Q. My mom is starting to show signs of dementia and is embarrassed about her forgetfulness. How can I make the holidays more enjoyable for all of us?
Holidays provoke memories, which can be especially powerful in the later years of life. Older people whose memories are impaired may have difficulty remembering recent events, but they are often able to share stories and observations from the past.
These shared memories are important for the young as well — children enjoy hearing about how it was "when your parents were your age…" Use picture albums, family videos and music, even theme songs from old radio or TV programs to help stimulate memories and encourage older seniors to share their stories and experiences.
If she tires easily or is vulnerable to over-stimulation, limit the number of activities she is involved in. The noise and confusion of a large family gathering can lead to irritability or exhaustion, so schedule time for a nap, if necessary, and consider designating a "quiet room" where she can take a break. Assign someone to be the day's companion to her, to make sure she is comfortable.
Try to avoid making comments that could inadvertently embarrass her. If she forgets a recent conversation, for example, don't make it worse by saying, "Don't you remember?"
Enjoy activities that are free, such as taking a drive to look at holiday decorations, or window-shopping at the mall or along a festive downtown street.
Social connectedness is especially important at holiday times. Loneliness is a difficult emotion for anyone. Recent research with older people has documented that loneliness is associated with major depression and with suicidal thoughts and impulses.
"Holiday blues" are feelings of profound sadness that can be provoked by all the activities of the holiday season. Seasonal blues can have a particular impact in the lives of older people. Depression is not a normal part of aging and should never be ignored or written off.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or winter depression is an illness that can be provoked by reductions in sunlight during the short days of winter. It is important for people confined indoors, especially those at risk for winter depression, to make time for activities that will increase exposure to daylight.
Be sure she adheres to her regular schedule of medications during the frenzy of the holidays. Also, pay attention to her alcohol consumption during holiday parties and family gatherings. Alcohol can provoke inappropriate behavior or interfere with medications.
Older family members with special needs can get lost in the shuffle and chaos of happy family gatherings. So, with all the hustle and bustle of the season, just remember to be sensitive and loving. And plan ahead.
NANCY TURNEY received a bachelor's degree in social work and a certificate in gerontology. If you have a specific question you would like answered in this column, e-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org or call Turney at the Crescenta-Cañada YMCA, (818) 790-0123, ext. 225.