In terms of the holiday party itself, experts advise anticipating loved ones' needs – whether they need a hand with eating or directions to the bathroom. And try to dial down the commotion. Family gatherings can become boisterous affairs, which can overstimulate and upset people with dementia, says Davies, who suggests smaller get-togethers or designating a quiet part of the home where relatives can take turns visiting with their loved one. "I tried to have one person who was next to mom, so that she would feel anchored all the time," Shouse says. "That person could explain, 'Here's what we're going to do now,' and be really attuned to her needs."
Preparing guests with a brief letter or phone call to let them know about the loved one's progress can also smooth the situation, Davies says. "Letting people know ahead of time really makes everyone more relaxed because they're not confused and wondering what to do."
What don't you do? Don't quiz them about their memory, Struble says, noting that families often pepper their ailing relatives with questions like "Do you remember me?" and "What's my name?" – questions that can provoke anxiety for all involved. And don't worry so much about possibly being embarrassed by your loved one. "Maybe they don't have the best table manners," Struble says. But they "deserve to be out and about [and] not so isolated at home."
You want to stay relaxed, speak simply, with a warm, reassuring tone and don't fret over a snafu that ultimately doesn't hurt anyone. For example, she says: So what if grandma's Christmas outfit doesn't exactly match?
"We're the ones that have the brain that is intact," she says. "They have a brain disease, and we're always expecting them to behave appropriately." Remember this, she says, so that when your relative blurts out something like "look at that fat woman," you can say to yourself, "Yup, that's the brain disease talking." Don't scold the bad behavior – just divert it, she advises.
Still, enduring the challenge of a loved one's dementia can take its toll and require some imagination.
Met with her mother's repetitive speech, Shouse would summon a new response each time. As she puts it, "You can think outside the box, but there's also something really creative about being trapped in a box and you have to look at the situation in new ways."
What worked best for her was learning to appreciate what she had and relish a particular moment with her mom, in all its idiosyncratic glory. "When I could remember just to be in the present with who she was right then," she says, "and see what I did have – a different relationship for sure, but a good relationship – that really helped me."