As with so many of the things in our lives that we call “events”, anticipation is as much a part of the excitement, as much a part of making that time memorable, as the event itself. This may be especially true of our favorite holidays. Whether we are seven years old or seventy, if our children are young or grown with children of their own, we still get excited as a special day approaches. It can also be true of people who have Alzheimer’s disease.
People who have certain types of dementia lose memories in reverse; more recent memories disappear before older ones. If Dad has Alzheimer’s disease he likely remembers Christmas when you were very young more clearly than he remembers Christmas last year. The key here is that he does have fond memories of Christmas, even if those memories are a little hard for him to connect with. Doing the things that you have always done together to prepare for that particular event will help him access those memories; he will again be able to share your excitement and anticipation.
Remembering and sharing memories is called reminiscing, and we know that reminiscence therapy provides comfort to those with memory disorders. It can also improve memory and certain cognitive functioning, at least on the short term. Clinically, reminiscence therapy is fairly structured, but Dad remembering how you used to help decorate the Christmas tree when you could only reach the lower branches is also reminiscence therapy. Having him help you decorate the tree now can bring back those memories.
With a little help, one single thing remembered leads to a whole stream of related memories, and this is when the therapeutic part of reminiscing really takes off. As that part of the brain where this past is stored gets warmed up, other memories come easier. This can go on and on, and this is reminiscing. Reminiscent therapy is such a powerful thing for someone with memory disorders, not only because of a happy time remembered, but because it can initiate a stream of “remembering” and reach memories that may have otherwise been accessible. It improves mood as it exercises the brain.
If your loved one is living in a residential or care community, work with the administration and staff to bring holiday reminiscence to the community. Bake cookies with the residents. Help decorate the community room and hallways. And, if you have some, bring some of the older ornaments and decorations that he might remember to decorate Dad’s room. Then be involved with the Holiday program in any way you can.
If there are grandchildren, even great-grandchildren, be sure to get them involved. Children have a natural way of interacting with the elderly that is good for everyone involved, and a joy to watch. Just be sure that the children understand as much as their age allows about the disease that Grandpa has. Read more about helping children understand Alzheimer's disease on our website.
In other words, just because Dad is older now and just because he has Alzheimer’s disease, don’t insulate him. Involve him in as much of the holiday preparation and planning as he is able to do. Just remember that he is older and has Alzheimer’s disease, so watch for signs of fatigue, for confusion. Large holiday parties with many people might be too overwhelming. Don’t push or expect more from him than he can comfortably handle.
Some people may think, “Oh he won’t remember doing this. What’s the point?” Joy is now, it is something to experience, not something to remember. Dad may not remember the good time he had today, but he had a good time today and that is what’s important.