When the first holiday lights appear around town, spirits brighten with the anticipation of celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah and any other seasonal traditions. Such occasions inspire families and friends of all ages to make memories, but the mere idea of lighting the menorah or gathering around the Christmas tree can overwhelm those who suffer with dementia and equally challenge their loved ones. Making minor adjustments to the usual plan, however, can greatly enhance the enjoyment of family and friends together.
“One of the main points to consider is the holiday venue,” says Jenice Holtz Cunningham, Executive Director for Berman Commons, a brand-new assisted living and memory care community opening in March of 2015, right next to the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta (MJCCA) in Dunwoody. “Getting together at a busy restaurant, for instance, can be too disorienting for someone with dementia,” she explains. “If possible, include your loved one by arranging to meet in more comfortable surroundings, such as in a familiar home or in a space you reserve at the individual’s assisted living residence.”
Another factor is timing. “Adhering somewhat to the routine, especially if your loved one is on medications, is also important,” notes Cunningham. “If Dad typically has dinner at five and the rest of you plan to dine at eight, then let him eat early. Likewise, treat him like he’s special, not a burden, by sitting beside him and creating an atmosphere that allows him to enjoy his food.
For large crowds or intimate gatherings, an attentive companion is another necessity. “Families readily assume that Grandma will be just fine in a house full of her children and grandchildren to look after her,” says Cunningham, “but too often seniors with dementia end up unattended because someone has assumed that someone else has taken over. Avoiding incidents, like Grandma wandering off or falling down stairs, can be as simple as creating a buddy schedule. The situation might also warrant hiring a professional caregiver for all or part of the time.”
“It’s only natural for us to miss the way it used to be with our grandparents, parents, spouses and other loved ones with dementia,” says Harley Tabak, President and CEO of Jewish Home Life Communities, the non-profit parent organization of Berman Commons. “That’s why we focus on the positives and create environments within our communities that enhance the quality of life for those with memory loss. At the same time, we support families as they navigate the changes.”
To promote an enlightened understanding of dementia, Jewish Home Life Communities has invited geriatric specialist, author and founder of Second Wind Dreams, P.K. Beville to speak at the MJCCA on Sunday, Jan. 11 at 4 p.m. Her topic addresses how families and caregivers can more effectively manage the complex challenges encountered by loved ones suffering with various stages of dementia, including Alzheimer’s.
“Beyond sponsoring this event, which is free to the public,” says Cunningham, “we have also embraced a main component of Beville’s work: the Virtual Dementia Tour (VDT).” The VDT simulates the various sensory perceptions that occur during the process of cognitive decline, leaving caregivers (and any others who take the tour) with a greater comprehension of the disease and utmost compassion for the impaired person’s challenges. “Through proven research, we know the VDT heightens sensitivity in those caring for individuals with dementia,” says Beville.
Having dedicated her work to understanding dementia from the impaired individual’s point of view, Beville encourages families and friends to consider all special occasions, certainly the holidays, from the perspectives of any loved ones who’ve experienced a cognitive decline. “Try not to have too many people around at once,” she suggests, “and keep noise levels down. If they become too overwhelmed, showing signs of being agitated or anxious, kindly take them out of the situation to regroup.” Without hesitation, Beville says, “Go to their rescue when they seem agitated.”
Based in metro Atlanta, P.K. Beville is also the founder of Second Wind Dreams, an international nonprofit organization that fulfills dreams (similarly to Make-a-Wish) for seniors and also funds educational programs, like the VDT. “We are changing the perception of aging,” she says. “Aging and actively participating in life are not mutually exclusive.”
To learn more about P.K. Beville’s appearance at the MJCCA, or how VDT training will be implemented at Berman Commons, please visit bermancommons.org.