Holidays for Those Dealing with Dementia

Everyone deserves to have nice holidays, but it’s on us to accommodate those who are struggling with the effects of a neurological disorder such as Alzheimer’s, Frontal Temporal Dementia, Parkinson’s Disease, Lewy Body Dementia or any disorder that causes loss of memory and other mental abilities. Plan the holiday from the prospective of the person with dementia’s world, which is as normal to them as yours is to you. Stop using reason and logic to bring them into your world rather enter their reality so that you can both embrace the holidays together. With careful thought and advance planning you and your loved one will be able to share a meaningful holiday season.

What to Consider during the Holidays:

1. Noise and Activity Level

A person who is mentally confused often respond negatively to the usual loud noise and high activity level of holidays.
  • Have a plan for someone to leave with them early, if necessary.
  • Plan a smaller gathering or celebration earlier in the day may make the day more successful.
  • Allowing them just to be an “observer” is often less stressful.
  • Prepare a quiet area in advance; excessive stimulation can lead to anxiety, irritability, and exhaustion.
  • Monitor facial expressions throughout the day as they often mirror underlying emotion. Fidgeting, hand wringing, picking at clothing or skin, pacing, and general restlessness are common signs of agitation.

2. Goals

Think about what you wish to achieve from your holiday activities and interactions.
  • What are ways the person can safely participate in holiday preparations, such as helping you hang decorations, wrap gifts, and prepare food?
  • Streamline your traditions; have a family meeting to discuss ways to simplify the event.
  • Run through celebrations and rituals of years gone by and determine what to keep and what new traditions to add.
  • Schedule visits at your loved one’s best time of day. People who have dementia tire easily, especially as the disease progresses. Your loved one may respond better to late morning or early afternoon visitors vs. evening.

3. Gifts:

When giving gifts plan to help unwrap the person’s present for them; explain and show the purpose of each gift.

Potential Gift Ideas:

  • Simple to manage on-off clothing-

These can be jogging suits or sweat pants, make sure the head has ample room and the arms are not tight. Bending the older adult arm in a small arm space can be quite an ordeal, even painful to maneuver. Look for shoes with Velcro closure or self tie laces; avoid buttons or zippers on all clothing.

  • Pictures of family members-

These Pictures are enjoyed and provide a meaningful focus of conversation with staff if the person is in a facility or others providing home support. It is helpful to label photographs with the names and relationships of those pictured as this helps start the conversation. Name retrieval seems to be a common thread in forgetfulness and the person may find this embarrassing, not to remember family members names.

  • Gift certificates for pedicures, manicures or haircuts
  • Music of their generation or soothing meditation music-

Here is an article I wrote on creating a personal play list on an iPod’s with the older adult: See the benefits of Music for those with dementia here.

  • Calming Aromatherapy-

A diffuser and bottle of 100% pure organic Lavender essential oil (Lavandula angustifolia) are great gifts and have many benefits.Learn more about the Science of Aromatherapy here.

  • Soap on a rope or a back brush
  • Hand held shower-

This can make bathing on a shower chair much easier. Also, some people with cognitive disorders dislike water on their face, and the hand held shower head allows for greater flexibility.

  • A Bird feeder with bird seed-

This gift is one that that keeps on giving. Place the feeder outside a window the person relaxes at. It also can create a sense of worth, as the person may take on the responsibility assuring the birds are fed.

  • A gift certificate from a care-giving agency to provide respite relief for the primary family caregiver.

4. Exercise or movement of any kind is always helpful to decrease anxiety that may be more prevalent with the change in routine occurring around the holiday.

  • Tai Chi shows potential to enhance cognitive function, balance, and energy in older adults. I recommend this DVD as Mark Johnson has been teaching Tai Chi and Qigong for over 45 years and knows the philosophy behind the exercise.
  • Regular walking, or movement of any kind can have an immediate, positive effect on many behaviors
  • Dance and sing to some Christmas music

5. Reduce embarrassment. People with cognitive disorders are vulnerable to embarrassment, especially in the earlier stages of the disease.

  • Never start a sentence with “Remember”…, “Don’t you remember”…, or “I just told you that.”
  • If incontinence is a problem, be discreet.
  • It is extremely important to provide dignified care no matter how advanced the disease is; they are adults with a disorder, not a child.
  • Don’t remind them of what they don’t remember – remember for a successful holiday you are looking at it from the prospective of someone who has dementia.

Kolonay kids Christmas
People with dementia may not recognize the event or holiday as it passes by. However, even the most impaired person will feel the love of family gathering and included in the gift you gave. Maintaining (or adapting) old family rituals and traditions during this holiday season help all family members feel a sense of belonging and identity. For an individual with dementia, this link with a familiar past is reassuring , builds self-esteem, and allows them to reminisce:  “Look at the beautiful family I created!”




Author: Bobbi Kolonay RN MS CCM HNB
Owner of Holistic Aging – Options For Elder Care
Pittsburgh’s Expert in Aging Related Issues

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