Six ways to host dementia-friendly gatherings

Expert tips to make holidays, birthdays and family events more successful for seniors with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia

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Some of your best memories probably come from looking back at photos from family gatherings for holidays, anniversaries, birthdays and other milestones. Multigenerational get-togethers create wonderful connections and traditions for people of all ages. The good news is those positive family experiences don’t have to change when a family member is diagnosed with a type of dementia such as such as vascular dementia, Alzheimer’s or Lewy body dementia. To help you plan your next gathering in a way that’s inclusive and successful for a family member with cognitive challenges, we asked for practical tips from Dr. Heather Palmer, Amica’s National Director of Cognitive Well-Being and a renowned expert in aging and memory care.

Pick a good time of day
People with cognitive impairments such as dementia have peak times when they’re most alert. “Pay attention to when Mom is at her best,” says Dr. Palmer. If your parent has more focus during the day, you might try hosting brunch, lunch or afternoon tea instead of dinner. They’re more likely to be engaged, better able to cope and less likely to be tired or show behaviours. Likewise, Alzheimer Society Canada recommends keeping gatherings short.“This way, the family gets to spend time with Grandma when she’s happy and laughing rather than agitated and frustrated.” explains Dr.Palmer.

If your parent is living at home, consider when she’s the least sleepy, consistently feels her best, and the impact medications may have on those patterns. If your parent is living in

Consider the space
Laughter, conversation and music are signs of a great party, but these and other sounds can be very distracting to someone with dementia. If the gathering space is large and it’s too much for your parent, or they experience agitation, plan on having a second, quieter room where your father can sit while a few people go in at a time to engage with him. A place that is meaningful to your dad is great, as long as you can move furniture or people around if the noise bothers him. 

Keep the family informed
Designate one family member to take the lead on monitoring your loved one at the party. Dr. Palmer says you might consider establishing signals if your Mom starts to get agitated: if the lead person raises a hand, it means the kids are too chaotic and it’s time to move them. If the lead person suggests someone go for a walk, they’re trying to redirect a conversation that they may see is upsetting to Dad. Let everyone know that the lead family member isn’t bossing people around, they’re trying to make the event more pleasant for everyone.

Practice good communication
Plan ahead: bring conversation topics, old stories and mementoes that may help your relative reminisce, such as photographs, books, hobbies, etc. Visuals are great to support your questions and stories, but resist the temptation to ask, “Do you remember this…?” Although seniors with age-related brain disorders typically experience forgetfulness or more serious memory loss, seeing photos or objects might help them remember.

In conversation, try to simplify your language, wait for a response and don’t hesitate to repeat a question. Through conversation and photos, see if you can reveal where your loved one with dementia sees herself in time. If Mom believes she’s 19 and getting ready for a date, agree with her and run with it. “Live in her moment,” says Dr. Palmer. “Correcting her mistakes can impact her dignity, make her lose confidence in the interaction and lead to social retreat.”

Vary the menu
Dr. Palmer suggests dropping preconceived ideas about what your parent likes or wants to eat, since brain-related changes may have changed how food tastes, smells and looks. Roast beef may have been Dad’s favourite but now it could turn him off — even if he liked it last week. If Mom turns up her nose at shrimp cocktail, don’t insist that it’s her favourite — simply offer other foods. “In the dining rooms at Amica, we support the daily menu choices visually by showing two plates,” says Dr. Palmer. “Someone with cognitive challenges may not understand a verbal description such as ‘chicken with balsamic’ or ‘salmon with dill’ but they will often happily select what looks good.” be sure to choose foods that they will have no trouble swallowing, as well.

Prepare the children
Dr. Palmer believes kids often do better with seniors than adults because children have fewer preconceived notions or judgments. Nevertheless, prime children and teens up front with simplified information about the sign and progressive stage of dementia, and debrief after the visit. Let them know not to take it personally if Grandpa seems disengaged due to apathy or says things that are untrue or hurtful (“That’s an ugly dress!”). Remind kids to listen if Grandma repeats the same stories, and not to make her feel bad if she shows unusual behaviours, such as eating with her hands. “You want to protect the relationship between young people and their loved one,” says Dr. Palmer.

Dr. Heather Palmer is a cognitive aging and dementia specialist with more than 30 years of clinical and scientific experience. She focuses on helping individuals improve the way they think, feel and function. As Amica’s National Director of Cognitive Well-Being, she develops cognitive well-being programs for Amica with a heightened focus on memory care and assisted living.

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