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Thorne and his great-grandfather Alvin (Photo by Linda McEntee)

Alzheimer's disease and the holiday season

My 17-month old son, Thorne Alvin, was named after two things that are important to my husband Tyler and me. Thorne is a nod to our love of nature, and we chose a tough name that will hopefully reflect the grit and work ethic that will be required of our future cowboy. And Alvin is a family namesake; my paternal grandfather's name is Alvin.

I know I'm probably biased because he's my grandpa, but in my eyes, Alvin is a hero. A veteran of war, a lifelong farmer/rancher, a husband, father of three kids, grandfather to nine, and great-grandfather to six — he has lived an amazing life, and the stories he tells are rich with history, ripe with sage wisdom and filled with an abundance of life lessons to be learned.

For example, Grandpa Alvin taught me, and continues to remind me, that in order to be successful in my agricultural pursuits, I need to make sacrifices, work hard, never compare myself to the Joneses, never let anyone tell me something can't be done and always keep my priorities straight — faith, family and farming, in that order.

Growing up with him involved in the ranch was truly a blessing. But in recent years, my grandpa has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and is currently residing in an assisted living facility. Each day has its ups and downs. Sometimes he knows who I am, and sometimes I'm a stranger. Some days he'll recall memories from the war or prices for commodities when he was younger. Other days, he can't find the kitchen or remember where the bathroom is. It's not just hard on him, but on our entire family, too, and I know we aren't the only agricultural family impacted by this terrible disease.

According to the Alzheimer's Association, Alzheimer's disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States today, with more than 5 million Americans currently living with the disease. Since 2000, deaths by heart disease have decreased by 14 percent while deaths from Alzheimer's have increased by 89 percent. The disease, which causes memory loss and dementia, kills more people than breast and prostate cancer combined.

Holiday gatherings are just around the corner, and although I love spending time with Grandpa Alvin, I know that Thanksgiving and Christmas can be overwhelming and confusing with the large crowds and new places outside of his typical routine.

Kerry Mills, a well-known dementia coach and author of "I Care — A Handbook for Care Partners of People with Dementia," offers some tips for helping an elderly family member get through these holiday events with minimal stress.

Mills first tells people not to get frustrated. Grandma or grandpa may not remember everything, but they are aware if you are frustrated with the conversation. Be patient. She suggests dedicating someone to help grandma during the gathering. A son or daughter may be able to fill in the gaps, assist with details such as where the bathroom is or where to sit at the dinner table or answer other questions as they arise.

Try to keep grandma or grandpa busy with a task in the kitchen or a drive around the farm while dinner is getting ready. Give them a purpose, so they feel useful and stay engaged.

Mills suggests using pictures to stimulate memories, but don't force them to recollect something they simply don't remember.

And don't forget safety first. Make sure someone drives your elderly relative to the event and keep a watchful eye out for potential dangers to someone who can't remember things clearly.

Most of all, continue to love, spend time with and have conversations with those suffering from Alzheimer's. You may repeat yourself often. You may feel hurt if they forget your name. But you'll never regret the precious moments spent with your loved one.

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