One of the most difficult things about dementia is that it can change the behavior and personality of the person suffering with it. Paranoia, anxiety, sudden outbursts and other unpredictable behaviors can make it difficult to know how to interact with those in the middle or late stages of the disease. That can make it difficult to determine whether or not to include them in family gatherings. It is important to try to do so and here is why: those with dementia can experience joy and the feeling lingers even after the visit has been forgotten.
Including loved ones with dementia in family gatherings is well worth the effort. Here are some tips on how to structure the event so that everyone enjoys the time together.
Small gatherings are best
Dementia makes it difficult for the person to decipher noisy situations and competing conversations. Keeping the gathering small, with just a few people who know the senior well, will make it easier for them. Plan an event that does not require your loved one to move around a lot or change locations. Once you transport him or her to the event plan on staying there. For example, a small birthday party with the immediate family in your home is perfect. A large family reunion that involves a cookout at the park and then refreshments at someone’s home is not.
Scheduling is important
Schedule the family gathering according to the time of day that is best for your loved one. Sundowning is a common side effect of dementia and makes it difficult for the senior to relax or interrelate as the sun goes down. If your loved one lives in a senior care facility, ask the staff what time of day your loved one is most alert and calm. Plan the gathering for that time. Most people with dementia can’t tolerate stimulation for long periods of time so plan on them staying at the party for only an hour or two.
Stay close to your loved one
Once you are at the party, stay close to your loved one. Do not walk away or leave him or her alone. As people approach and walk away from your loved one he or she may become confused and agitated. Remaining by the side of your loved one for the course of the party will provide a constant, reassuring presence. It will also give you the opportunity to help your loved one understand what is going on and facilitate conversations.
Respond immediately to signs of anxiety
Despite your best efforts to plan a small event your loved one may begin to feel anxious. It may be because he or she is in a new environment, or agitated by certain sounds, smells or people. You can’t control these things but you can respond immediately if your loved one begins to feel anxious.
- Remove your loved one from the party and go to a quiet room.
- Reassure your loved one that everything is OK.
- If your loved one was agitated by someone who they believe was at the party (but in reality was not) simply assure your loved one that the person has left and won’t return. (You cannot argue or change the perceptions of those with dementia, you can only comfort and reassure them.)
If all else fails you may have to leave the party with your loved one and go home. If the party is being held at your home, inform your guests that you have to comfort your loved one and then stay in a quiet room with him or her until the party is over.
Food and water are important
Make sure that your loved one is fed and well hydrated before the party. This will ensure that he or she feels as well as possible when going to the party.
- If your loved one lives with you make sure to provide a small meal shortly before the party begins.
- If he or she lives in a care facility, ask the staff to provide a small snack before you arrive for pick-up.
- Put snacks in the car so that your loved one can eat something on the way to the party. (Graham crackers are always good.)
- When you are at the party make sure your loved one has water to drink and easy to chew food.
- If your loved one lives in a care facility, check with the staff about any dietary restrictions and adhere to them.
Inform the family about how to interact
Some people feel uncomfortable or awkward talking to a person with dementia. As a caregiver, you help family members understand how to interact.
- Don’t yell. A louder voice will not help the senior understand what you are saying more clearly.
- Do not be upset if the senior does not know who you are. Introduce yourself by your name and then your relationship to them. “Hi, I’m James. I’m your brother’s son.”
- If the senior believes you are their uncle, just go with it. Don’t argue and don’t correct them.
- If the senior tells stories that obviously have no basis in reality, don’t correct them. Enjoy the story and ask questions as though it were real.
- The senior may repeat themselves or repeatedly ask who you are. Answer their questions. Do not say “Don’t you remember?” “I just told you.”
- If you become uncomfortable talking to the senior, excuse yourself and walk away.
Even with the best planning a person with dementia may not be able to tolerate being at a party. However, it is important to try. Those with dementia deserve to experience the warmth of family just as much as the rest of us. The lingering feeling of comfort and love will remain with them long after the event has concluded.
The caregivers at Family Matters are fully trained for in-home Alzheimer’s & Dementia Care. Hiring home care services can allow your loved one to stay living in the comfort of their own home for as long as possible. Contact Family Matters In-Home Care for a free consultation to see how we can help support your family with Alzheimer’s & Dementia.