Meaningful Holidays When a Loved One is Living with Dementia

Beautiful big family at the table, celebrating Christmas together at home. Illuminated Christmas tree behind them.

During the winter holidays, families come together from all over to celebrate their traditions. There’s often quite a bit of “down memory lane” as they share stories from the past with the younger generation.

But for many older family members, an estimated 6 million in the U.S. today, Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders cause a loss of many precious memories, and difficulty making new ones. Some of the old traditions—the decorations, large gatherings and the hustle and bustle of the season—may be overwhelming for these seniors. How can families adapt their traditions to help these beloved elders remain an important part of the celebration?

Suggestions for family caregivers

Perhaps you are the person who always hosts the family holiday gatherings. You decorate your home to the max, bake cookies and wrap presents. Everyone comes to your house to open gifts, enjoy a sumptuous holiday meal and spend time together. All the beds are filled with visiting family. You’ve always enjoyed this exciting season.

But now, you are caring for a loved one with memory loss. Maybe it’s your spouse, or parent, or other relative. If this is the case, many of the activities of the holidays can be stressful, both for your loved one and for you. You already have your hands full with your loved one’s care. Disrupting their routine can cause problems.

It’s time to explain to family that you’ll need to simplify this year. Let others know how they can help. Maybe someone else can host. Or make the holiday meal a potluck. Perhaps other family members can stay with your loved one while you shop and do errands.

Adapting the traditions

Some holiday traditions may be difficult for people with dementia. This year, make things more low-key, and be alert for signs that your loved one is distressed. Avoid noise and crowded gatherings. Try to adhere to your loved one’s usual schedule for eating, sleeping and resting. It might be better to have a few family members visit at a time rather than large groups. During gatherings, arrange for a place in the house where your loved one can retreat if they become overwhelmed.

Preparing your loved one ahead of time can help. If they can, let them help you with baking, decorating and wrapping presents. Your loved one might still have memories of holidays past. Encourage them to share their thoughts, even if their memories aren’t accurate. Listen to favorite holiday music together. The National Institute on Aging (NIA) also suggests showing your loved one photos of the guests who will be arriving and talking about who they are.

Encourage family and friends to visit. You may need to be an Alzheimer’s disease educator for the occasion, explaining before the visits how the disease has changed your loved one, what guests should expect, and how they can best interact. The more at ease guests are, the more able they will be to connect with your loved one. Encourage guests to introduce themselves to your loved one at every encounter, and not to take it personally if your loved one doesn’t remember them. Make festive name tags for visitors.

Tips for guests

It can be challenging and distressing to be reunited with a loved one when dementia has changed their personality and abilities. You might feel uncomfortable … but overcoming that feeling is a loving act that will benefit both you and your relative. Get some suggestions from the caregiver. If possible, talk on the phone with your loved one with dementia before you get into town. This will provide a sense of what to expect, and make you more comfortable.

Remember that the time you spend with the person is more important than what you do during that time. Even when a person with dementia can’t communicate well, they sense the emotional content of conversations. Making this effort is also a great gift for the caregiver. The love and laughter you all share will have a lasting benefit long beyond the end of 2018.

It’s also good to reassure the caregiver that the time you all spend together is much more important that the full schedule of meals and entertainment of the past. Express your thanks for all that they do. And if things go well, offer to stay with your loved one while the caregiver does some errands or attends a service at their faith community.

When young family members are part of the gathering

Children can be frightened and confused by changes in a beloved grandparent or other relative. Yet interactions between young children and people with dementia can be simple, sweet and emotionally rewarding as they connect on their own special level. Arrange for your loved one and the children to set the table or work on a simple craft project. Just as with adult guests, it’s important to talk to kids ahead of time. Explain that Grandpa has a disease that affects his brain, and that he might not remember things. Encourage children to discuss their feelings with you and ask questions.

Holiday gifts

If you’re shopping for a person who has memory loss, remember that some gifts may no longer be appropriate or safe. Instead, select items that stimulate the memory and the senses: a framed photo of a favorite place or event; scented lotions or soaps; comfortable and attractive items of clothing that are easy to put on; a curated playlist of music your loved one has always enjoyed; or favorite foods. Check with the caregiver ahead of time if you’re not sure about a potential gift choice.

And speaking of the caregiver, the Alzheimer’s Association has gift suggestions for them, such as gift certificates to a restaurant, for cleaning or lawn care, or an I.O.U. from you to shovel snow, clean the gutters or other tasks. Maybe best of all, offer to stay with the person with dementia while the caregiver takes advantage of a day of pampering you provide: a spa day, theater tickets, a gift card for a favorite restaurant. Holiday visits when everyone’s together are also a good time for family to put their heads together to arrange for home care services.

A word about decking the halls

You may also need to adapt your traditional holiday decorations to keep your loved one safe. For example, the Alzheimer’s Association cautions that blinking lights can be disorienting for a person with dementia, so use only the strings of light that don’t flash. And those giant inflatable snowmen and animated Santa and reindeer also can be frightening. Your loved one may also forget that ornaments belong on the tree; you might want to keep the really delicate ones boxed up this year. And avoid decorations that could be mistaken for food.

During the holidays, our homes tend to be cluttered with decorations, packages, extension cords, the belongings of visitors and children’s toys. But people with dementia are at higher risk of falling, so keep walkways and staircases clear. And if lighting the menorah is part of your Hanukkah tradition, or if there’s always a Yule log burning in the fireplace, don’t leave your loved one alone with those open flames.

To learn more about fire safety during festive occasions, read “Q & A: Fire Prevention Before, During and After the Holidays” in this issue of the Assisting Hands Hand in Hand newsletter.

Source: Assisting Hands Home Care in association with IlluminAge. Copyright © IlluminAge, 2018.