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Learn how to manage dementia and holiday stress to put the enjoyment back into your holiday celebrations.

Dementia Caregiving: Taking Stress Out of the Holidays

The holidays are a joyful time of year. For caregivers, the holidays mean managing dementia and holiday stress.

Planning and setting realistic expectations can help you take the stress out of your holiday and put the joy and enjoyment back in.

The pressure to observe all the holiday traditions or attend all the celebrations and services may be more than you and your loved one can handle. Learning to manage dementia and holiday stress can be a difference-maker for your holiday season.

“This year is going to be difficult for you because many times, it’s during the holidays that we start concentrating on what we’ve lost,” says Hollie Glover, director of family education and support for the James L. West Center for Dementia Care.

It’s easy to start comparing our loved one’s abilities this holiday with how they were able to participate at the last holiday, and focus on the things they can no longer do.

‘We’ve got to focus on what they can do, and meet them where they are,” Glover says. “We can have joy in dementia.”

Traveling with your loved one with dementia

If your holiday plans include travel, be realistic about what you and your loved one can handle. Weigh the advantages and disadvantages of straying from routine, staying overnight in a hotel, and spending the day in unfamiliar surroundings.

As your loved one moves through the disease process, these small changes may add to your loved one’s confusion and to your stress. Talk to your loved one’s doctor before taking a trip to see if it’s okay.

Try a staycation in town first or make a test run overnight in a nearby town to see how the change in surroundings and schedule affects your loved one. Plan it like it’s an out-of-town trip. If your loved one struggles, you don’t have far to go to get home.

Plan short trips and visits. Invite a third person to travel with you to assist you. Schedule lots of breaks.

If you plan to drive, pack your loved one’s medications, favorite items and and a change of clothes within easy reach. Consider packing a cooler with snacks and drinks, and having your loved one sit in the middle of the back. This keeps them in your line of vision.

Be prepared for your loved one to be confused and prepare for wandering. Plan quieter activities in the evening due to sundowning. Make sure they get plenty of rest. Enroll in Medic Alert and Safe Return, and take a picture of your loved one every morning.

Recognizing and reducing your stress

As a caregiver, you know your loved one the best. Plan early. Be realistic. Learn to say no.

“Give yourself permission to say no,” Glover says. “Be discerning and just choose one or two events to focus on instead of hitting every one of them.”

There’s nothing you have to attend or anything you have to do during the holidays, even if it’s something you’ve done forever. 

Be on the look-out for signs of stress.

Fatigue, sleeplessness, and headaches may be a sign you’ve taken on too much during the holidays. Muscle tension or backaches, increased anxiety, gastrointestinal issues and increased heart rate or blood pressure are more signs you’ve taken on too much.

There are behavioral signs that you’re experiencing stress as well – forgetfulness or confusion, difficulty with attention to detail, changes in your eating or sleeping patterns, changes in exercise habits, negative mood or attitude, constant urgency or “go mode,” decreased satisfaction with the holiday season and increased alcohol consumption.

“Keep in mind what’s important about the holidays. The holidays don’t have to be perfect,” Glover says. “Nobody’s family is perfect. Traditions change as families change.”

Glover recommends using positive self-talk to reframe your approach to the holidays, just as you would any other time of year. 

Make a to-do list and prioritize what has to be done and what would be nice to do. Schedule your most demanding tasks in the morning hours when you’re freshest.

Alternate between difficult tasks and easy tasks, or long tasks and short tasks, to help you stay motivated. Make time for breaks!

Be sure to include time for self-care. Take a walk alone, listen to soothing music, find time to clear your mind. 

There is joy and enjoyment in a holiday spent with family and friends.

For more ideas on managing dementia and holiday stress, explore James L. West Center for Dementia Care’s free caregiver education sessions.