Helping loved ones with dementia enjoy the holidays

The holidays can be warm and wonderful. They can also be unsettling and stressful, particularly for individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia and their families.

“No matter where they are in the spectrum of the disease, there are challenges related to the holidays,” says Susan Dickey, clinical programs and services director for the Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Cincinnati. “There is a lot of emotion and a lot of uncertainty about how to deal with the holidays.”

Here’s some advice from Dickey and the Alzheimer’s Association:


Prepare your guests.

If your friends and family understand your loved ones’ condition in advance, they will be better able to help and respond appropriately. When family members understand what is happening, they can help grandma follow the conversation and are more likely to be patient if/when she repeats herself. They can also watch for signs that she is becoming uncomfortable with the situation.

Preparing your guests is particularly important if your loved one has experienced significant decline since they last saw each other so that visitors understand the behavior and memory changes are caused by the disease and should not be taken personally.


Adjust your schedule.

Many people in the more advanced stages of cognitive decline become agitated in the afternoon. Think about your loved one’s needs in advance. Will he or she be more comfortable enjoying a festive family brunch rather than a dinner-time celebration? Stick to your loved one’s normal routine as best you can to keep the holidays from becoming disruptive or confusing.


Watch for signs.

Your loved one may become anxious or upset, particularly with a lot of external stimulation and may not be able to communicate his or her feelings. Dickey suggests assigning a “buddy” to keep an eye on the person with Alzheimer’s so they don’t become overwhelmed and subsequently withdraw or become anxious.


Provide a quiet space.

If he or she appears upset, provide a time and space where they can get away from the noise and the crowd for a little while.


Tone down the decorations.

If you’re partial to lots of colorful, twinkling lights, consider how overstimulating and disorienting they might seem to a person struggling with vision and perception problems.

“The tradition of going for a drive and looking at the holiday lights or displays can be way too stimulating for someone with advanced dementia,” Dickey says.


Adjust expectations.

Caring for an individual with Alzheimer’s is a draining responsibility. Cut yourself some slack. Don’t try to do everything. Let friends and family members know how they can help you and set realistic expectations. If everyone is anticipating a traditional four-course meal, let them know this year is going to be a potluck. Consider breaking large gatherings up into smaller visits of two or three people at a time to avoid exhausting both you and your loved one.


Focus on what’s meaningful.

Your family member may find comfort in singing old holiday songs or looking through old photo albums. People with dementia tend to lose their most recent memories first. Engage them with older, treasured memories and don’t worry if they don’t get all the details just right. Focus on the meaning.


Engage the person with dementia.

Make sure your loved one feels included. If she is able, invite her to wrap gifts, decorate or prepare the meal. Her involvement may be as simple as helping set the table or arranging a fruit basket.


Be sensitive.

When they are around a lot of people and multiple generations, introduce yourself by name and by relationship.

Remember, in the end all your efforts “are about improving the quality of their day,” Dickey says.