The holidays gather families together. We catch up over turkey and dressing. We laugh as we bump elbows.
Unless we’re coping with Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s slows mental processes and raises sensitivities. Someone coping with Alzheimer’s finds it difficult to follow a lively debate. They’re easily jarred by loud voices and clanging pans. They’re irritated by the cheerful crowd in a hot kitchen.
You CAN share a happy family feast with a loved one who is coping with Alzheimer’s. It just takes a little planning and a lot of understanding.
Secret 1: There’s No Place Like Home
The holidays bring back memories of childhood celebrations. It’s tempting to recreate them by continuing Mom’s traditions in your own home. She’d enjoy your nod to the past. Or would she?
In Mom’s mind, your home is not her home. Its furnishings and routines are foreign. Even if this once was her home, it’s now out of her comfort zone.
Help her find her way around. Plan the routes she’ll travel to your door and inside your home.
- Will she need a walker or wheelchair?
- How will you handle stairs?
- Are there clear pathways from the entrance to the living room, dining room and bathroom?
- Is a sturdy armchair available in the living room and at the table?
- Is there room for someone to help in the bathroom?
- Do you have a quiet place she can rest if the festivities overwhelm her?
Someone Mom trusts should stay by her side. They should introduce her to loved ones she may not recognize and watch for signs of distress.
At the table, seat someone next to her who understands how to help with plating and eating. (For examples of how we tailor our homes to the needs of those coping with Alzheimer’s, see A Day in the Life.)
Have an “escape plan.” Mom may surprise you by announcing she’s ready to go back to her own home just as you carve the turkey. Gentle urging and pleading are unlikely to change her mind. Line up a trusted family member to serve as either your stand-in at the table or your mother’s chauffeur.
Consider whether you should bring a quiet feast to Mom’s home instead. Find out when Thanksgiving is celebrated where she lives, and ask if you can join in. (Then kiss her goodbye and return to your own home to host a larger group.) Or reserve a corner of the dining room on another day of Thanksgiving week for a private celebration.
Secret 2: Find One True Thing
The key to happiness – particularly for someone coping with Alzheimer’s – is to enjoy the moment. Not many past moments, but the single moment we’re living right now. As we are right now.
Mom no longer can spend long hours in the kitchen. She can’t orchestrate a complicated meal. Simplify!
What is the one thing Mom most loved as she prepared her feast? Maybe it was setting the table. Making the mashed potatoes. Saying grace. Give her THAT moment.
Make it simple. Ask if she’d like to put out the napkins, not every piece of every place setting. Suggest she brings a dish she’s prepared ahead, with the help of understanding caregivers. Ask what she’s thankful for – days ahead of time – so you can prompt her as she prays.
Don’t worry if everything is perfect, up to Mom’s past standards. Does anyone really care if the napkins are on the wrong side of the plate?
Understand that even Mom’s “one true thing” may be too much for her on such a big day. Accept that she may not want to say grace or put out all the napkins. Someone else can quietly step in to finish.
Focus on making the most of the time your family spends together.
Secret 3: Every Day is a Day for Thanksgiving
Alzheimer’s loosens Mom’s ties to the traditional calendar. Let it loosen yours, too.
Choose the best time and place to celebrate. Mom appreciates a special occasion, tailored to her preferences, whenever guests can join her. It’s fine if you eat Thanksgiving dinner together on Tuesday. Don’t feel guilty if you dine at different tables on Thursday.
Secret 4: Timing is Everything
Carefully control the schedule.
- If your home is 15 minutes away from Mom’s, pick her up 30 minutes before you expect to sit down for dinner.
- Upon arrival, spend 15 minutes visiting.
- Plate Mom’s meal first, and the meal of the person who plans to drive her home second.
- Say your goodbyes soon after you finish dinner
- Spending a long day in unfamiliar surroundings may leave Mom overtired. Cut her visit short if she becomes weak, restless or upset. Don’t leave her too agitated to sleep through the night.
Secret 5: Be Prepared
Even if the visit is short, Mom should pack a small bag with important supplies you don’t keep on hand. Bring
- A favorite sweater or blanket,
- Continence supplies,
- A change of clothes and
- Emergency medication.