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Neurological Disorders

Making the Holiday Season Dementia-Friendly

dementia-holiday-winter-family-get together
dementia-holiday-winter-family-get together

The holiday season is a joyful one for many families, spent together celebrating with loved ones. It can also create stress — shopping for gifts, preparing for holiday gatherings, dealing with large crowds at the stores, and other tasks of the season.

Jennifer Reeder, LCSW, SIFI

Director of Education and Social Services, Alzheimer’s Foundation of America

“Adaptability and building an inclusive environment are key for family caregivers to create a meaningful, enjoyable dementia-friendly holiday season for their loved ones.”

For someone with dementia, there are additional stresses that caregivers should consider when planning holiday activities. Excessive decorations, large crowds, and changes to routines can be distressing and disorienting to someone with dementia. Adaptability and building an inclusive environment are key for family caregivers to create a meaningful, enjoyable dementia-friendly holiday season for their loved ones.

Focus on strengths

Start by utilizing a strengths-based, person-centered approach. Focus on what the person can (and chooses to) do now, rather than dwell on what they used to do.

Adapt or build on old traditions where you can, such as enjoying favorite songs or movies. Start new traditions around things the person can and likes to do now, such as touring neighborhood holiday lights. Whenever possible, involve the person by asking what traditions are important to them.

Avoid overdecorating the person’s home. Excess stimuli may be challenging for someone with dementia. An abundance of flickering lights or decorations can be overstimulating and disorienting. Be aware of the person’s sensitivity to factors such as loud noises. Fragile decorations can shatter into sharp fragments, and decorations that look like edible treats can create a choking hazard or broken teeth, so avoid these safety hazards. Reduce clutter to avoid potential tripping hazards.

When planning a holiday celebration, preserve the person’s normal routine as much possible. If they usually take an afternoon walk, build in time for that. If they go to bed early, hold the celebration earlier in the day so everyone can participate.

Familiarity is key

Prior to the holiday gathering, help your loved one build familiarity and comfort by showing them photos of the guests or arranging a phone call/Facetime chat with the visitors.

Consider sharing beneficial information with guests beforehand as well, such as ways they can communicate with the person, what they respond well to, and what may upset them — this is especially important for visitors who don’t regularly interact with the individual. This will guide them on how they can be helpful and supportive.

During the celebration, involve your loved one as much as possible. Invite them to help by preparing ingredients for a simple dish, setting the table, decorating, and other activities. Playing familiar music or going through old photos are great forms of reminiscence that can bring joy and foster positivity. Reserve a quiet place away where the person can go if the celebration becomes overwhelming, and have familiar comfort items available (e.g., favorite blanket, sweater, stuffed animal) that help them feel safe and comfortable.

Many hands

Finally, remember that it’s OK to ask for help. Preparing and holding a holiday gathering can be stressful, even without caregiving responsibilities. Relatives and friends often want to help but don’t know what to do. Let them know what you need (e.g., bring a dish, help with cooking or shopping, spend time with the person while you run errands).

The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America offers a Helpline that is available by phone (866-232-8484), text message (646-586-5283), and web chat ( seven days a week to help provide additional information, guidance, and support. 

The holiday season is about spending time together with loved ones. Dementia doesn’t change that. By being proactive and prepared, family caregivers can help ensure the holidays remain happy for their loved ones living with dementia.

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