12/10/2012 11:08 am ET Updated Feb 09, 2013

Surviving the Holidays As an Alzheimer's Caregiver

Humor can get you through the holidays. With three family members suffering Alzheimer's, laughter has been essential. (Look, Grandpa can hide his own Easter eggs! Let's just re-gift everything we gave him last year!).

In all seriousness, being an Alzheimer's caregiver around the holidays, populated with strange faces, blinking lights and open flames, can be like waiting for a bomb to go off.

Natalie Drees, a real estate agent from San Francisco, spent three years helping her mother take care of her grandfather, Ed, affectionately known as "Gramps."

Ever since Natalie could remember, Gramps always hosted the family for Christmas. Although Gramps' memory began to fail, they tried to maintain their holiday traditions.

But with 25 family members, Gramps was in sensory overload. He followed Natalie around all Christmas day.

When they sat down to dinner, Gramps looked at Natalie and asked, "Who are all these people?" She knew it was time to cut back.

The next year, Gramps was much more comfortable with those he knew best; Natalie, her mother, sister, and brother-in-law.

Balance is the key to getting through the holidays without drowning your sorrows in eggnog. It's not always easy but with a little creativity and a few adjustments, you can lessen your loved one's stress levels without losing your own quality of life.

Here are some tips for getting through the holidays:

Not everyone needs to be in the manger: Hold festivities in the place where your loved one is most comfortable and with the few people he or she knows best. If there are a lot of people who want to visit, try to have them visit in small groups.

Don't over-deck the halls: Sometimes, decorations can make your loved one's house seem like someone else's home. It may be less confusing to forgo the extra decor.

Santa has elves for a reason: Even the big guy can't get it all done in one night without a little help. Let a family member bring the mashed potatoes and help with the clean up.

Don't be a saint: No one's going to scold you if your cranberry sauce is in the shape of a can. Sarah Lee can make the pumpkin pie and Cool Whip can bring the toppings.

Wrap it up: Luckily, Christmas comes with activities galore. Have your loved one help decorate cookies or wrap presents.

Santa doesn't have to come at midnight: If your patient is at their best in the morning, a holiday brunch may be a good option.

Cozy up by the fire: Schedule some time for yourself. You can only be a good caregiver if you're not overloaded with stress. Have a family member watch over your loved one and give yourself a much needed break.

Be the ghost of Christmas past: No matter what you do, there will always be new faces around the holidays. Try to ask your Alzheimer's patient questions about the holidays of yore. For example, my Uncle Dick couldn't remember what present I had given him that morning, but could tell us about the Christmas's he had as a boy.

And let's not forget the most important part of the holidays: gifts!

Games are often a good idea -- puzzles with large pieces, memory games or Bingo. Natalie advised that her Gramps particularly enjoyed "Find It," a game in which one has to find objects inside a container filled with colorful pellets.

Or, you can do what my mom always did with my Grandma Lib. Go to the back of her closet, select an outfit with tags still on it, and voila, stylish once again.

Lastly, try not to think of scaling back the holidays as losing tradition but creating new memories. Having a less chaotic holiday will make looking back more pleasant.

There is no such thing as the perfect holiday: Be flexible. Anyone who says they enjoy every moment of the season is either hopped up on sugar cookies or lying.

All we can do is cherish the good moments with the family we have, while we have them.

Read more of Natalie's journey with her grandfather on her blog, "The Funny Side of Alzheimer's: If I Didn't Laugh, I Would Cry."

Follow Cat's her past blogs here.

Cat del Valle Castellanos is a writer from Washington, D.C.

Cross-posted from