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How to help someone with dementia enjoy holiday gatherings

Dear Carol: I’m worried about the holidays. I want to include my dad who has dementia, but when extended family members visit, they talk around Dad because they don’t know how to talk with him. Those who don’t ignore him try to treat him as they always did, which they mean in a good way, but they don’t understand his limits. Then, of course, there is the fact that he gets agitated and even argumentative when he’s stressed.

I have young kids who are excited about the holiday, so I feel like I’m in between a rock and a hard place about how to celebrate. Any suggestions about how I can help Dad enjoy himself? — BH.

Dear BH: You are speaking for legions of caregivers, so I thank you for your letter. Though there are no guarantees when it comes to how any particular day with someone living with dementia will go, there are a few things that caregivers can do to improve the odds of a good enough day.

* If you want to have a family gathering that includes your dad, it’s best to schedule it on a day when you can have people arrive at his best time, which is likely early to midafternoon.

* Even if your family gatherings are traditionally large, make this one small. Only invite those who are capable of learning how to interact with your dad. Others may care deeply, but not everyone can understand the nuances that go into communicating well with someone living with dementia, so it may be best to see them at another time.

* Designate one person, other than you, who can stick close enough to your dad to notice if he is becoming overly tired and/or agitated. Provide a quiet space, or better yet a separate room, so that this person can help your dad get away from the activity for a break, and if needed, a short rest.

* Send a note to those who will attend with some tips that can make everyone more comfortable. Tell them what to expect and how best to deal with various scenarios, but don’t overload them or they might think it’s all too complicated and make excuses not to come.

* Remind them not to say, “Remember when?” or ask, “Do you remember?” These statements are instinctive to most people, but your dad may not remember the incident, which could upset or embarrass him.

* Help your children understand that traditions are a moving target and, for now at least, some family gatherings are going to be quieter.

* Try to find other ways to help your kids celebrate because they, too, need a certain amount of normalcy. Remember, though, that you have limits. It’s a tough balance, I know.

Most of all, don’t forget that you can’t “make” your dad — or anyone else for that matter — have a good time. Give yourself permission to grieve what is lost and enjoy what you can. Understand that you’ve done your best, which is good enough.

Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran caregiver and an established columnist. She is also a blogger, and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories.” Bradley Bursack hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached through the contact form on her website.

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