THANKS TO MEDICAL PROGRESS, PEOPLE LIVE LONGER TODAY. CONSEQUENTLY, ALZHEIMER’S AND OTHER FORMS OF DEMENTIA, BECOME MORE COMMON BECAUSE THEY HAVE EXTRA YEARS TO DEVELOP. BUT FOR THOSE IMPORTANT TIMES OF THE YEAR, LIKE THE HOLIDAYS, THERE ARE WAYS TO MAKE LIFE EASIER FOR OUR LOVED ONES LIVING WITH DEMENTIA.
By Harold Essenfeld M.D. and Andrea Essenfeld
When you hear the word Chanukah, the images that usually come to mind are the traditional ones: The Menorah shining bright, the fun dreidel games and maybe even some mouth-watering sufganiyot. However, hidden between these cherished Chanukah symbols and traditions lies the most important one of all: family. It’s the tradition of celebrating together and creating memories for a lifetime.
In a way, family is everyone’s own personal army of Maccabees —fighting, defending and supporting each other— and regardless of the circumstance, no soldier should be left behind. When one is injured, come to the aid, and when you find out that a family member is one of the 36 million people in the world who have been diagnosed with dementia, assess the reality of the battle field, put on your gear, and fight back.
Dementia, is a large basket of mostly irreversible brain diseases —a majority representing Alzheimer’s disease, but with many other causes. A few run in families and require specialized evaluation. While dementia can occur during middle age and old age, nearly half of those over 85 years of age are affected. There is no doubt that each of us in our generation will be touched in one way or another.
Dementia produces a long, slow, progressive decrease in the ability to function, think and remember. Limitations include memory, speech, motivation and emotions. Additional to psychological and behavioral issues such as agitation, depression, disinhibition, delusions or hallucinations, individuals living with dementia can show other disabilities related to balance and tremor, speech, swallowing, memory and more.
These changes significantly affect individuals and alter the lives of those around them. By the time people show signs of dementia, the process has been in place for a while.
How can we cope with situations in which our beloved family members begin to disconnect, suffer symptoms and can no longer celebrate the holidays with us? How can we make the experience of Chanukah fun and safe for all?
The key is to plan in advance.
Most individuals living with dementia have a time of day where they are the most alert and aware. Try to have celebrations coincide with that time. Additionally, be mindful of the length of the events, and have a plan for them to leave at the first signs of fatigue.
It is important for loved ones to feel comfortable in the location of the gathering. Strange settings and crowds can be straining to those with dementia, so it is helpful to celebrate the holiday somewhere familiar. Bringing the party to the individual may reduce the level of stimulation and allow an appreciation of the holiday in a safer way.
It is also very beneficial to introduce children and inexperienced adults to the situation and help them understand sensitivities, communication issues, and any other limitations beforehand so everyone can positively contribute to the experience. Encourage them to introduce themselves to the person with dementia and if they make a mistake, allow the family to “just go with it.” Be sure to emphasize the positive aspects of the individual to ease nerves and avoid instilling fear in other family members.
Most people with dementia are easy to read. Look in their eyes and you can see how they are feeling. Keep close tabs, and act when you see that a situation is escalating. You want the person with dementia to have a good time. There is much to consider for a simple event, but regardless of the challenges, seeing your loved one—one of your soldiers—smile and have deserved fun makes it all worthwhile.