Community Blog

Help with Managing the Holidays When a Loved One is Living with Dementia

By Vicki Crow

During the holidays, families come together from all over to to celebrate and spend time with loved ones. Memories are reminisced as you "stroll down memory lane” while sharing stories from the past with those younger generations.

However for many older family members, which is an estimated 6 million in the U.S as of today, Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders cause a loss of many precious memories and also difficulty making new ones. Some of the old traditions like decorating, large gatherings and the general hustle and bustle of the holiday season can be overwhelming for these seniors. So how can families adopt their traditions to help these loved ones remain an important part of the celebrations?

As a caregiver 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 and enjoy a delicious holiday meal all while spending time together. The rooms are all filled with visiting family and you are excited because you’ve always enjoyed this wonderful time of the year.

But now you are caring for a loved one who needs your care and attention around the clock all while dealing with the day-to-day issues that come with memory loss. Maybe it’s your spouse, your parent or another relative. If this is the case, many of the activities you once enjoyed so much have now become stressful for both you and your loved one. Changing or disrupting their routine can cause problems.

Now may be a good time to discuss with your family that you will need to simplify this year, letting others know how they can help and take some of the stresses and changes off you and your loved one. Maybe someone else can host? Maybe making the holiday a pot luck so you are not burdened with the cooking and cleaning that come with the big holiday meal. You might consider catering the dinner so that you can enjoy your time with your family and keep your routine and focus on your loved one. Another suggestion is to have a few family members visit at a time rather than large groups all at once. During gatherings, you can arrange for a place in the house where your loved one can retreat if they become overwhelmed.

It also helps to prepare your loved one ahead of time and even getting their help, if they are able. 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 the memories aren’t accurate.

If you do have family and friends visit, you may need to take some time before they arrive to explain how this disease has changed your loved one, what guests should expect and how they can best interact with your loved one. The more at ease your guests are, the more able they will be to connect. Encouraging guests to introduce themselves to your loved one at every encounter and reminding them to not take it personally if they are not remembered.  Another great suggestion is to make festive name tags for everyone.

What are some gift giving ideas? 

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 few tips about decorations for the holidays:

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.