My wife has Alzheimer’s. How can I make the holidays better for her?

Many people struggle to cope with the demands of the holiday season, but this time of year can be particularly stressful for the person with Alzheimer’s disease. Holiday decorations, blinking tree lights, changing locations and noisy family gatherings can leave the person with Alzheimer’s feeling disoriented, confused or even a little bit frightened. Of course, you will want to include your wife in the family celebration season, but you do need to be mindful of the added stress she could experience. Here are some tips to consider:

  • Share the activities leading up to holiday celebrations. Introduce change slowly by asking your spouse to help prepare food or wrap packages. Take time to sit and review greeting cards and photos that come in the mail to reinforce the idea that it’s a special time of year that might include visits with new or different people.
  • Discuss holiday celebrations ahead of time with family and friends and let them know that you and your wife may need to limit your participation. Try to schedule gatherings so that they provide the least disruption to your wife’s usual daily routine.
  • Let the people you’ll be seeing know that your loved one may look different, act unpredictably or may not recognize them.
  • Suggest useful gifts that visitors can give. Loose, comfortable clothing, favorite music, illustrated books, family videos and photo albums with labels identifying the people, dates and places all make good gifts for the person with Alzheimer’s, but electronic equipment, complicated board games and pets do not.
  • Although she might not be able to participate in the same activities as in the past, your wife may find added comfort in singing old holiday songs, listening to music or watching seasonal videos with you or other family members.
  • Don’t neglect your own needs. Ask for gift certificates for things like laundry or cleaning services. Write down a list of tasks you routinely do, and if someone asks how they can help offer some specific suggestions. Consider asking friends and family for the gift of their time, staying with your loved one while you shop or go to a movie.
  • Know your limits and those of your spouse and stick to them. There’s nothing wrong with politely postponing an invitation to lunch or a visit with friends until after the first of the year. Finally, keep in mind that holidays should be fun. When loved ones have memory problems, some reminders can help them remember what they forgot.

The holidays should not be a time to quiz your loved one. Instead of asking, "Who is this?" or "What day is it?" gently remind them, "Of course you know this is Tim" or "You know today is Christmas Eve."

Remember, too, that not all memory problems are caused by Alzheimer’s disease. At the New Jersey Institute for Successful Aging (NJISA), our Memory Assessment Program includes an evaluation by a multidisciplinary team, including a neurologist, neuropsychologist, geriatric psychiatrist, geriatrician, and social worker. Following the assessment, the team meets with the patient and family to discuss the results and to help plan for the future. If you notice memory problems with your loved one, consider a thorough memory evaluation. At the NJISA, we can help.

Originally published in The University Doctors' MedicaLink - 12/09

For a University Doctor use our Find a Doctor tool or call 856 309-DOCS.

New Page symbol links marked with this symbol open in a new window