If you’ve read my blog for a while now, this post might seem somewhat familiar. Every fall, I feel the need to kick off the holidays with a bit of advice for my readers with dementia and for those who love them.
If you live in America, you know that Thanksgiving is approaching. And then Christmas is right on its heels. I know that our belief systems and geographic locations dictate which holidays we celebrate. And I don’t care what holidays you celebrate….Hanukkah, Winter Solstice, Kwanzaa, Boxing Day, Faux Fur Day (which is on December 1 and is seriously a real thing)… I know I’m missing dozens. Don’t hold that against me.
My message is intended for you no matter your religion and cultural affiliation. Just change the customs and rituals. Insert your own. If there’s one thing I know about dementia, it’s that it doesn’t discriminate based on ethnicity or religion (or sexual orientation or political party, for that matter). It’s all about equality here in dementialand.
You do not have to do every single thing you’ve done on every holiday in the past. Yes, you can skip the community tree lighting. No, you don’t have to serve the holiday meal at the Salvation Army just because you’ve done it five consecutive years. Yes, it’s okay to give cash as gifts so you don’t have to brave the madhouse of humanity know as the mall. No, the neighbors won’t judge you if you don’t put up lights this year (and if they do, screw them).
If Grandma seems stressed out by being around the chaos that is the family holiday gathering, it’s okay to take her back to the nursing home earlier than planned. If your mom–who is approaching end-stage dementia–doesn’t have any interest in eating the turkey or ham, it’s fine to let her have a few cookies instead.
Grandpa has always made it a point to go to the kid’s holiday programs at school, but we may have to accept that it’s just too much this year. Or maybe we can take him for the 10 minutes his grandkids perform and then get him the heck out of there before he has what his family refers to as a “meltdown.”
We love our family rituals. And family rituals can be fantastic–but we can’t be so tied to a ritual that we force a person with dementia into a situation that isn’t a good fit.
One of my friends told me that her extended family goes to a holiday parade in Chicago together every year. It’s a long drive and a lot of walking. And—this is a part that many of us, even those without dementia, struggle with–lots of people in close quarters. Her mother, who has younger-onset Alzheimer’s, refused to miss it.
To make a long story short, her mother was exhausted by the time the parade started. The sights and sounds were just….too much. Her exhaustion resulted in frustration. Her frustration resulted in some uncharacteristically mean comments directed toward family members. At one point, she told her grandchildren that they were bad children and they would be getting boxes of rocks for Christmas.
She even picked up a piece of candy that had been thrown in her direction by a parade participant and put it in her mouth….without taking off the wrapper. In retrospect, my friend wonders if they could have found a smaller parade that was closer to home, but they were so tied to their ritual that it never crossed their minds.
Many people with dementia love being around children. However, we have to understand that being around children can be exhausting for all of us –especially those with dementia. The dementia brain struggles in chaotic environments, and I don’t know of many environments more chaotic than holiday gatherings with cousins running around like unruly punks. Oh, add in their new toys, especially those toys that happen to be ridiculously loud. The dementia brain is going to tire quickly. Heck, my brain tires quickly. (Give me a break here. I am a childless gerontologist.)
And then we say the person with dementia is “being difficult”–when in fact we have put them in a difficult situation and they are having a difficult time. It is okay to limit the time someone with dementia spends with children. If you have dementia, it’s fine to say, “I really enjoyed hanging out with the kiddos, but I think it’s time for me to leave.” It’s okay for you to slip into a spare bedroom and take a break.
You don’t have to apologize. You don’t have to feel guilty. You don’t have to explain. You have my permission to remove yourself from a situation before it becomes anxiety-provoking. And you have my permission to preserve your mental and physical energy. The holidays are a marathon, not a sprint.
There’s a simple little trick that works for my husband and me around the holidays–and it also has some usefulness for dementia carers. It’s pretty simple: Always drive separately.
Your sister could pick up you and your spouse, who has Alzheimer’s, and give you a lift to the holiday gathering. It’s nice she offered. You appreciate that she’s thinking of you.
But…consider how long your sister might want to stay. If your spouse starts showing signs of stress, you might want to hightail it out of there. That’s harder if you don’t have your own vehicle. No matter the event, always have an escape route–even if that escape route is an Uber or a Lyft.
There are going to be these people who don’t understand. Maybe they are family. Maybe they are close friends. They are not going to get why you need to leave the party early. They are not going to comprehend why you can’t attend an event that you’ve attended every year for 20 years. They are going to think it’s weird that you are giving out ten dollar bills instead of thoughtful gifts this year. They are going to question why you showed up at Christmas dinner and contributed red Solo cups instead of a gourmet dish. (To be fair, I do the last one and I don’t have dementia, nor am I a caregiver.)
You can explain it to them if you want. If you have a need to sit them down and tell them about the challenges of dementia, go for it. You can show them this blog post if you like. But….don’t expect them to get it.
Sure, it’d be nice if they’d understand. It’d be great if everyone respected your limits and encouraged you to listen to that voice in your head that sometimes chimes in and says, “Too much.”
Even if people are well-meaning, they often don’t understand how tiring it is to have dementia. They don’t understand that holiday rituals practiced for many years just may not be realistic this year.
The good news is that you don’t need their permission to take a break. You don’t need their okay to exit the party or to not show up in the first place. They don’t have to be cool with your holiday plans. This isn’t about them.
So do what you’ve got to do to this holiday season–even if what you’ve got to do is different than what it used to be.
I give you permission to say “No, thank you,” this holiday season. If that doesn’t work, I give you permission to say “Hell no!” I also give you permission to say “Yes,” and then later on say, “Nope, it’s not gonna work.”
And I give you permission to leave the party without saying goodbye to each and every person there. Sometimes it’s just time to go.
So let go of those rituals. Forget those expectations.
You do not have to buy a present for every single person you’ve called a friend since middle school. If you don’t have the time or energy to send out holiday cards, then don’t do it. Maybe Midnight mass just isn’t in the cards this year. By the way, no one ever died from only having one choice of pie at a holiday dinner (unless it’s pumpkin pie, which is disgusting since pumpkin is a decorative item and not a real food–just an opinion).
It’s okay to not put up a Christmas tree. It’s okay to put up a Christmas tree and leave it up until March. Also, I promise your kids and grandkids can grow up to be functional adults if you don’t participate in that weird Elf on the Shelf deal. Oh, I can definitively prove that the world doesn’t end if you don’t have time to wrap gifts and just give people things in plastic Target bags. I don’t think I’ve used wrapping paper since Obama’s first term. Think about all the money I’ve saved to spend on wine.
And always keep in mind that Chinese restaurants are open on Christmas Day. In a jam, you can never go wrong with some takeout moo shu pork and eggrolls. On a side note, I googled which wines pair well with Chinese food. Go with the Riesling.
I said something really dumb a few days ago. It wasn’t the first time and won’t be the last, of course, but I keep thinking about it.
A woman was telling me about her challenges as a caregiver. Her husband, who has frontotemporal dementia, is about to get “evicted” from a nursing home for being “disrespectful toward staff.” (Don’t get me started.) In addition, she’s been diagnosed with lung cancer. After I listened to her talk about how she can’t sleep at night, we wrapped up our conversation.
“Happy holidays,” I said. Yeah. That was stupid.
She laughed. We both realized how idiotic, although sincere, my holiday wishes were. Sure, I wanted her holidays to be happy, but it seemed a little pie-in-the-sky. I tried to recover.
“Well, best possible holidays!” I said.
So that’s it. Best possible holidays to you.
Maybe that means you’re gonna thrive this holiday season. Maybe you’re just gonna survive. But either way….
Best possible holidays to you, my friend.