Navigating the Holidays with Dementia

The holidays are filled with favorite family traditions that evoke the holiday spirit. But when a loved one begins showing signs of dementia, the pressure to maintain tradition can become burdensome and unrealistic. Albany Med’s Center for Excellence for Alzheimer’s Disease offers tips to help navigate dementia during the holidays.

“The holidays can be a joyous, yet stressful time under normal circumstances. As the pandemic continues, this holiday season might once again present challenges, particularly for family and friends caring for someone with cognitive impairment or dementia,” said Nancy Cummings, Director of The Anne B. and Leon J. Goldberg Alzheimer’s Resource Center at Albany Med. “While holiday activities may look and feel different again this year, it is crucial to find creative ways to engage meaningfully with your loved one with dementia.”

Finding Balance and Making Adjustments

  • If confusion in the evening is a problem for your loved one with dementia, consider changing a holiday dinner to a lunch or brunch.
  • If large family gatherings are traditional, consider having a separate small gathering to include the person with dementia.
  • Include the family member with dementia as much as possible: Invite them to help prepare food, wrap packages, help decorate or set the table. This could be as simple as measuring an ingredient or handing you decorations as you put them up.
  • Avoid situations that can confuse or frustrate someone with dementia such as crowds, changes in routine, noise, lighting that is too bright or too dark, or too much rich food and alcohol

Preparing Guests

There may be significant changes in the person you’re caring for. If family and friends have not seen this individual in a long time, it is helpful to prepare them for what to expect.

Let family and friends know before gathering:

  • Your loved one with dementia doesn’t always remember what is acceptable or expected.
  • Unusual behaviors may occur, such as wandering, hallucinations, eating with fingers, or incontinence.
  • The person may not remember guests’ names or relationships but can still enjoy their company.
  • Memory loss or repetitiveness is not intentional.
  • Patience is appreciated; do not interrupt or correct the person.
  • Consider safety: Blinking lights and loud noises can confuse or scare someone with dementia, and some decorations can be mistaken as edible. Gifts should be safe and useful, such as simple puzzles or personal care items.

Preparing the Person with Dementia for Visitors

  • Keep their routine as close to normal as possible.
  • Begin showing a photo of the guest(s) to the person a week before arrival and explain the connection.
  • Your loved one may still enjoy company, or they may not. Ask them how they’re doing.

Most importantly, find adequate time for both of you to rest, and enjoy your time with your loved one.