new traditions. Don’t stress over what they don’t remember. Focus on the moment that they’re in, being present with them now.
At Sunrise, you host dinners for family and friends to celebrate the holidays with their loved ones at the facility. What’s the advantage of that?
The environment is the same for them, so it tends to cause less confusion for them.
If caregivers decide to take their loved ones to a holiday event outside, how can they prepare them?
Let them know what you’re doing, where you’re going. You can tell them why you’re going. I would say if they’re really resistant and not wanting to go, a lot of times, it’s just better to let it go and leave them and not feel guilty about them missing the holiday. If they’re not in the moment to want to be there, it’s usually better not to bring them.
That’s easier said than done.
One of my biggest pieces of advice I’ve given to families over the years is that if you decide to leave them behind, and if you make that decision out of love, then it’s the right decision.
One thing that can be really hard during the holidays is for those who have lost a spouse, they may not remember that they’ve lost their spouse. So, everybody’s together for a big holiday dinner, and it’s like, “Where’s my spouse? They’re supposed to be here.” That can cause a lot of anxiety.
What do you do if that happens?
It’s hard, and I hate to say it, but a lot of times, lying to them is the best thing to do. Because if they don’t remember that their spouse passed away, then that is just going to upset them further. You can say, “They’re out of town,” “They’re on a business trip.” We say, “They’re up North.” Sometimes that’s a better answer than the truth. Go with their reality. If that gives them a good moment, then give them that good moment.
Stephanie Kanowitz is a Fairfax, Va.-based freelance writer, fitness instructor, mother and caregiver to her mother, who was diagnosed with dementia in 2012. Stephanie earned journalism degrees from the University of Florida (bachelor’s) and American University (master’s), and her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Washington Post Express, Red Tricycle, the Washington Diplomat and the Kveller blog.