CONWAY — Christmas is about making memories, but for people with dementia and their caregivers, that can mean added stress.
Priscilla Pittman, program director for Alzheimer’s Arkansas, said those loved ones can be included in holiday gatherings to make the season enjoyable.
“It’s different, is what I’m focusing on,” she said. “How can we involve this person in a way that’s not going to be stressful?”
Pittman was the speaker Wednesday at the Lunch and Learn at First United Methodist Church in Conway. The free monthly luncheons are sponsored by Alzheimer’s Arkansas.
She said loved ones with dementia can contribute to holiday gatherings in many ways.
“Can they cut old Christmas cards into name tags? Can they fold napkins, help clean up the yard? What can they do to help have a part in this celebration?” Other ideas are to prepare slice-and-bake cookies, or have fun with holiday stickers and cutouts.
Pittman said people should be aware that mistletoe is toxic, as are other plants around the home, and people with dementia could consume those.
“Keep an eye on them,” she said. “Somebody may come up to them, maybe someone they knew in school, and that will trigger a memory of ‘Oh, school,’ and they may take off walking.
“I say get them a ‘body guard,’ somebody who stands by them and knows them,” Pittman said. “[The body guard] can say, ‘Mary, here comes Jane. You went to school with her.’”
Pittman said it’s never a good idea for someone to ask a person with dementia, “Do you remember me?”
With the hubbub of activity and extra guests, Pittman said, people with dementia may become agitated.
“I try to help people with dementia find a safe place,” she said. “I ask them, ‘Where is the quietest place in your house?’ I show them tai-chi breathing: Take your hands in and out, … inhale, exhale.”
Vivian Trickey Smith of Conway, a member of the Alzheimer’s Arkansas Board of Directors, started the Lunch and Learn programs in Conway.
Smith said she noticed the holidays were harder on her mother, Virginia Rogers, who had Alzheimer’s disease and died in 2013.
Smith said the assisted-living facility her mother lived in had a Christmas party each year, and one year it had a tropical theme, and the dining room was decorated with palm trees.
“I remember one of the buffet serving tables was decorated with a large palm tree made of fruit,” Smith said. “The fruit was attached to the trunk of the tree with colorful picks. You chose your fruit off the tree and placed it on your plate. The staff replenished the fruit as needed. That really bothered my mother. She kept commenting, ‘Look at those people! They just keep going up there and taking that man’s food off of that tree.’”
Smith said it upset her mother so much that Smith took her to another room.
She also said her mother was hospitalized after well-meaning relatives took the elderly woman to holiday activities in unfamiliar surroundings.
“I know the holidays are very hard for anyone who has lost someone dear to them,” Smith said. “Believe me, I know this from experience. But to spend the holidays trying to care for someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s and looking at that person you love, and they look back at you without any idea of who you are, is something that breaks your heart.”
Pittman also talked at the Lunch and Learn about the stigma of the disease.
She said at a recent talk she gave at the senior center in Maumelle, she arrived early. A woman came up to Pittman.
“She said, ‘I was diagnosed with MCI (mild cognitive impairment), but now it’s Alzheimer’s disease. But I’m here every day.’
“I said, ‘That’s the best medicine you could take.’”
Pittman said the woman couldn’t remember the name of the class she’d taken at the center that day, but she said she loved it. The woman started moving her arms, and Pittman guessed that it was a tai-chi class.
“She said, ‘Yes!’ and we laughed,” Pittman said.
Pittman got permission to share the woman’s story and talked about the stigma of the disease. Another woman in the audience said, “We’re going to help; we’re going to get rid of this stigma.”
Pittman said people have to be realistic about how the holidays will be when a family member has dementia.
“We have memories of a really great holiday and, quite often, they are memories that aren’t realistic,” she said.
When a family member has dementia, “it may be less Norman Rockwell than even you anticipated.”
Alzheimer’s Arkansas offers grants for respite care to allow people to take a break from their caregiver role, she said.
She said 70 percent of caregivers in their 70s and older die before the person they’re taking care of dies.
More information is available at www.alzark.org. The organization offers a 24-hour hotline.
Pittman said the organization receives more calls in January than December.
“Right after the holidays is when the calls really come in, especially if they’ve come to visit that person [with dementia],” Pittman said. “They’ve talked to them on the phone, and everything’s hunky dory, but they go visit, and the house is a mess and the bills haven’t been paid, … or there’s fuzzy stuff growing in the refrigerator. It lets you know something is happening.”
She said Christmas can still be a wonderful time of year with relatives who have dementia.
Pittman said she quotes actress and comedian Whoopi Goldberg, who said, “’Normal is just a setting on the washer.’”
“We’re looking for the new normal,” Pittman said. “Our hearts have plenty of room for new memories.”
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or email@example.com.