With the holidays fast approaching I wanted to address a rather important and under-recognized situation that often ads to the stress of the season: bringing home a relative with dementia. Every year many families host their loved one(s) that are permanent residents of a facility in the hopes of enriching their day. Unfortunately, for those that are not prepared for this responsibility, their lovely intentions can often backfire. So today I am going to share a few reminders and tips for those of you planning to embark on the adventure that is the holidays.
1. “This isn’t my recipe!”
As a woman I understand the strong desire we all have to perfect the recipes of our mothers, aunts, and grandmothers and serve them during the holidays just as they did. We strive for their approval and when it doesn’t come it leaves us feeling hurt, stressed, angry. But what I want you to remember is that for someone with dementia, their sense of taste has been dramatically altered. Almost everything will taste bitter or sour to them and they will desperately seek tons of sugar and salt to add to their foods, all while declaring how awful it tastes. Rest assured, you haven’t ruined the recipe, your loved one is simply incapable of tasting it properly.
2. Managing Incontinence
Often the most difficult task for family members to understand or manage is their loved one’s incontinence care. Try to remember that this is not anyone’s fault and it is important to try and preserve your patience, as well as, their dignity. Before checking them out of the facility, make sure that they use the rest room. Do so again immediately after arriving home. From that point on try to keep your loved one on a 2 hour toileting schedule. This is what is being done in the facility and it helps to avoid having a mess to clean. Additionally, you will want to keep an eye on their fluid intake. If they are consuming frequent beverages, I strongly urge you to increase the toileting to every hour and immediately after each meal. Also, keep an eye on the medications they’re taking. Many of them may cause additional issues with certain foods or beverages. If you have any questions about this, be sure to consult with the medication technicians at the facility prior to leaving.
3. Take a stroll down memory lane
Dementia primarily effects a person’s short term memory while leaving memories from childhood and earlier adulthood intact. Going through old family photos and reminiscing about happy stories from the past are a great way to jog your loved one’s brain and improve their mood. It can also be therapeutic for you. Because the disease is degenerative and will only get worse with time, I urge you to take these opportunities to indulge in happy memories and old stories while you still can.
4. Remember how to hit the “reset button”
In my first year in caring for assisted living residents with dementia I learned a very valuable trick that I want you to take very seriously. Many times I have tried to share this tip with family caregivers, but all too often they fail to learn the skill. I call it hitting the reset button. Often there are times when we attempt to get our loved ones to do something (take their medicine, go to the bathroom, etc.) only to meet great resistance. From there an argument often ensues. I know it is easy to fall into this pattern but try to be mindful of it. If your are met with said resistance, I encourage you to instead walk away for 5-10 minutes and make sure to calm down. In this time, your relative will also have the chance to calm down and forget that they are agitated. When you are ready re-approach. Speak calmly, slowly and clearly (without yelling) and if needed use short term prompts i.e. “Mom, I would love to go for a walk with you. Will you please walk with me?” Now you can guide her to the restroom.
The holidays can be stressful for all of us but they also offer the opportunity for happy memories, warmth, and sharing. I want to encourage all of you to be honest with yourself and the family before approaching an attempt at home visitation. If you don’t feel confident that you can handle caring for your loved one in a way that is in their best interest, than I urge you to reconsider. It may be in your best interest and theirs for the family to go to the facility and spend some time there. However, if you’re confident in your ability to welcome the additional responsibility and stress, remember to take deep breaths and be grateful for the gift that is spending time with your loved ones.