Dementia: Tips to Make the Holidays Inclusive and More Enjoyable

Mother, child, and grandmother work together with colorful play blocks

The holidays are often filled with high expectations, requiring lots of energy and engagement in non-stop activities. For individuals and families living with Alzheimer’s or another dementia, it can be challenging—a time of high anxiety.

Festivities can agitate, confuse, and overstimulate someone living with dementia. Meanwhile, caregivers can feel anxious, frustrated, and lonely. To minimize the anxiety and encourage an inclusive, more enjoyable holiday season for the entire family, a little advance planning can go a long way in ensuring everyone has a wonderful time.

Remember that the holidays, at their best, are a time to enjoy one another’s company. Focusing on gratitude for each other can make planning go a long way. Here are tips 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 conversations 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 to spend time 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. See my article, “Self-Care is Not Selfish: It’s Essential for Family Caregiver Well-Being,” for more tips.
  4. Involve the person with dementia.Focus on activities, traditions, and memories that are meaningful to the person living with dementia. Your family member may find comfort in singing traditional holiday songs or looking through photo albums. Engage the senses–smells, like cookies baking; sounds, such as the tinkling of bells or music; sights, the flickering of candles; taste, a crunchy potato latke; or touch, the comforting feel of a favorite sweater or blanket. Involve your loved one living with dementia in holiday preparations. As abilities allow, invite them to help you decorate, plan the menu, prepare food, set the table, wrap packages, select music, or address holiday cards.
  5. Pace activities and engagement. Be mindful of what your loved one living with dementia participates in if managing a long gathering is too much. For example, maybe they need more structure and can join for the holiday meal. Don’t stay too long before or after as the casual mingling may be too much for them to process.
  6. Maintain a normal routine.Respecting your loved one’s normal routine will help keep the holidays from becoming overly stressful or confusing. Plan time for breaks and rest. Stay hydrated. 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.
  7. 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, inclusive, and successful holiday season.

Additional resources and supports

Contributor Nicole Amico Kane, MSW, LICSW, CMC, is the Director of Care Management for Aging Wisdom, an Aging Life Care® practice serving King and south Snohomish Counties.

This article originally appeared in the December 2021 issue of AgeWise King County.