by Nataly Rubenstein
Ah, fall. The air gets crisp, the leaves change and the pumpkin patch becomes the number one family destination for indoor and outdoor decorations.
I love Halloween not only because it’s the official start of the holidays but also because I love everything pumpkin. Pumpkin pies, cookies, ice cream and coffee. Nothing says love to me more than pumpkin!
However, it took a while for me to get over what I now refer to as the “Great Pumpkin Disaster of 2001”
Growing up, I had sidewalk envy. We lived on the side of the street where there were no sidewalks. That meant no bike riding, roller-skating or playing hide-and-go-seek around the block unless an adult was around to watch me cross the street.
Being sidewalk deprived was especially hard during Halloween – talk about isolation! As the houses across the street were filled with brightly lit Jack-O-Lanterns and happy kids ringing doorbells our house looked like the haunted mansion in Disney World.
And so I would sit decked out in my costume with my basket of candy and no one came… other than a few brave teenagers who I’m sure only did on a dare.
In 2001, when I moved to a street with sidewalks, I vowed that my kids would never suffer the same fate that I did.
Our first Halloween, we went to the local church pumpkin patch and bought three of the biggest pumpkins we could carry and a few small ones to boot. We got out our stencils and carving knives and made the scariest, hollowed out Jack-o-lanterns and set them out with candles. I was so excited and couldn’t wait to show mom. Her reaction wasn’t what I expected. She freaked out, panicked and ran back into the house.
That’s when I learned that due to mom’s stage of dementia, a carved, lit pumpkin was not a harmless decoration in our house.
And neither was the cute battery operated ghost candy dish that grabbed your hand as you reached in for a piece of candy. It only got worse on October 31st. Hoards of trick-or-treaters dressed in their scariest costumes visited our home. My kids loved them, but mom’s dementia couldn’t allow her to process why mini Freddy Kruegers were coming to her house!
Between the doorbell ringing, dogs barking, decorations, kids dressed up as zombies yelling “trick-or-treat”, and loads of laughter and screams, it just became way too much for mom. She was overwhelmed. Not to mention, mom also grew up behind a cemetery – think spooky 365 days a year! Needless to say, I learned a lot about how the most innocent of childhood holidays can be a source of stress and anxiety for a person with dementia.
This might not be something you anticipate needing to think about as a caregiver, because this is a holiday that happens every year. But there are certain ways you can be sure that your loved one’s Halloween experience is as stress-free as possible.
- Keep decorations to a minimum. Any decoration that changes the “normal” look of the house may lead to stress and confusion. Avoid items that make scary or abrupt noises or pretend cemeteries and gravestones. Also avoid using flashlights or candles at night – a person with dementia can have visual perception changes that could lead to anxiety. You want your loved one to feel as comfortable as possible at all times.
- Try to stay away from public places while the little ghosts and goblins are trick or treating. It may be a safer way for the kids to enjoy the holiday, but for a person with dementia it will just add to the confusion. Eventually it could lead to them avoiding those places later on.
- Put the candy in a safe place. I found out one year after a trip to the doctor that mom was making herself sick on the candy. Keep it out of sight to avoid any sneaky snacking.
- If you can keep the candy at the front door without your loved one knowing, this will eliminate the amount of doorbell ringing. Trick-or-treaters can take the candy on their own and there will be much less commotion and anxiety.
- Prepare your loved one before hand. Explain to the best of your ability that there may be some commotion, and then set them up with a distraction, like their favorite movie or a puzzle.
Above all, know that Alzheimer’s care does not mean you can’t enjoy the holiday. During different stages of dementia, it may be necessary to cut back certain decorations, but you can still have a ghoulishly good time watching Herman and his family. Have a safe and happy Halloween!
If you are a care partner or are living with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia or memory loss call our 24/7 Helpline at 1.800.272.3900 for support and resources.