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Holiday activities can agitate those with dementia

Joan Hatem-Roy, Chief Executive Officer

Q: My widowed sister moved in with our mother a year ago. Mom has Alzheimer’s disease, and it became evident she could no longer safely live alone. Things were going very well until right after Thanksgiving. My sister started decorating for Christmas, and my mother became agitated and uncooperative. We have no idea what is causing this. Do you have any insight as to what the problem could be?

A: Many of us feel this is supposed to be “the most wonderful time of the year.” However, families who have a loved one with dementia need to understand the holidays will not necessarily be as they were in the past.

Forging ahead and insisting on maintaining holiday traditions may be unrealistic and lead to disappointments. A wise approach is to adjust expectations and make modifications to the holidays. Alzheimer’s disease is an unpredictable condition, and this applies to most neurological diagnoses that have a dementia component.

Your mother cannot necessarily control her responses, so it’s essential to create a comfortable environment for her.

Excessive stimulation can create agitation in individuals with dementia. Candles, the blinking lights on a tree or other sparkling decorations can cause disorientation.

A festive scene which many of us would consider beautiful can be overwhelming for others. Rearranging the furniture to accommodate a tree or other decorations may also cause confusion and agitation.

Perhaps you and your sister need to tone down your approach to decorating. Playing familiar holiday music might be acceptable but adjust the volume as loud noises can also be disruptive for someone with Alzheimer’s disease.

Families should always try and include their loved ones in any celebration when possible. If your mother always liked to bake cookies, encourage her to take part but watch for any anxiety, and don’t expect perfection.

Keep the everyday routine as close to normal as possible. Finally, for your mother’s sake and keeping with COVID restrictions, avoid large gatherings during the holidays.

Are you struggling to care for an older adult or having difficulty locating resources? Our experienced staff is available to help. Visit us online at www.ESMV.org for more information. You can also call us at 1-800-892-0890 or email ageinfo@esmv.org. Joan Hatem-Roy is the Chief Executive Officer of Elder Services of Merrimack Valley and North Shore.