7 Holiday Tips for Alzheimer’s Caregivers

Alz awarenessHow should we deal with our Alzheimer’s loved one during the holidays?

The calendar reminds us that we are deep into the holiday season. Our waistlines are expanding and the stresses of family dynamics emotionally stretch us.

As much as we enjoy the family time, the abundance of good food and the reminders to be grateful for another year – we also have to remember how stressful this time can be – especially for someone who suffers from Alzheimer’s or dementia.

So here are seven tips to remember as we move into the holidays:

Don’t expect a dementia or Alzheimer’s loved one to make any food.

One year into her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Mom tried to figure out a recipe so she would feel like she was part of the festivities.

But as we watched her struggle to find pots and pans, worry about the cost of groceries and wonder if she had made her salad – hundreds of times over – we realized it was time to stop expecting Mom to cook.

Even if she has a favorite recipe and everyone still enjoys her marshmallow salad or her french silk pie, relieving her of the stress can be a gift.

If your loved one wants to shop for gifts, plan ahead for this adventure.

Be prepared with a list and know the easiest way to get in and out of the stores. Forget about Black Friday shopping – too many people, too much noise and parking places are limited.

Be patient, take plenty of time and be prepared to answer lots of questions. If possible, buy everything in one store. Then go home.

Better yet, sit down with a laptop and show your loved one the pictures. Then order everything online.

Include some of your loved ones’ favorite foods.

Even though her appetite is changing, Mom will want her annual piece of pecan pie. So one of my holiday duties is to buy a premade pecan pie and through the years, I have found the best ones in the frozen section at Target.

When we first walk into the farm kitchen, Mom’s eyes always go to the dessert table. She may not say anything, but I know what she’s looking for.

I brought your pecan pie, Mom, and the first piece goes to you.” Then I dress it with a generous dollop of Cool Whip.

Every year, Mom says, “I DO love pecan pie.” I dread the day when she forgets how to say this one, grateful sentence.

Do an activity together, such as looking through the Christmas cards.

Although sending Christmas cards is becoming one of those traditions celebrated in the past, my mother’s demographic still considers it a holiday courtesy. She loves receiving her cards.

Remind your loved one who the senders are or tell a favorite story about the person behind the return address.

Be prepared to look at the cards several times during the holidays and tell the same stories. That’s okay. It’s part of the Alzheimer’s process, and someday – you’ll be glad you took the time to do this.

If you check your loved one out of assisted living for the day, be sure to check back in before dark.

Driving through some beautifully-lit neighborhoods was once a favorite activity. But this idea depends on the level of Alzheimer’s where your loved one exists.

Mom feels uncomfortable outside of assisted living in the dark. Looking at the lights is no longer one of our seasonal pleasures.

As the sun sets, Alzheimer’s patients often experience Sundowner’s Syndrome. They may pace, say the same words over and over and exhibit anxiety.

They feel safer in their rooms before dark, so make sure you time your meals and your activities accordingly.

If you are traveling for the holidays, it is usually not a good idea to include your Alzheimer’s loved one.

Although we all want to be together during the holidays, that pleasure becomes less and less tangible. Traveling out of their comfort zone is difficult for Alzheimer’s patients: several hours cramped in a car or a plane, strangers, noise, unfamiliar surroundings, different types of foods and smells.

It makes more sense to hire a caregiver and let your loved one stay home while you join the rest of the family.

Fight against the false guilt that says you can’t leave for a day or two. Yes, you can. Taking care of yourself is one of the best ways to make it through the marathon of caregiving. So take a break and drive away to be with your family.

What should you buy for the Alzheimer’s patient?

None of us needs more junk, least of all an Alzheimer’s patient who is living in a studio apartment at assisted living. Keep it simple.

A stuffed animal, a baby doll (especially for the women), a pretty picture for the room, a picture of family members with their childhood photos inserted next to the adult photos, a favorite piece of candy, a comfortable sweater.

One Christmas, I gave Mom a wooden cross, made in New Mexico and a bag of her favorite Lifesaver™ mints. She seemed most excited about the mints although the cross was a nice adornment on her wall.

This year I’m giving Mom a hug and a kiss, knowing that next Christmas may be completely different. This year – she still knows who I am, and I am grateful.

Next year – maybe not.

©2016 RJ Thesman, Author of the Reverend G Trilogy http://amzn.to/1rXlCyh

 

 

Hope Bleeds at Sundown

sunsetWe first noticed this phenomenon with Dad. During the final stages of his dementia, dusk triggered an inward call. He rose from his chair and began pacing up and down the living room, going nowhere yet constantly moving.

His eyes shone with an almost maniacal light, as if he obeyed a substance or a creature we could not see. By that time, he no longer spoke, so we couldn’t ask him what he was looking for or where he wanted to go. It became his nightly ritual until he could no longer walk.

I fully expected him to pass away during the dusky hours, when the Oklahoma sun begins its descent into the horizon. But no, he graduated to heaven in the middle of a spring day – simply by ceasing to breathe and walking away with Jesus.

Years ago, when my mother worked as a nurse in the hospital, she told me how important it was to work the night shift and watch out for her patients. “If they’re going to die,” she said, “they’ll die at night.”

Something about the night conjures up the dark fear of death – all those spooky movies with a full moon shadowing gargantuan monsters. I find that strange, because I love sunsets and when I finally lay me down to sleep, I say, “Ah! Yes!”


But then, the scenario is different when Alzheimer’s and/or dementia capture the brain.


 

We have noticed the sundown change in Mom as well. She eats supper early, around 4:30 at the assisted living facility. Perhaps they schedule it early for a purpose, because they know what is coming for many of their residents. Shortly after supper, Mom moves into her most confused state of the day.

We know better than to visit her in the evening, because she will be concerned about the farm and what is happening there, even though she hasn’t lived in the country for many years. In the evenings, she will forget Dad has passed. She will talk about him as if he is coming into the room and she must prepare his clothes for the next day.

At dusk, Mom will argue about nonsensical things – what day it is, what year it is, whether we have already celebrated Christmas and whose name she drew and what present she bought. It doesn’t matter what we say or how we try to explain, the shutters of understanding have closed for the day. She is lost within the sunset hours.

An old hymn reminds me of the timelessness of heaven and how we will someday no longer fear any type of sundowner symptoms.

“Beyond the sunset, oh blissful morning

When with our savior, heaven is begun.

Earth’s toiling ended, oh glorious dawning

Beyond the sunset, when day is done.”

 

You can listen to the entire hymn here: Beyond the Sunset

I guess there’s a good reason hope bleeds at sundown. Maybe that’s the time believers are most restless for heaven, searching for the Savior and for their loved ones who graduated before them.

Next time I see Mom at dusk, I’ll take her hand to calm her down and say, “It’s okay, Mom. Only a few more sunsets until your journey is over. Be still. The best is yet to be.”

©2016 RJ Thesman – Author of the Reverend G books http://amzn.to/1rXlCyh

7 Holiday Tips for Dealing with Alzheimer’s

How should we deal with our Alzheimer’s loved one during the holidays?turkey candle

The calendar reminds us that Thanksgiving is only a week away and soon after comes Christmas. As much as we enjoy the family time, the abundance of good food and the reminders to be thankful – we also have to remember how stressful this time can be – especially for someone who suffers from Alzheimer’s or dementia.

So here are seven tips to remember as we move into the holidays:

       Don’t expect a dementia or Alzheimer’s loved one to make any food.

For the last few years, Mom tried to figure out a recipe so she would feel like she was part of the festivities. But as we watched her struggle to find pots and pans, worry about the cost of groceries and wonder if she had made her salad – hundreds of times over – we realized it was time to stop expecting Mom to cook.

If your loved one wants to shop for gifts, plan ahead for this adventure.

Be prepared with a list and know the easiest way to get in and out of the stores. Forget about Black Friday shopping.

Be patient, take plenty of time and be prepared to answer many questions. If possible, buy everything in one store. Then go home.

      Include some of your loved ones’ favorite foods.

My mom will want pecan pie. None of the cooks in our family makes a decent pecan pie. So we’re planning to buy one and cut the first piece for Mom.

      Do an activity together, such as looking through the Christmas cards.

Remind your loved one who the people are or tell a favorite story about the person who sent the card.

Be prepared to look at the cards several times during the holidays and tell the same stories. That’s okay. It’s part of the Alzheimer’s process, and someday – you’ll be glad you took the time to do this.

If you check your loved one out of assisted living for the day, be sure to check back in before dark.

            As the sun sets, Alzheimer’s patients often experience Sundowner’s Syndrome. They may pace, say the    same words over and over and exhibit anxiety. They feel safer in their rooms before dark, so make sure you time your meals and your activities accordingly.

                 If you are traveling for the holidays, it is usually not a good idea to include your Alzheimer’s       loved one.

Traveling out of their comfort zone is difficult: several hours cramped in a car or a plane, strangers, noise, unfamiliar surroundings, different types of foods and smells.

It makes more sense to hire a caregiver and let your loved one stay home.

               What to buy for the Alzheimer’s patient?

A stuffed animal, a baby doll (especially for the women), a nice picture for the room, a picture of family members with their childhood photos inserted next to the adult photos, a favorite piece of candy, a comfortable sweater.

This Christmas, I’m giving Mom a pretty cross, made in New Mexico and a bag of her favorite Lifesaver™ mints. Shh…don’t tell her!

I’m also giving her a hug and a kiss, knowing that next Christmas may be completely different. This year – she knows who I am, and I am grateful.

Next year – maybe not.

©2013 RJ Thesman – “The Unraveling of Reverend G” – http://amzn.to/11QATC1

Missing Dad

Most of my recent blog posts have centered around Mom and her Alzheimer’s journey, but years before Mom’s diagnosis – we faced a similar struggle with Dad and his dementia. Mom - DadCheck out the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s here: http://bit.ly/AFg8SC

On a cold November day, Dad decided to build a fire in the fireplace but for some reason, the fire just wouldn’t draw. Maybe the wood was wet or maybe it was still green. We don’t know. Dad decided to help it along.

What does every good farmer know about fires? If you want a bigger fire, you add more fuel.

So he threw a little kerosene onto the embers and suddenly was engulfed in flames. He bravely fought the inferno that quickly spread from the fireplace to the carpet to his favorite chair. He beat it out with his bare hands and his arms, saving our home. Then he hurried outside to gulp some fresh air.

Just minutes before, Mom, who worked as a nurse in a doctor’s office, felt the divine nudge to “Hurry home.”

When she drove up the driveway and parked her car, Dad stood outside. She noticed that his shirt was burned. Scraps of fabric hung from his arms. Puffs of smoke rose from his singed hair.

But when she hurried across the yard to help him, she realized those weren’t scraps of fabric hanging down – they were pieces of Dad’s skin.

First, second and third degree burns across his chest, arms and hands. His eyebrows singed and his soul aggrieved as he blamed himself and asked God to forgive him for being so foolish.

An apology that resulted from legalism and spiritual abuse – blaming himself for an accident and for the failure to be perfect.

Four months in the hospital, horrific debreeding procedures, surgeries to graft skin from his legs to his arms, pain medicine – and Dad forgot every bit of it.

The doctors diagnosed him with “Trauma-induced Dementia” but the symptoms were very similar to what we’re seeing in Mom.

An urgency to look for something, to have one of us drive him to the university where he played basketball. We searched for something, but Dad couldn’t find it nor could he name it.

Then he gradually forgot how to speak. He was never a big talker anyway, but when he talked and when he prayed – people always listened. Everyone knew Henry Ediger was a man of great wisdom.

Then Sundowner’s Syndrome where he paced at night – back and forth, back and forth across the carpet. He made funny sounds, similar to something a toddler uses, then finally settled in his grey wingchair – isolated within himself.

Mom and my sister cared for him in the home for ten years – ten long years of gradual regression, of trying to figure out what he needed and what he wanted, of patting his hand at night and kissing him in the mornings.

Those were the years I visited and sang to him. I wrote about that experience in my blog post: https://rjthesman.net/2012/03/30/the-power-of-the-music/

The spark of joy from my music lit up his eyes until Easter of 2004 when there was no response. I knew then that he was headed home. I was losing my dad.

In May of that year, during a spring month when everything should have been coming to life, Dad suddenly stopped breathing.

As quietly and gently as he lived, that is how he died.

We buried his physical shell in the Mennonite cemetery, and I still have one of the lavender wildflowers that covered his casket.

So on this Father’s Day weekend, I will ask God to say hello to my dad and remind him how much I love him – how much I still miss him.

And I will be grateful every single day of my life for his godly example – even when the flames engulfed him.

©2013 RJ Thesman – Author of “The Unraveling of Reverend G”   http://amzn.to/176xIdt