Celebrating the Holidays with Dementia

The holidays can often be a time filled with high expectations, requiring lots of energy and engagement in non-stop activities. For the individuals and families living with Alzheimer's or a related dementia, it can be challenging and a time of high anxiety. Festivities can agitate, confuse, and overstimulate persons with Alzheimer's disease and other dementias. Meanwhile, caregivers can feel anxious, frustrated, and lonely.

To minimize the anxiety and encourage a happy holiday season for the entire family, a little advanced thought and planning can go a long way in ensuring everyone has a wonderful time. Remembering that the holidays, at their best, are a time for enjoying one another's company and sharing gratitude for each other can make some advanced planning go a long way.

Here are some stress busters that have worked for other families and might prove successful for your celebrations:

  1. Let guests know what to expect before they arrive. If your loved one is in the early stages of dementia, it's likely family and friends won't notice any changes. The person with middle or late stage dementia may have trouble following conversation or tend to repeat him- or herself. Family can help with communication by being patient, not interrupting or correcting, and giving the person time to finish his or her thoughts. Make sure visitors understand that changes in behavior and memory are caused by the disability and not the person. Understanding, acceptance and patience go a long way.
  2. Adjust expectations. The challenges of caregiving responsibilities combined with holiday expectations can take a toll. Invite family and friends to a conversation ahead of time. Be honest about any limitations or needs, such as keeping a daily routine, or making modifications to plans to minimize holiday stress. The goal here is time together. Your loved one will enjoy the company of friends and family. Let their presence be their present!
  3. Be good to YOU! This is often the hardest step. But giving yourself permission to do only what you can reasonably manage is one of the most precious gifts you can give yourself. If you've always had a large group at your home, consider having only a few guests for a simple meal. Let others participate by having a potluck dinner or ask them to host at their home. This is the time to be especially gentle and kind with yourself. This is also a great time to practice saying "No" and pace yourself.
  4. Involve the person with dementia. Focus on activities, traditions and memories that are meaningful to the person with dementia. Your family member may find comfort in singing old holiday songs or looking through old photo albums. Involve the person in holiday preparation. As abilities allow, invite him or her to help you decorate, prepare food, set the table, wrap packages, or address holiday cards.
  5. Maintain a normal routine. Sticking to the person's normal routine will help keep the holidays from becoming overly stressful or confusing. Plan time for breaks and rest. Make sure to have favorites at the ready: holiday music, movies, clothing and food. All these familiar favorites can bring comfort and build enjoyment into a holiday celebration.
  6. Use the buddy system. Plan ahead to have family and friends take turns being the buddy to your loved one. This is a great way to encourage one-on-one time as well as to shield the individual with dementia from distress. It also gives a break to the primary caregiver.

By setting realistic expectations, involving others, maintaining a routine, and keeping activities and traditions to a select few, you can ensure yourself, your loved one, and family and friends a low stress and successful holiday season.

For resources and other supports

  • Check out the Alzheimer's Association at alz.org.
  • Contact the Alzheimer's Association 24/7 Helpline at 800-272-3900.
  • Visit the Aging Life Care Association website for Consumer Resources at aginglifecare.org

Contributor Lisa Graham supervises home care for Aging Wisdom, LLC. She has worked in aging services for over 10 years, primarily focused on home care, companionship support, and professional caregiving for older adults. Lisa remembers her grandmother and great-grandmother with deep affection. She feels fortunate to have had countless hours with both of them throughout her life, time which influences and inspires her work.