The holiday season is a time of togetherness where families and friends gather to celebrate and give thanks. When a relative or family friend experiences memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease, however, Thanksgiving dinners and holiday gatherings can be particularly trying.
“Family members may be unsure of how to approach a loved one who experiences memory loss, repeats conversations, forgets members of the family, and is confused,” notes Dr. Stephen Moelter, associate professor of psychology at University of the Sciences. “This can cause family members to feel uncomfortable.” Dr. Moelter believes that adults and children alike can arm themselves with ways to engage people with memory difficulty to ensure a more meaningful holiday season.
- Family members must educate themselves about Alzheimer’s disease. Learning more about the disease will help family members understand the importance of keeping their loved one safe and surrounded by supportive people. Helpful information can be found on the Alzheimer’s Association’s website www.alz.org, while younger children may benefit from videos such as HBO’s “Grandpa, do you know who I am?” available online at www.hbo.com/alzheimers.
- Engaging people with Alzheimer’s in conversation and keeping them involved in activities is vital to their health. Dr. Moelter suggests that conversation should be at the level of the loved one and it is ideal to let them lead. Fundamentally, although it may sometimes seem unusual, family members should know that it is okay to answer repeated questions with the same answers. “What matters most is that we answer with interest and a positive tone and understand that it is not helpful to question the person about the memory problem or to challenge them to remember,” adds Dr. Moelter. Challenging the person with Alzheimer’s can lead to increased anxiety and may make memory, cognition, and behavior worse. Such challenging or “testing” of your family member will not help them to remember more.
- When speaking, family members should try to ask questions that rely on “old knowledge” and encourage reminiscing about holidays past. In general, people with memory problems have the best memory for distant events with more impairment as the people and events to be recalled become more recent. For instance, it may be easier for the person with memory problems to talk about the holidays when they were a child or young adult compared to a more recent holiday.
- Parents should prepare their children for conversations and can help by offering suggestions of things to ask their family member. Topics may include those that parents know are strong and positive and old memories such as hobbies, jobs, or family events. “Alzheimer’s can be especially challenging for children to comprehend,” admits Dr. Moelter. “It is important parents understand this and give younger children permission to keep interactions brief if they feel uneasy.”