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Holiday harmony: Kansas State University gerontologist offers suggestions for families coping with dementia

Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015 

MANHATTAN — The holidays can be especially disquieting when a family member, such as Grandma or Grandpa who has always been the center of the family, is suffering from dementia. A Kansas State University gerontologist suggests ways to help the family cope and include Grandma in the celebration.

It is important that families communicate with one another ahead of time and inform each other, especially those family members who live farther away, about Grandma's current condition, advised Laci Cornelison, instructor with Kansas State University's Center on Aging, a part of the College of Human Ecology.

This will help reduce surprise about Grandma's condition and reduce the more intense emotional reactions that may come with it. Then arm all loved ones with information and knowledge about positive ways to interact with Grandma, Cornelison said.

She offered specific suggestions:

• Be in the moment. Avoid trying to get Grandma to remember things. For example: "This is my boyfriend, Todd, you remember him, don't you Grandma?" Avoid focusing on details, dates and names.

• Keep festivities in a familiar place. Research shows that new environments can make symptoms of dementia worse and escalate anxiety.

• Involve Grandma in the event. Avoid developing the attitude "Grandma can't do it anymore so we'll have to take over." Don't take over but instead help fill in the gaps.

• Talk to the kids. If you have children, discuss with them what is going on with Grandma and address any fears they have about Grandma's illness. Cornelison recommends the following video on ways to start conversations with kids, http://www.hbo.com/alzheimers/grandpa-do-you-know-who-i-am.html.

• Find a quiet space. Research shows that lots of stimulation can be difficult for people with dementia. If Grandma becomes anxious, bring her to a quieter space and do something that is familiar to her. For example, if Grandma likes to read, read to her.

• Be aware of emotions and body language used around Grandma. They can significantly impact her behavior throughout the celebration. Research finds that elders with dementia continue to be extremely responsive to emotion. If you are chaotic and stressed, Grandma will pick up on this and become chaotic and stressed. If you are calm and content, Grandma will pick on those emotions, too.

• Lastly, remember that memory making doesn't stop for you even though Grandma's memory is declining, Cornelison said. Continue to make good memories for you and your family to cherish.


Laci Cornelison


College of Human Ecology

Written by

Jane P. Marshall

At a glance

A Kansas State University gerontologist offers tips on coping during the holidays with a family member who has dementia.