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BEACON Senior News - Western Colorado

Dementia and Christmas: should we just skip the whole thing?

Nov 22, 2023 11:16AM ● By Laird Landon

Dear Laird: I am my mother’s caregiver. She is in the middle stage of her fight with dementia. With Christmas coming, I am in a quandary about how to deal with Mom’s inability to actively participate. I am wondering if it would really mean anything to her to decorate the house and have family or friends in. Should I carry on or just forget it? Signed, Amelia

Dear Amelia: I went through a heart-rending, soul-searching period when my wife was suffering through her cognitive decline with a rare form of dementia. One year, she and I were decorating our fake tree. It was a pathetic excuse for a Christmas tree, but I didn’t have the energy to do a big Christmas. You’re probably feeling the same way.

I set up the tree, found a working string of lights and asked Marilyn to arrange them on the tree while I answered the phone. When I returned, she was staring at the tree, holding the end of the string in exactly the same way I left her. She had forgotten how to do it.

Then I did something I regret to this day. I raised my voice.  

“What’s wrong? Can’t you do it?” I asked. “Never mind, I’ll do it myself!”  

She seemed relieved. Fortunately, she didn’t notice the frustration in my voice, but I did.

It occurred to me that I got upset every time Marilyn showed a new sign of her decline. Why should it continue to upset me when I knew her decline was irreversible? Why did I persist in trying to keep traditions alive when she could not participate?  

In the decade since that incident and then her passing, I have come to a greater understanding. I think I was angry because I wanted her to be as she was before. I was angry because I couldn’t stop the disease. 

Although they don’t cure the disease, these three fundamental caregiving tasks significantly enhance your loved one’s quality of life: ensuring safety, providing comfort and creating moments of joy. Fostering safety and comfort comes naturally to most caregivers, while moments of joy arise from cherished memories, music and the presence of friends. Christmastime is a great setting for sharing and remembering the good times

I recommend you proceed with decorating and having folks over. While your mother may not express visible excitement or joy, studies indicate that patients with dementia can experience joy when they observe positive changes in their surroundings and hear the sounds of laughter. 

The holidays can compound to your workload, especially when you’re already overworked. Consider paring down your normal Christmas plans with a smaller tree, fewer lights and a modest number of gifts. Only invite a few friends you both enjoy. 

Maintaining your own traditions not only benefits your loved one but also brings joy and a sense of normalcy to your own life. You deserve moments of happiness, too. 

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