Holidays with Dementia in the Family

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When my grandmother was spirited away by dementia and no longer recognized me, I stopped visiting her in the nursing home.

I didn’t understand this at the time but now think that I just wanted to remember her baking lemon cream pies or waving at me as she rode around on her lawnmower cropping the lot next to her Indiana farmhouse.

I wish I could get another chance and do things better this time. Regret is hard to live with.

Psychologist Ann Kaiser Stearns views the holidays as a precious time of year to make elderly family members feel they are loved and included in the festivities.

“People respond for as long as they live to smiles, to touch, to music, to kindness, to sitting in the sun, to pumpkin pies,” Stearns, a professor of behavioral science, said in an interview.

“We just need to remember that all of that nourishes an elderly person to whatever degree they have impairments,” said Stearns, who also wrote “Redefining Age: A Caregiver’s Guide to Living Your Best Life.”

Stearns encourages people to make an extra effort to connect with a loved one over the holidays and provides some tips:

Be patient. Take the extra time to sit down with your parent, aunt, or uncle and talk to them. Encourage them to reminisce. “Don’t do something if you don’t have the time,” Stearns said.

Be present. If grandma doesn’t remember you or something that happened in the past, do not argue with her or ask, “Why don’t you remember?!” She advised that it’s better to say, “Remember grandma, it’s your granddaughter from Baltimore.” When an elderly person repeats or forgets, connect with them where they are now, even if it means going through the same conversation again.

Stir sweet memories. Stearns said that her friend’s father, a former minister, has Alzheimer’s but the friend brings him to church anyway. When Stearns’ parents were old, they used to sit happily watching the squirrels in their yard while her father smoked cigars. It’s important to repeat rituals that are uplifting and have always brought meaning to their lives.

Give the elderly small tasks. Even if the relative with dementia isn’t fully engaged in the conversation or can no longer roast the turkey, he or she can do small tasks like setting the table or putting ornaments on the tree.

“Fiblets” are okay. “If granny says, ‘When is grandpa coming home,’ you don’t say he’s dead. You say, ‘I’m not sure but probably soon,’ and she’ll forget that.”

Now is not the time.  Siblings should not huddle in a corner to discuss who and how they will care for a parent who is developing dementia. “Elderly people sense when others are talking about them and they’re not included,” Stearns said. These conversations should have already taken place and included the parent.  If a conversation among siblings is necessary now, do it another time.

Treat elderly family members with respect.  “They will remember every kindness in their hearts, whether they remember it in their minds or not,” Stearns said.

Squared Away writer Kim Blanton invites you to follow us on Twitter @SquaredAwayBC. To stay current on our blog, please join our free email list. You’ll receive just one email each week – with links to the two new posts for that week – when you sign up here. This blog is supported by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

Ken Pidcock

Good advice. We each lost a parent to neurodegeneration (Huntington Disease and progressive supranuclear palsy). The holidays are actually a good time to be reminded that people are precious to us not for what they can do.


Beautiful! Thanks for this wonderful reminder of what is truly precious.

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