How to prepare your family for celebrating holidays with someone with Alzheimer's

HOUSTON – For a family that has someone with Alzheimer’s, the holidays can mean hurt feelings when they forget who you are, when they yell at you or repeatedly ask the same questions.

Janice Sachs’ family explained how this year is going to be different for their family because the disease has progressed in Janice.

Simplify the holiday

Janice’s daughter, Kelly Ulanday, said they do not want to cancel plans but instead choose to have Thanksgiving dinner in a quiet home.

“We have decided that we are going to have family over but we're setting the kids up out in the garage. The garage is heated so they will be out there and we'll have activities out there. We're going to try to keep the noise in the house to a minimum to keep the stimulus down because if there's too much stimulus then she gets very nervous and anxious and agitated and then she paces,” Ulanday explained about her mom’s behavior with Alzheimer’s.

Ulanday's kids were young when their grandma was diagnosed, but they understand the disease through open dialogue at home. They’re expected to play nice while around their grandmother.

“No sibling rivalry in the house,” Ulanday said.

“Good luck!” her father, John Sachs, joked.

“You have to keep things down and the big thing is when they walk in, every time she says, ‘Oh my gosh you're getting so big,’ and she had an incident where she told that to my husband once. She thought my husband was one of my kiddos and said, ‘Oh my gosh, you're getting so big,’ and you just go along with it and say, ‘Yes, I’m getting big,” Ulanday said.

“You got to step into her world and try to look at what's going on through her eyes,” John Sachs said.

Help children know what to expect

Clinical social worker with Houston Methodist Hospital, Rebecca Axline, said the Sachs’ family is doing everything right.

Axline adds a different explanation for families with younger children or those who are learning about the disease for the first time.

“If they're 6 to 8 years old, you're just going to be simple about the explanation and then just say that things might be a little different. Grandma might forget your name,” Axline suggested, “…You look a lot like me, and so grandma might get confused because she remembers me as a little girl, and she might call you by my name.”

Include people with Alzheimer’s in traditions

Janice no longer remembers her family, but still gives them comforting words that she loves them.

“She said, ‘Oh yes Christmas, I love Christmas, it's my favorite holiday. It's when all the kids and everybody comes over and we spend time together as a family.’ So even through all of this, our family, are the first thing in her heart, and she said, ‘I love my family dearly, they're the most important thing to me,’” Ulanday repeated what Janice said.

Axline said Alzheimer’s patients can have memories from long ago easier than recent memories. She said you can still include family members in holiday traditions by asking multiple choice questions like: do you like green Christmas trees or sparkly ones?

The patients can also sometimes remember Bible verses or music, which is the last part of the brain affected by the disease, and a good way to keep them involved in holiday traditions.