As the holiday season begins, most of us are starting to plan our schedules for the next two months and beyond. Besides gift-shopping, the biggest planning task for many is coordinating family get-together and big holiday meals. These can be challenging enough, but for those who are caregiving for someone with dementia, there are added difficulties that must be considered.
“Dementias such as Alzheimer’s disease makes many things challenging, as caregivers know,” says Robin Crum, Executive Director of YourLife™ of Pensacola, a Memory Care community in Pensacola, FL. “What some of us may not think about is the difficulty that comes during mealtimes. Not only is routine disrupted, but as the disease progresses into later stages, it could lead to difficulty using utensils, altered depth perception, challenges with chewing and swallowing and a variety of other eating difficulties.”
The early stages of dementia can be particularly challenging for caregivers in other ways, says Crum. “At the beginning of the disease, it’s very easy for the individual to become agitated or to shut down due to routine changes or other stressors. Emotionally, this can be incredibly difficult for both the caregiver and other family members, because the person with dementia may not otherwise appear to have any issues. As a caregiver, you live with this disease day in and day out,” she says. “Family members who don’t see their loved one as often may get upset or confused because they don’t know how to deal with the changes they’re seeing, or they don’t understand why a meal that has been the same for decades is now causing difficulty.”
When it comes to holiday meals and including individuals with dementia, there are three main considerations that need to be addressed by everyone involved in the planning.
Diet restrictions. Aging and medical issues cause us to shift our diets anyway, but Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias have additional considerations. Some foods can potentially worsen the symptoms of the disease, so even having a “cheat day” can wreak havoc for both your loved one and the caregiver. (Sugar is a big one – not only do many seniors have a form of diabetes, but sugar has also been proven to increase dementia-related symptoms.)
Crowds. Many people with dementia have a hard time being in places where there are lots of people (and lots of noise), especially in the later stages of the disease. Being in a small area, even if there’s a small guest list, can be overwhelming to your loved one because they’re unable to filter out the different stimuli. If it’s a large gathering, this can trigger anxiety and agitation. And, of course, if the guests don’t know about or don’t quite understand the unique needs of the person with dementia, that can cause a snowball effect of difficulty.
Routines. Holiday meals are definitely a change of routine, whether it’s being hosted at your house or somewhere else. People with dementia and memory issues need to have a routine to keep them calm, content and happy. Too much disruption can lead to confusion and an increase in cognitive difficulty.
Tips to Make Holiday Mealtime Easier
Trying to juggle the stressors of dementia and holiday meal planning can be enough to make caregivers want to bow out of holiday gatherings altogether. However, being with friends and loved ones and having social interaction is incredibly important for people with dementia. There is also no reason why your loved one should miss out on the happiness that comes from the holidays and being with people they care about. Here are some tips to help make sure that the holidays remain fun and joyful for everyone involved.
Get everyone on the same page. A thoughtful, understanding and calm approach is needed to pull off a successful holiday gathering. Before the gathering, talk to key family members and friends and share some strategies for how to approach the needs of your loved one. Consider sharing tips on how to interact with the individual (for example, talk to them instead of around them, and don’t get upset or angry if they ask the same thing over and over again), as well as ideas on how to make the environment more appealing.
Host (or attend) quiet, slow-paced gatherings. Holiday gatherings and mealtimes revolve around lively conversations, sometimes music and a lot of laughter. But people with cognitive issues generally require a calm, quiet environment in order to have the best outcomes. If you’re hosting the holiday meal, keep the guest list small and be sure there’s a room in your home where your loved one can regroup or rest. If you’re attending an event at another person’s home, find out what the gathering will entail (how many people will be there? How large will the space be?). If it’s going to be a large party or a tiny area, it may be best for your loved one to bow out of the party so they won’t get overwhelmed.
Consider dietary needs. As much as possible, it’s important to make sure all holiday meals have several food options that will help your loved one stick to their diet to make sure cognitive functions are as sharp as possible. However, that’s just a general rule of thumb. If your loved one has progressed to a later stage of the disease, it may be hard to get them to eat anything, in which case you may need to add sugar and fats to food so they’ll find it appealing. As with everything, you’ll need to play it by ear and choose an approach that works best for you and your loved one.
Schedule the meal earlier in the day. Evenings can be difficult for your loved one with dementia. Sundowning, sleep disruption and confusion are more prevalent if the meals take place in the evening (not to mention that evening parties can go on and on into the night). Consider adapting your holiday traditions to a better time for your loved one, like changing a holiday dinner to a holiday brunch or lunch. If the celebration does end up happening at night, be sure that rooms are well-lit and as dementia-friendly as possible.
Make sure your loved one can clearly see everything on the table. Set your loved one’s place with contrasting colors and be sure that utensils, plates, napkins, etc. are all visually separated. This will help the person with dementia to clearly see what they’re being served.
Serve one course at a time. It’s fun to sit down to a table that’s loaded with every dish imaginable, but it can be very overwhelming to have everything out all at once. Make the meal easier for your loved one by serving them one course at a time.
Understand that different doesn’t mean “bad.” There is a certain sadness that can come from having to adjust expectations and changing holiday traditions. However, it’s important to remember that traditions are allowed to shift, and what’s important is that you’re together with loved ones during this special time of year.
For more information about holiday planning for your loved one with dementia, please contact our team today at 850-898-3334.
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