Updated: Dec 10, 2022
Family gatherings can be a wonderful time for us to spend with friends and family, but our loved ones, who are older and living with dementia may have some difficulties at these types of events. There are, however, a few steps we can take to make these events more enjoyable for everyone.
Prepare in Advance
It is important to have a family plan in place ahead of the event, as well as make sure the event location is suitable.
Keep All Options Open
Have a plan in place to allow an older family member to either stay, rest, or leave.
Spending time with the family can also be incredibly tiring, especially for a family member who is living with dementia. Just trying to concentrate can totally deplete someone of energy. For this reason it is crucial that there be a quiet room at the gathering where the family member can escape the noise and stimulation, and if needed a place where they can rest and recharge.
For others, the family gathering may be too overwhelming and they may want to leave after a short time. There needs to be an option in place for someone to bring this person home.
If you feel that your loved one may not feel comfortable with so many people, you might want to opt for a smaller celebration just for them at home.
Make One Responsible
There needs to be one person who has the duty of making sure the older family member feels comfortable. Sometimes this may be a personal caregiver, or it can be a family member who is familiar with the older person’s behavior patterns.
The person in charge needs to be responsible for:
1. Making sure the family member always feels safe
2. Helping with feeding, if necessary
3. Checking if the family member needs a rest
4. Taking the family member home if they are tired or upset
5. Helping “translate” for the family member when there is too much noise for them to understand conversations
6. Noticing the family member’s body language and behavioral cues so they can help them before they become too anxious or upset.
Check the Facilities
If the event is not held at the family member’s own home, it is important to check the place physically to see if can accommodate the family member easily. Some things to look for:
1. Is there easy access for someone with disabilities? (Stairs, access for a wheel chair)
2. Is there easy access to sit and leave the table? This is especially important if someone is in a wheelchair.
3. Is the toilet accessible?
Prepare Family and Friends
Make sure family, friends and children are aware of your family member’s disabilities so they will not be surprised and will know how to react. This may include explaining that the family member:
1. May tire easily and need a break
2. May have difficulty hearing
3. May have difficulty eating
4. May repeat themselves
5. May not recognize who you are
6. May get agitated
Part 1: You can see (or hear) these preparation tips in the video Nancy Brown and I prepared for the Jewish New Year holidays. (7 1/2 minutes)
Include your Loved One
Make sure to allow your family member the option of helping with the holiday preparations so they can feel a part of the celebration and feel useful. This can include:
1. Helping with the meal preparation (knead dough, mix batter. tear lettuce)
2. Preparing the holiday table (folding napkins, setting the table.)
3. Singing Holiday Songs and/or prayers
4. Preparing holiday cards
5. Preparing holiday presents that they can give out to guests
This is also a great time to reminisce with your loved one about past holidays so they can share what they remember about their own holiday traditions, foods, and family. You can take out photos from past holidays to help them reminisce.
Part 2: You can lean about other ways to include your loved one
During the Family Gathering
Take into consideration the specific needs of you loved one during the celebration. A few years ago I visited a someone while his family was visiting during the holiday. The person i was visiting was in his early eighties and had both physical and cognitive decline. When I came to visit that day, rather than be greeted by this usually very charming older man, he looked totally lost and terrified.
I was shocked to see so many things that were wrong at his home: This older man was sitting in the living room on his recliner with the TV on. His daughter was on the couch talking to someone on his cellphone on speaker in between yelling across to someone in the kitchen. The poor man was not only being ignored by his family, but he was being bombarded by noise pollution at every angle!
When someone is older and especially if they have cognitive decline, it is much harder for them to filter out background noises (music playing, , people talking loudly, moving chairs that make noise, dog barking) and it makes it difficult to concentrate on a conversation.
It’s very important to remove background noise and to speak directly to the older person. Make sure family and friends have eye contact and speak slowly and clearly. Sometimes it may be a good idea to have conversations in a quiet room if there are many people present.
Special thanks to Nancy Brown for her input to this blog.
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